How do historically informed performance ensembles from the U.S. stack up against those in other countries? On Thursday night, the 90th anniversary season of the Library of Congress’s free concert series offered the chance to hear a leading American ensemble, Apollo’s Fire from Cleveland, in the same month as the renowned international group Bach Collegium Japan. While this concert was certainly good, the American ensemble fell shy of the greatness heard earlier in the month.
This program was at least a marked improvement over the last Washington appearance by Apollo’s Fire, in 2009, at Dumbarton Oaks. Soprano Amanda Forsythe was dynamic and self-possessed in some of the showpiece arias heard on her new solo Handel album with the group. Her staccato notes were impeccably placed and in tune, and she added head-spinning embellishments on the repeats in “Tornami a vagheggiar” from “Alcina” and “Da tempeste il legno infranto” from “Giulio Cesare.” Forsythe’s vibrato was less nervous than noted on some of her earlier recordings, making the floated high notes of “Geloso tormento” from “Almira” a particular delight.
Instrumental contributions were less even, beginning with the somewhat cold, over-prominent sound of the strings and even the harpsichord at times, sometimes crowding out Forsythe’s softer moments. Director Jeannette Sorrell, alternating between playing the harpsichord and conducting, helped create a pleasing dance-like sweep in her two suped-up arrangements of trio sonatas by Vivaldi and Marco Uccellini. Sorrell’s tendency toward mannered swells of crescendo left one queasy sometimes, and her unsteady sense of tempo unsettled Forsythe’s otherwise lovely rendition of “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.” The best aspects of the evening were extended in an encore, the aria “If Love’s a Sweet Passion” from Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen.”
Downey is a freelance writer.