Friday night, Les Bostonades locked in “Pièces de clavecin en concerts” of Jean-Philippe Rameau at First Church, Boston. Relaxed, yet with obvious purpose, Akiko Sato sat at a French-styled harpsichord (Andrew Wooderson, London) with its two sets of eight-foot strings and one set of four-foot strings. This she blended in immaculately with Scott Metcalfe’s violin and Emily Walhout’s viola da gamba. Walhout, who grew up playing the cello, never took her eyes off the sheets of Baroque music on the stand before her. Metcalf often smiled. All three appeared friendly, precocious, and unpretentious.
Programming all five of Rameau’s instrumental gems was as straightforward as could be. His title page of the original score gives away the idea that these concerts could be played on keyboard alone or with other instruments: “Pièces de clavecin en concerts avec un violon ouune flute, et une viole ou un deuxie’me [sic] violon.” But the five concerts were not played in the “right” order. Who would end with one of Rameau’s concerts where two of the three movements are in the minor key, furthermore one of them being a fugue? The concluding movement, “La Marais” (Marin Marais, renowned viol-player and composer) is a delightful romp from Cinquième concert in D minor, which cannot beat out the straight-ahead excitement of a dance — better yet, two of them: “Tambourin I” and “Tambourin II,” both from the Troisième concert in A major. (An explanation of the movement titles is in order: Rameau appended titles after he had composed his music using the names of acquaintances and family, dances, and even a countryside that is now a suburb of Paris!)
Perhaps, though, the most likeable, popish of all the pieces is the middle movement of the fifth concert, the beautiful, touching “La Cupis” (after the composer François Cupis), which you can hear on YouTube played by the Swiss flute sensation, Emmanuel Pahud emoting over a harp accompaniment, to give you an idea. I thought Les Bostonades articulated this movement with great clarity and refinement. as they did throughout the evening.
Yet, here and elsewhere, Baroque period etiquette impeded flow. This etiquette appeared to dictate their letting up too often on downbeats, hesitating before rather than thrusting into oncoming phrases, and, to a lesser extent, calling upon ritardandos for expressive effect.
Highly effective, though, was the performance of the third concert’s middle movement by Les Bostonades. It was the surprise of the evening. The trio came up with both tempo and phrasing unlike any I have so far encountered (and I listened to some dozen or so recordings in preparing for this review). In particular, the trio breathed life into the opening section, which is repeated over and over again and can, and often does, get on one’s nerves with its square rhythm and simple pitch patterns. Not so with Bostonades. A huge round of clapping was completely in order.
The entire evening was instructive if not interpretively spot-on. Impeccable balances among allthree instrumentalists made clear nearly every Baroque note that sifted through the modernistic First Church of Boston — a perfect space for the trio.
Sato invited the audience of some 70 or so to join Les Bostonades after the concert for a reception and to tell the trio “which one you liked best.” Of course, for me, the surprise in “La Timide” was tops. “Tambourin I” was next on my list, but not so “Tambourin II,” where violinist Metcalf held onto the quarter notes that initiated each phrase, throwing off the dance.
Fine moments there were, during the evening. In “La Boucon,” the slow middle movement of Deuxième concert in G major, Les Bostonades exacted a touching très doux, as indicated in Rameau’s score. The gently flowing triplet rhythm in “Laborde” was ever so pleasing, a delight.