The Baroque trombone has one distinct advantage over its modern descendent: it’s quieter. In today’s orchestra, the trombone is capable of being the loudest instrument in the group; and, while playing softly is certainly possible and often required, the difficulties of creating a full, round sound at low dynamic levels are a challenge for any player. The earlier versions of the instrument, however, with their smaller bores and less dynamic bell-flares, allow for a rich, creamy sonority that blends easily and does not overpower other instruments.
The possibilities of that sonority were demonstrated with great technical skill and solid musicianship on June 7th at Emmanuel Church in Boston by the ensemble ¡Sacabuche! It was easy to hear why this group, whose members are students and alumni of Indiana University’s Early Music Institute, was invited to the BEMF Fringe Series: consisting of six trombonists, five vocalists—one of whom doubled on cornetto-a violinist, and an organist, the ensemble’s intonation was flawless, its balance excellent, and its overall sound was deliciously full-bodied and smooth.
The program highlighted the use of trombones with voices and other instruments in various combinations during the cross-over period from the Renaissance to the Baroque, as well as the stylistic influences that Italian music had on German composers at that time. As one would expect, antiphonal textures abounded, especially in the large-ensemble works by Giovanni Gabrieli and Johan Stadlmeyer that book—ended the program. The ensemble performed these large-scale works with expansive and impressive textural control. “Call-and-response” gestures, so characteristic of most of the music of that period, were also heard in the smaller-scale works, such as Dario Castello’s virtuosic Quinta Sonata. This delightful little piece featured solo trombonist and leader of the band Linda Pearse tossing phrases back and forth with violinist Martha Perry, whose highly expressive playing made me wish she had been given more to do throughout the concert.
The silken, legato playing that these musicians have mastered did, at times, work against them. Crisper articulation from the three trombones in Johann Rosenmüller’s Liebe Herre Gott would have gone a long way toward capturing the rhythmic bounce that makes this work so joyous. Similarly, the consistently seamless articulation from the four trombones and the singer in Heinrich Schütz’s masterful Fili mi Absalon created a certain sameness that subdued somewhat the power of this multi-textured work.
Overall, however, the effect suited the music, and the ensemble work was captivating. Standout performances included stunning deliveries of challenging vocal passages by counter-tenor Dominic Lim, and some truly lovely singing by soprano Elise Figa, who, of all the vocalists, was the most direct and intimate in her interpretations. Hearing the two together in Claudio Monteverdi’s moving Salve Regina was a high point in the program, though they could have languished even more in the composer’s ingenious wordpainting. As a whole, the concert was a fascinating and satisfying listen into music that is too often relegated to the fringes of standard repertoire.
Ed: This is one of 11 full reviews by Boston Musical Intelligencer reviewers of concerts from the 2009 Boston Early Music Festival.