The Boston Camerata, with its well-researched programs and high degree of musical excellence, once again thrilled its audience on March 19 in Old West Church, Boston. The program, performed without intermission, featured singer and hurdy-gurdy player Anne Azéma, Camerata’s esteemed artistic director (as of autumn 2008), and her frequent collaborator, Susanne Ansorg, viellist and lautist. Entitled “The Spark of the Soul: Meister Eckhart and the Music of His Time 1200-1300,” the concert on paper gave no indication of the rare beauty that lay ahead in this concert of two women, a few vielles, and a hurdy gurdy.
While the Late Medieval philosopher, mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart von Hochheim (1260—c.1327), wrote no music, he wrote very influential sermons in the German vernacular, rather than Latin. His writings were considered troublesome by the Church, and we presume this is why he disappeared for a year before falling permanently out of favor with the Church, for the last 800 years at least. The words of Meister Eckhart and songs of his contemporaries, spoken or sung by Azéma, were accompanied wonderfully by Susanne Ansorg, who, in all but one piece, used one of two vielles. The other instrument, a lute, had, in contrast, a very dry sound, and I was glad when she returned to the five-string vielle, which had a surprisingly loud and resonant sound. (Her main vielle was made from one block of American Boxwood, crafted by American sculptor Richard Earle, who became an instrument maker).
“The Spark of the Soul” was divided into five parts — Prelude; The Lamb; Come, Come, Holy Spirit; Paths of Falsehood; and Neither Speech, Nor Works, But Love, that include texts that musically sound like laments. Anonymous and Gregorian songs, and songs by H. von Laufenberg, Phillippe le Chancelier, Frauenlob, Freidank (based on P. Vidal),were sung as a mirror to texts from Meister Eckhart, Mechtilde von Magdeburg, and Margarete Porete. “Come, Come Holy Spirit” has the lovely, powerful anonymous 11th-century text “Planctus cigne” — the travails of a swan in a storm who is unable, for a while, to get to land.
Ansorg and Azéma were ideal collaborators. It was hard to tell whether Ansorg was improvising (very impressively) or whether she had simply memorized a program’s worth of music. It hardly mattered. Azéma pointed out that the role of instruments were never written down — educated guesses were the best they and other musicologists and instrumentalists — can do.
Much of the vielle/lute music was full of pizzicato countermelodies played with great musicality. Azema had her turns as an instrumentalist with a hurdy gurdy ( a wooden box with a wheel and strings held at waist level); it was a strange sound which soon sounded just right. Together they created a mesmerizing modal soundworld punctuated before and after some readings with one of those church bells which sound so much nicer than those used in yoga classes. The acoustics in Old West Church are terrific; the voice and strings (and bells) had a lovely reverb.
The accretion of songs and moral lessons and words from the stage would have made this an interesting evening. But Anne Azéma is amazing. When she sings as ardently as she did on Saturday night, she is a force of nature. When she recites French, she melts all hearts within hearing distance, partly because she a great actress. When she sings with Susanne Ansorg, the two are really worth hearing.