Those who braved the arctic winds whipping around Cambridge on Saturday night, February 19, were rewarded with a delightful concert in the Pickman Concert Hall at Longy School of Music by the Brussels-based Duo Sirocco. The unusual program offered by Nathalie Houtman, recorder, and Raphaël Collignon, harpsichord, featured Baroque chamber music such as might have been heard in Bejing at the Chinese imperial court of Qian Long (1735-1794).
Imperial Chinese interest in European music dates probably from the time of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, one of the first Europeans to master classical Chinese, who offered a harpsichord to an earlier emperor in 1598. This interest was further nurtured during the eighteenth century by the presence at court of the Italian musician, missionary, and priest Teodorico Pedrini, who arrived in 1711 after an arduous nine-year journey, and Joseph-Marie Amiot, who arrived in Beijing in 1751. Pedrini’s only known surviving compositions, twelve sonatas for violin and basso continuo, are preserved in the Beijing National Library; Houtman and Collignon managed to procure a copy during a visit there a few years ago. Amiot, who remained in Beijing until his death in 1793, wrote several influential studies of Chinese music and transcribed some fifty-four Chinese tunes into western staff notation.
Houtman started off the program with one of these tunes, which she played on a Chinese end-blown flute, or xiao, while advancing slowly toward the stage from the back of the hall. A slender bamboo tube around three feet long, the xiao has six finger holes and is held at a forty-five-degree angle. Houtman became interested in the instrument while in Beijing, then worked with a Chinese master teacher in Paris. She also journeyed to India to study the bansuri, or traditional transverse flute. As she walked onto the stage, she was met by Collignon, who joined her with an improvisation on the haunting pentatonic melody. Pausing only long enough for Houtman to exchange her xiao for a Baroque treble recorder, the two launched into a spirited performance of the first of three Pedrini sonatas on the program. Although it was originally composed for violin, Houtman made the part her own with expressive ornamentation that grew naturally out of the melodic line rather than being merely superimposed on it, clarity all the way down to the bottom of the range, and a seemingly inexhaustible breath supply. Collignon was her skillful partner, adding his own embellishments to the continuo realization.
In his Mémoire de la musique des Chinois, Joseph-Marie Amiot mentioned the “melodious and brilliant flute airs” by the French flute virtuoso Michel Blavet (1700-1768) that were played for Chinese connoisseurs as a demonstration of European musical refinement. In his Sonata for Flute and Continuo, op. 2, no. 3, movements in Italian style — an Adagio, an Allemanda, and a final Giga — enclose an ingratiating Rondeau ornamented in the French style and a pair of rustic Tambourins in which Collignon displayed the harpsichord’s percussive possibilities. According to Amiot’s account, music by Rameau was also played for Chinese audiences. Certainly a virtuosic piece like La Dauphine would have made a strong impression. Collignon played it for all it was worth: rushing arpeggios, crossed hands on two keyboards of contrasting tone quality, and unexpected modulations all contributed to the dramatic effect. A second sonata by Pedrini concluded the first half of the program. The two slow movements (Grave) surrounding the central Allegro were of the type all too often rendered as bare bones chords of no particular interest. Collignon’s improvised lead-ins provided logical transitions to the succeeding fast movements, entirely in the spirit of eighteenth-century practice.
The second part of the program opened with another traditional Chinese melody on the xiao, doubled heterophonically with an ornamented version on the harpsichord, and a twentieth-century piece, The Willow Leaf, by Liu Ye Jing. Another Pedrini Sonata was notable for its playful echo effects in the second movement, Vivace, a sprightly Balletto, and an Allegro with ornamented reprises. Two more harpsichord pieces by Rameau, the strangely expressive L’Enharmonique and the famously descriptive La Poule, followed by a brilliantly played sonata by Corelli completed the program. A surprise encore was an arrangement for soprano recorder and Renaissance guitar of Rameau’s Tambourine.
Saturday’s concert was the second in the 2011 series sponsored by Pro Musicis. Founded in France by Father Eugène Merlet, a Capuchin-Franciscan priest and musician, and now celebrating its forty-fifth season, Pro Musicis offers its International Award to solo musicians chosen for their ability to communicate. The group performs in concert halls but also in prisons, homes for the aged and the disabled, substance abuse treatment centers, and other venues in order to share the healing gifts of music with those in need. The next concert in the series takes place at Longy on March 5 with Erin Keefe, violin, and Anna Polonsky, piano, followed on April 2 with a recital by the Israeli harpist, Sivan Magen.