IN: Reviews

Sing the Song of Mary


Canto Armonico in C.P.E. Bach’s Magnificat in D (Hendrik Broekman photo)

Among the normal aspects of attending concerts in Back Bay’s busy, cherished First Lutheran Church is the generally cohesive, thematically intriguing programming by the groups and soloists who reach their appreciative publics there.

Magnificat, the Song of Mary is a title to whisk one right into the spirit of half a millennium of European music evoking the praise, sorrows, and glorification encompassed by the composers’ evocations of Marian legend. The implicit poetry in the name serves as an accurate guide to the seriousness of approach Canto Armonico Boston and their frequent conductor, Simon Carrington, bring to programming and performances. The unflagging sense of commitment the group emanates in person heightens this promise.

No more joyous and affirmative English setting of a Marian text is to be found anywhere than the extraordinarily beautiful, technically exacting Magnificat by a partially known late-15th-century figure we today are pleased to call William Cornysh. The score of his big, thirteen-minute Magnificat somehow survived into our time and has grown to be as justly famous as any of the later tour-de-force vocal works of the following century.

In two precious surviving sources chronicling the English a cappella tradition, the Eton Choirbook and the Caius Choirbook, we are afforded tantalizing glimpses of a virtuosic and incomparably sophisticated musical culture that, through casual cultural vandalism, was extinguished in nearly its entirety. We moderns need only recall the disdain with which we discard our own just-past vogues to understand the thoroughness with which most traces of choral repertoire heard during the reigns of Edwards IV & V, Richard III, and Henry VII were obliterated from cathedral and chapel. Not surprisingly, that time’s custom of recycling parchment and paper, whether by vigorous bouts of palimpsest or by the simple gluing of old pages into new tomes, probably accounts for as much of the loss as does the destruction of the tumultuous age of Henry VIII and, to a lesser extent, that of Roundhead forces a hundred years later.

Canto and Carrington gave us a rousing, dynamically vital interpretation in which the expressive character of the all-important chant between sections lent just as much to the piece’s terrific thrust as did the massed, full-throated parts. Canto’s choral tuning and intonation were a delight, as was their brilliant power in the final bars.

There followed an a cappella motet by expatriate Fleming Philippe Rogier, Sancta Maria, succurre miseris, which painted a still, deeply resigned Marian soundscape. At a young age, Rogier was recruited for the Madrid court. So talented was this singer and composer that he was appointed mæstro di cappella to the king at 25, serving in this position until his death just ten years on. Most of Rogier’s music vanished in the unimaginably disastrous Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The 18th century’s worst European earthquake smashed a still-felt broad swath through Iberian cultural documents. The complete works, or nearly, of numerous Spanish and Portuguese composers disappeared, together with whole styles of architecture and early literature. In Rogier’s case, a few tempting, representative masses and motets are left to tell us that his was an individualistic, innovative compositional voice. Simon Carrington’s evocative shaping of the motet’s subtle flow, with the choir’s obvious ease in bringing out small, telling details, lent the course of the short work – under six minutes – a special, time-suspended feel.

The premiere of a new work can, as some concert veterans dread, be the time out when one reads all the annotations or quietly updates addresses in a carefully masked cell phone. Not so in this case. First Lutheran’s young music director, Bálint Karosi, still fresh from glowing things at Oberlin and with a prestigious First at the 2009 Leipzig Bach Competition, is active as an organist, harpsichordist, and period clarinetist. He’s also been writing a string of diverse new works, from an organ concerto to solo organ repertoire and choral pieces. He, Carrington, and Canto trouped up to First Lutheran Church’s balcony to give the world premiere of his Ne timeas, Maria, for basses (chant), organ, and SSAT choir. Karosi’s program notes credit the second movement of Liszt’s Symphony to Dante’s Commedia (1855-56), titled Purgatorio e Magnificat,” as the inspiration for his “Fear not, Maria.” Karosi audibly tips a bit of Bartók into the highly effective ostinati and quick motivic reiterations that propel the music from its gentle opening minutes into an upward arching central section — vibrant among the high voices and now and again full-throated, but not loud — that imperceptibly slides back toward somber textures, more drawn-out motifs, and, at last, through high Alellujas, toward a darkly placid resolution. The customarily slightly vague presence of voices below soprano from this particular balcony was not an issue. The organ, beautifully played by the composer, occupied a central role in introducing and elaborating upon rhythmic seeds and hinting at home tonality, as well as asserting a deft freedom from key-edness. The audience reaction was very enthusiastic, as was the performers.’ Ne timeas, Maria is moving ten-minute work, well worth revisiting.

