“Jewels and Discoveries” was the title of Boston Baroque’s interesting and varied program of vocal and instrumental music presented in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Friday evening, March 4th, and repeated on March 5th, in Jordan Hall.
An Easter cantata, Heut’ triumphieret Gottes Sohn (Today God’s Son triumphs) by Dieterich Buxtehude (1567-1643) opened the program. Scored for five-voice chorus and a five-part string ensemble with continuo augmented by celebratory trumpets and kettledrums, the cantata consists of verses for soloists or solo ensembles alternating with triumphant choruses on the words “Victoria Victoria.” The initial verse movement followed an opening string sinfonia and an echo fanfare for trumpets (natural, i.e. valveless, instruments expertly played by Jesse Levine and Robinson Pyle) and timpani (John Grimes). The chorus consisted of twenty-one exceptionally beautiful voices, including the soloists Roberta Anderson and Megan Weikleenget (sopranos), Martin Near (alto), David McSweeney (tenor) and Ulysses Thomas (baritone). Although the choral sound was never forced, it tended to overshadow the string ensemble, playing one-on-a-part. A better balance of vocal and instrumental sound seemed called for here. Pearlman’s conducting favors quick, detached singing and playing, certainly refreshing to ears jaded by the plodding tempos of earlier generations of Baroque interpretation. But by pushing the singers to the limits of audible declamation, Pearlman sometimes obscured the nuances of text expression as well as the natural gavotte-like swing of some movements.
A tendency to rush was also apparent in Claudio Monteverdi’s six-voice setting of Psalm 112, Beatus vir qui timet Dominum (Blessed is the man who fears the Lord). As Pearlman pointed out in his excellent program notes, the text offers many opportunities for word painting, and Monteverdi takes full advantage of them. The first and last sections are also carried along rhythmically by wonderful walking bass patterns in duple meter, with a new, rising pattern in the triple-meter middle section. Again, no need to compress these buoyant rhythms into tempi just a bit too fast for clear text declamation. The instrumental ensemble of expert Baroque players — Christina Day Martinson and Julia McKenzie, violins, Laura Jeppesen and Barbara Wright, violas, Sarah Freiberg, cello, Deborah Dunham, violone, with Pearlman at the harpsichord — was much enhanced by Victor Coelho’s theorbo, which rounded out the continuo with velvety yet percussive articulation.
The centerpiece of the program was Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda of 1624, certainly a jewel and, for many, an intriguing discovery. In the unlikely tale from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem on the First Crusade Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), Tancred, a Christian knight, challenges the Saracen warrior Clorinda to single combat, believing her to be a man. After dealing her a mortal blow, he lifts her helmet, only to discover she is the woman he loves. As she dies, she forgives him and asks him to baptize her. To depict the anger and violence of war, Monteverdi invented what he referred to as the stile concitato (agitated style), full of fast repeated notes, plucked strings, and exaggerated dynamics. These virtuosic and, at the time, novel instrumental effects also appear in the vocal part of the narrator, who carries the principal role. Tenor Aaron Sheehan, stepping in at the last minute for an ailing Keith Jameson, sang with ringing tone and stylistic sensitivity to the nuances of Monteverdi’s dramatic recitative. Baritone Bradford Gleim was a fine Tancredi and Mary Wilson a stalwart Clorinda, particularly moving in the rising melody of her dying words “S’apre il ciel: io vado in pace” (Heaven opens, I go in peace), an effect worthy of Verdi in its other-worldly pianissimo.
Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) was known as the outstanding violin virtuoso of his time and is remembered today primarily for his fifteen extremely difficult Mystery (or Rosary) Sonatas for solo violin and continuo. As Kapellmeister at the archbishop’s court in Salzburg for three decades beginning in the 1670s, he was also expected to produce choral music on the grand scale. Boston Baroque performed three of his less ambitious choral works — two psalm settings from a 1693 collection for the Vespers service, and the Agnus Dei from a recently discovered Mass. Teresa Wakim, soprano, Thea Lobo, alto, Murray Kidd, tenor, and Ulysses Thomas, bass, were the soloists in Laudate pueri (Psalm 113). The Agnus Dei featured a trio of bass soloists: Bradford Gleim, Brett Johnson, and Ulysses Thomas, with trumpet and strings joining the organ and violone in a ritornello before the final section. The Gloria patri of the Laudate Dominum (Psalm 117) setting, in which chorus and instrumental ensemble compete in conflicting meters, tested the agility of both performers and listeners.
Christina Day Martinson, concertmaster of Boston Baroque, had two additional violins at the ready for the performance of two of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, each differently tuned according to Biber’s instructions. For Sonata no. 10, dedicated to the Crucifixion, the top string is tuned down from e” to d” and the lowest string down from g to e. After a mostly chordal Prelude, a tuneful Aria was followed by increasingly complex variations, climaxing in a fast gigue tempo before a brief return to the Aria and a final, breathtaking tremolo passage. The fourteenth sonata is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin. Here the two lowest strings are each tuned up a whole step. The Preludium consists of improvisatory passage work with melodic interludes. In the triple-meter Ciaccona that followed, Victor Coelho’s theorbo was a perfect foil for Martinson as she danced her way through a series of virtuosic divisions on the bass pattern, ending with a lively Gigue.
A Gloria that was only recently confirmed as an early work by Handel concluded the program. Mary Wilson was the soprano soloist in this brilliant setting in Italian cantata style that probably dates from Handel’s stay in Italy during the early 1700s. Accompanied recitative, with two violins and continuo participating, alternate with elaborate arias in concerted style. The trumpet-like pyrotechnics in this piece might call for a more brilliant vocal tone, particularly in the lower range, than Wilson was able to produce, but she displayed expert musicianship and a sure sense of style throughout.