The Sarasa Ensemble with guest soprano Dominique Labelle performed Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel in an all-Boccherini program that seemed as much a debut as it was a debut for the musicians. The concert was part of the 42nd International Festival of Chamber Music.
It was the first time in 17 years that Boccherini’s music has been performed in the series. Boccherini (1743–1805) was a cello prodigy and a hugely prolific composer who enjoyed great success while he was alive. For some reason, after he died, his works disappeared off concert stages and music publishing catalogs. For that reason, Sarasa had a hard time finding the works they performed, all of which were as new to them as to the crowd.
Violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Christina Day Martinson, violist Jenny Stirling, and cellist Tim Merton opened the program with Boccherini’s String Quartet in G Major (1795). The work was light, transparent, playful, with sunny, cheerful melodies as happy as birdsong and occasional shifts from major to minor tonalities. The finale was especially winsome with a folk dance-like bounce. The quartet played the four movements with much vigor, vivacious tempos and exquisite refinement. Their tone was intimate as they were all using period instruments with gut strings, which makes for a sweeter if less powerful projected sound.
Part of Boccherini’s style was to have everyone play along and then suddenly he’d have the first violinist zip through a brilliantly demanding passage. Blumenstock was up to the challenge and whipped off each with virtuosic zeal.
Cellist Phoebe Carrai joined the quartet for Boccherini’s String Quintet in C minor (1774). Although written almost 20 years before, Boccherini’s technique was eloquently dramatic with lines interweaving even more than his later work. He gave the upper strings more to do, but in the tempestuous finale, everyone got involved. They traveled in and out of the storm with much glee, only to end in a whisper.
Labelle then joined everyone for the rarely performed “Stabat Mater” (1781, 1801). Broken up into 11 sections, all of which were repeated, the music ranged from lively and dramatic to dolorous laments that reflected the text, which was in Latin.
Labelle was fabulous. Her lines, which she has said were perfect, were small melodic phrases of great continuity. When Labelle soared into her upper range, her tone was thrilling — big, full, luscious. Her diction was excellent and her inflection and feeling reflected the text. Balances were also excellent.
The next concert in the series is Nov. 6 with the Emerson String Quartet.