The practitioner of Early Music is often called upon to combine the roles of performer, archaeologist, and detective in the search for repertoire and the proper way to perform it. Indeed, Mezzaluna, the recorder ensemble featured in last Sunday’s program (June 19) at Jordan Hall as part of the Boston Early Music Festival, owes its very existence to the collaboration between Adrian Brown, a modern, British recorder maker seeking to make authentic replicas of ancient instruments, and Belgian recorder player Peter Van Heyghen. The ensemble’s mission is to play recorder music that flourished between c. 1480 and c. 1630.Four members of Mezzaluna joined with Boston Early Music Festival co-director and lutenist extraordinaire Paul O’Dette to present a program that explored the body of work produced by Ottaviano Petrucci (1466 – 1539; this program was presented on the weekend of his 555th birthday), one of the earliest typographers to set music in moveable type. If that sounds like a dry historical exercise, let me reassure you that this program was anything but. He made exceptionally fine editions of lute and ensemble music and featured composers that included Spinacino, Obrecht, Dalza, Ockeghem, De La Rue..
The program was set up in “suites,” a recorder ensemble set (the individual pieces were often short) followed by a lute set, with each half of the program culminating in a piece for lute and ensemble.
There are fewer sounds more plaintive than the woody, mourning-dove music of recorder ensemble, and Mezzaluna must surely rank with the best of the best. Each player had an impressive array of instruments from penny-whistle to four-poster bedpost height, and swapped them off as the music required. After the opening recorder set, O’Dette delighted the audience by entering from the side door of Jordan Hall and performing his entire piece, Dalza’s Cest ung Maues mal, as he strolled in a stately, cat-like pavane down the stairs, onto the stage, then serenaded each of the recorder players in turn. One was reminded that minstrels were above all entertainers, and one could be certain that this musician would have been fed well at court that evening.
The only problem was the combination of lute with recorders. When the recorders were playing in their higher registers, even the acoustics of Jordan Hall did not help the balance. Peter Schickele’s comments about the Sinfonia Concertante for lute and bagpipe came to mind: “It’s a lovely lute… think of it while you’re listening to the bagpipes.” This was not the fault of O’Dette (in his solo pieces, he displayed a wide range of dynamics); it is simply the nature of an instrument that finds its best voice in a solo setting. The lute’s soft dynamic range fared better in the final piece of the program, which featured the largest of the recorders and three others in a lower range. All considered, however, it was an excellent birthday present for Signore Petrucci.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.