On returning to the bench, Karosi called upon First Lutheran’s splendid Richards, Fowkes organ for the sole instrumental work of the afternoon, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Organ Sonata “senza pedale” in A, Wq 70/4 (1755). Bach fils was a praiseworthy organist — his dad said so repeatedly, after all — but his large keyboard output includes few compositions for the instrument. Seven or so solo sonatas (four without pedal parts, for a modestly gifted patron, Princess Anna-Amalia, sister to C.P.E.’s employer, Frederick the Great), organ concerti in Eb and G, and a lonely Präludium. Et voilà, c’en est tout. The spritely Allegro assai of this sonata’s opening movement is pure C.P.E. in its changeful progressions and the constant picking out of extreme intervals and quick dalliances with cantilena or cadential moments. The fast, vocal speech of the organ’s flues made for a degree of clarity and articulation that Karosi exploited fully. Through the middle Adagio, a tremulant floated beneath quiet flutes in a reduced-energy reflection of the first movement, with small, rapid-fire ornaments that had the charming effect of sprinkling tiny chipotles among songful lines. The concluding Allegro, registered just that much more fully than the beginning of the piece (though still without reeds and mixtures), wove little micro-dramas among the movement’s songful, warm passagework. This is a slight piece, and yet it was a jewel in Bálint Karosi’s expressive hands.

Simon Carrington conducting the premiere of Bálint Karosi’s Ne timeas, Maria (Hendrik Broekman photo)

The second half of this Canto Armonico Sunday afternoon was as rewarding as it was unusual. We North Americans have as little regular access to the choral and vocal music of C.P.E. Bach as we do to that of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and the incomparable Dieterich Buxtehude. Strange, this, for Bach the Younger is very much his father’s son, even as he stretches purposefully past the transitional horizon into a dawning Classical idiom. A case of no doubt understandable neglect, but nonetheless puzzling, as Canto, the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra, and Carrington demonstrated over the forty minutes of the Magnificat in D, Wq 215 (1749). Two each of horns, oboes, and flutes joined an almost sensual quartet of continuo instruments (theorbo, 18th-century guitar, chamber organ, violone) in imparting variety, color, and stylistic zip to the small string ensemble, with vocal soli emerging from the twenty-eight-strong chorus. The grander parts were big, bold, and spankingly quick-tempoed. The solo and duet arie sprinkled among the choral sections showcased the 35-year-old composer’s effortless mastery of form, of vocal line, and of wide-ranging accompanimental textures. While I would not be among those to characterize C.P.E.’s melodic gifts as being on the level of his parent’s, or of Mendelssohn’s, his settings invariably suited the range and agility of the vocal soli, and the choral passages betrayed similar ease in marrying orchestral and voice sectional lines to fine effect. Among the soli, alto Heather Gallagher and baritone Bradford Gleim, with agile tenor Charles Blandy, distinguished themselves by the care and sweetness they brought to bear on their texts. The entirely professional continuo (Catherine Liddell, Salome Sandoval, Bálint Karosi, Mai-Lan Brœkman) were exemplary, but the upper strings of the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra now and again betrayed unequal intonation, with some puzzlingly thin tone. Simon Carrington, now active in this country for a good few years, was that unusual conducting presence, the modest member of the ensemble who, through expressive, spare gesture, commands the entire attention of the ensemble he leads. His tempi, brisk in the quick places, possessed of sure but unhurried momentum elsewhere, were absolutely right. The exciting end of the work could not have been more enjoyable. Canto Armonico always appears to have potent reserves of brilliance and verve, upping the emotional ante satisfyingly.

Not only was this concert a rare chance to hear the C.P.E. Bach Magnificat, it was a demonstration of Canto Armonico’s organizational ability to mount a logistics-rich, financially demanding program to laudable standards. Among the group’s achievements must be counted the extensive, beautifully done program, in which articles by leading figures here and in the UK said rather more about the composers and their works than even Boston audiences may be accustomed to reading.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

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  1. Humility & the reviewer!

    A gentle elbow to my cybernetic ribs reminded me that I neglected to mention the lead ‘cello, not only of the string band, but also of the excellent Canto/HBCO continuo group. This was Rebecca Shaw, who played well in a good many sections of the orchestral Magnificat.

    I unwittingly zapped a bit of information that is definitely of interest to music academicians and admirers of C.P.E. Bach. The edition used in this performance of the Magnificat in D is the earlier of two critical versions being prepared jointly by the Packard Humanities Institute (Cambridge), the Bach-Archiv (Leipzig), Harvard University, and the Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften (Leipzig) for publication. The editing team, notably its Harvard collaborators, made the still unreleased parts and score available to Canto Armonico/HBCO/Carrington.

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — October 29, 2010 at 1:02 pm

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