Washington has plenty of choruses, and it’s not ill-served in the early-music department. Still, having a crack vocal ensemble suddenly arrive in town, along with an accomplished group of early-music instrumentalists, and offer a vivid, sensitive performance of Handel, Purcell and Charpentier, in a well-suited setting, has a certain frisson. Furthermore, it was free.
The ensemble was Florida-based Seraphic Fire, which over 14 seasons has built up a considerable recording catalogue and reputation in repertory, ranging from the early to the contemporary. Looking to boost its profile, the group has joined with the New York-based ensemble the Sebastians to bring three programs this season to the Northeast, a Washington-Philadelphia-New York trifecta. Tuesday’s early-music fest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was the first of the free concerts, to be followed by the Mozart Requiem in February and the Brahms Requiem in April, a cross-section of the repertoire that speaks to both groups’ versatility.
Tuesday’s concert focused on Charpentier’s “Te Deum,” but that wasn’t the only piece on the program or even, necessarily, the highlight. It was offset by three of Handel’s four coronation anthems, sounding wonderfully crisp and celebratory, including a performance of “Zadok the Priest” that sounded like something new, and concluding with “My Heart Is Inditing” wrapped up with a lusty “Amen” borrowed from the “Messiah” to give an appropriate sense of an ending. (“The King Shall Rejoice” was the other anthem on the program.)
Also included was Act III of Purcell’s semi-opera “King Arthur,” which depicts a confrontation between Cupid and the Cold Genius, limned in distinctive shivery music. Patrick Dupre Quigley, the group’s founder and conductor, joked to the audience that it was nice for a Florida group to play this music for people who know what it feels like to be cold. Indeed, the music sounded warm and pretty and nuanced, which may have stripped a bit of the chill from music that is essentially written as a sound effect, with repeating vowels evoking the sense of chattering teeth.
Solo parts were taken by members of the chorus, confirming the ensemble’s high level. Particularly strong were the soprano Jolle Greenleaf, silvery and fluid, and the bass James Bass, who had an easy, soft sound as Cupid and the Cold Genius in Purcell, and in solo parts of the Charpentier. Reginald Mobley’s countertenor was sweet, if almost too gentle at times, and Charles Wesley Evans had a warm, strong baritone. The Sebastians also responded to Quigley’s clean conducting, and the church resounded, in the best sense.
Seraphic Fire will return to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 2430 K St. NW, on Feb. 16 and April 19. Free.