CAMBRIDGE -- Over the last few days the period-instrument chamber ensemble Sarasa has been recording a Bach cantata program with soprano Dominique Labelle and baritone Sanford Sylvan for the British label Avie. Friday night the singers and instrumentalists performed most of the music for the album in a benefit concert to help offset expenses connected with the recording. It was a lovely occasion, and this writer already wants one of the first copies of the CD.
Sarasa is an unusual group. Founding cellist and artistic director Timothy Merton is an American now based in Boston. For seven years he lived in England, performing in many early-music and period-instrument ensembles there and building many friendships.
Sarasa concerts usually feature a mix of Boston's best and finest with prominent English players or American musicians based in Europe. Another remarkable feature of the group is that it regularly performs its programs not only for paying listeners, in the intimate space of the Friends' Meeting House in Cambridge, but also for audiences in hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes.
Sylvan has been feeling a little under the weather but bravely went on anyway to sing one of Bach's greatest hits, the cantata "Ich Habe Genug," though he decided to withdraw from performing a duet cantata with Labelle.
The prestigious harpsichordist Maggie Cole, an American living in England, stepped in with a lively Handel Harpsichord Concerto (in F minor) which she played with charm and dash, often offering twice as many notes as the accompaning instruments.
Sylvan sang the cantata with his usual musical insight, command of technique (breath, legato, coloratura) and responsiveness to text; his voice positively bloomed in the small room. The only sign that he might not be entirely well was an occasional moment of slightly suspect intonation, which must be a first for him, but the intensity of the overall experience was comparable to that of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's singing of his work with Emmanuel Music on a recent CD.
In the "Wedding Cantata" and in an aria from the duet cantata "Liebster Jesu, Mein Verlangen," Labelle was radiant, singing with a purity of timbre that was never colorless and with a fluent technique across a wide dynamic range, a dancing sense of rhythm, and an unearthly, rapturous steadiness of tone that, like Sylvan's, acquired a glowing aura in this room.
The concertmaster was Alison Bury, who also serves as concertmaster of London's Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. She's an elegant player and so were all the others, and there were eloquent obbligato solos by Merton and oboist Richard Earle.