in: Reviews

March 7, 2011

Jewels and Discoveries from Boston Baroque

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“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.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you Virginia for your very enjoyable review of the concert!

    I would like to add that I was disappointed by the decision to present the “Combattimento” in concert-oratorio style. Although I could certainly understand the logistical challenges related to including the costumes and pantomimed motions of the “semi-staging” which the composer mentions in his preface to the work, Tancred’s and Clorinda’s complete physical disengagement between solos, as they gently reposed in their respective seats, weakened the overall sense of the drama.

    Just my two cents…

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — March 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm

  2. The sparkle of Boston Baroque’s “jewels” were not shimmeringly depicted as they should have in the review. This was a revelatory concert, and for many in the audience the highlight was Christina Day Martinson’s spectacular version of Biber’s sonatas. She passionately ornamented the already supremely difficult passages, producing an ear-opening, exuberant experience for the audience who poured forth their approval. I also disagree with the assessment that the voices of the chorus diminished the instrumentalists. I was sitting up in the balcony and I could hear every nuance of the orchestra — in my opinion, it was a perfect blend. Martin Pearlman once again has proven himself the master of the Baroque.

    Comment by Gloria Leitner — March 9, 2011 at 6:48 pm

  3. Gloria, I’m delighted to hear your assessment of the concert. Joel, I agree that good staging of the “Combattimento” would have been powerful. The decision not to stage was driven by costs (direction, rehearsal time, costumes) and by the view that Monteverdi’s music and our soloists were strong enough to carry it off. We discussed how Mary and Brad should react while seated, and concluded that twenty minutes of glowering at each other was not sustainable. Finding a perfect Narrator two days before the concert, when our original tenor got sick, was an amazingly lucky stroke. The Biber choral pieces, albeit “less ambitious” as Virginia says, were the best discoveries for me — beautiful and interesting at the same time, and leaving me wanting to hear more.

    Comment by David Gaylin — March 10, 2011 at 2:17 am

  4. David,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to respond! I wouldn’t wish to give the impression that the concert, including the Combattimento, was not a very enjoyable event (I’m certainly looking forward to the Rameau in May). I had a feeling that practical concerns were the eventual undoing of any notion of costuming and staging; maybe next time…

    Comment by Joel Schwindt — March 10, 2011 at 10:14 am

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