Tragicomedia presented a jewel-box of baroque cantatas at Gilder Lehrman Hall at the Morgan Library Museum. The elite ensemble, directed by Stephen Stubbs, includes some of America’s finest Baroque musicians, who can improvise in the style as well. Friday evening’s concert also featured soprano Shannon Mercer and bass-baritone Douglas Williams.

Stephen Stubbs
Stephen Stubbs

Though billed as “Early Handel Cantatas,” the program truly featured works by a diverse group of composers from a range of periods and styles. Many audiences are probably familiar with Lutheran church cantatas by Bach. In recent decades, scholars and performers have begun to appreciate the secular chamber cantatas, which may constitute the majority of the cantata repertoire from the Baroque era. Still, the most frequently performed cantatas are typically for one or more singers and small chamber orchestra – not the “continuo cantatas,” scored only for voices and bass instruments such as the harpsichord, guitar, lute, cello, and gamba.

In the continuo cantata, which was featured in Friday’s program, singers are supported by a rich web of sound created by instruments that improvise on a bass line. Baroque scores of this type have more in common with a “lead sheet” used by jazz musicians than scores by other composers, where what is written becomes law. The continuo group functions much like the rhythm section in a jazz combo.

In America, there are perhaps few people who can better lend their imaginations and technical skills to music of this style than the musicians in Tragicomedia. Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette added rich textures to the music, with plucked string instruments including the chitarrone, lute, and guitar. Kristian Bezuidenhout added a variety of sounds to the music, creatively using both keyboards on his harpsichord as well as its “lute buff,” which dampens the strings with felt in order to create lute-like effects. Ein Headley, playing the viola da gamba, also used a wide range of timbres and techniques to vary the bass line, often switching between col legno and pizzicato.

The feast of cantatas was interspersed with four solos to highlight each of the continuo players. Stephen Stubb’s Españoleta by Francisco Guerau provided an appropriately sized prelude to the rarely performed Spanish cantata “No se emenderá jamás” by Handel.

Bezuidenhout created a pasticcio suite, combining movements from different Handel harpsichord suites together. He dazzled the audience with his playing, which was lyrical yet precise. His runs in the Aria and Variations from Suite no. 3 in D minor (HWV 428) were exquisitely clean. For the last variations, he “coupled” the instrument’s two keyboards, something the player can do by pulling or pushing the top keyboard (or “manual”), thus causing both keyboards to play at the same time. However, the pause between movements in order to couple the keyboards removed some of the momentum from the piece, causing the many early music experts and musicians in the room to exchange glances. Still, given the man’s incredible chops and wild imagination when playing continuo, one brief hiccup in a performance can easily be excused.

Headley was featured in an arrangement of Handel’s aria “Col partir la bella Clori” for gamba solo with continuo accompaniment. Arrangement and transcription was as much a part of musical practice in Handel’s time as it is on our day. Just as pop songs today inspire countless covers and arrangements, musicians in the 18th century freely adapted works according to their needs. Yet there’s so much repertoire for this instrument that has yet to be explored and appreciated, I do wonder if there is in fact a need to adapt other works for this instrument.

In the cantatas, the continuo players wove a dense web of sound to support the singers, playing close attention to particular harmonic moments in the music and accentuating important words. Stubbs is incredibly adept at adding echo effects in the music, imitating the vocal line in the melody of his improvised accompaniment. Hearing him perform certain pieces, one unfamiliar with continuo playing would assume he was playing from a well-wrought score by Handel himself.

Bass-baritone Douglas Williams has a rich and even tone, which is lithe enough to do justice to Handel’s often complicated meslimatic vocal lines. His training with some of today’s leading experts in early vocal music is evident. Talented artists with fresh faces like Douglas Williams will ensure the vitality of this repertoire.

Soprano Shannon Mercer gave a delightful performance. Her voice was particularly suited to soar over William’s rich baritone in the duo cantatas. She also gave sensitive interpretations in the cantatas for soprano solo. Handel’s “Sarei troppo felice,” sung by Mercer, was one of the highlights of the evening. The cantata has an interesting form, the opening line is repeated is repeated four times throughout the work, becoming almost like a refrain. Each time Mercer sang this text it took on new meaning, the final time giving the audience a chill before erupting into applause.

New Yorkers were lucky to hear Mercer and Williams with Tragicomedia Friday at the Morgan Library. The city has attracted many specialists in Baroque music in recent months and years, particularly with the establishment of Juilliard’s new Historical Performance program. However, Boston still remains the epicenter of activity for Baroque music, and there, Tragicomedia reigns supreme.