in: Reviews

October 4, 2012

Rough Edges Mar CSEM Concert

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Cambridge Society for Early Music offered the fifth in its series of five identical concerts in the greater Boston area, featuring Arthur Haas, harpsichord; Wieland Kuijken; cello/gamba; and Eva Legêne, recorders. The three played early French and German chamber works by Leclair, Marais, Rameau, Couperin, and J.S. and C.P.E. Bach at Christ Church, Cambridge on Monday evening, October 1st.

The first half of the chronologically-informed program was grounded in E Minor. Mme. Legêne was featured in Leclaire’s Sonata op. 9, No. 2 and M. Kuijken in Marais’s Suite for Viola da Gamba and Continuo; and Haas covered Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin, joined by the others in various combinations. All returned to round out the first half with the last of Couperin’s four Concerts royaux.  The second half of the program, featuring “Bach père et fils,” focused on works in major sharp keys: Johann Sebastian’s BWV 1028 in D and 1039 in G, and C.P.E.’s H.555 in A Major, respectively.

The audience filled the main part of the church. One of the late rectors, Rev. W.M. Kenney, once noted that on a good Sunday he counted communion wafers in the hundreds: a full church was 400, the center section alone a bit over 200, and so on. He would have needed about 240 for this gathering, which had spilled over into the side pews by the beginning of the concert.

For time and style, the setting and repertoire were well matched. Leafing through the program notes, my first bemused observation was that the latest pieces we were to hear (the Bach Trio Sonata in G Major, dated in the program to 1720?/1740-45) only fell short of being contemporaneous with the church building itself by a few decades. Christ Church, designed in 1761 by Peter Harrison, an architect clearly cognizant of London architectural styles, is the oldest standing church structure in Cambridge. One of 14 loyalist Anglican churches built along the east coast of Massachusetts, it was also among those with instrumental music by 1776.

Colonial reception of Monday’s works in a Boston Anglican setting was not theoretically impossible. But there is not quite enough evidence to let one conclude that such music was heard in this particular space. Episcopal congregations might enjoy a brief voluntary at the beginning or end of a service, if the church had an organ  A few Boston Congregational churches eschewed keyboards but used a cello or oboe to accompany late Colonial singing-schools and choirs in participatory chorale-like hymn tunes and simple polyphonic “fuging tunes.” No documentation shows Christ Church using such instruments, either for vocal accompaniment or as performance media in their own right. We do know that an organ was installed in the back gallery about the year after the church was built, its lead pipes melted down a decade later for patriots’ bullets, as the story goes. So my fantasy of centuries-long echoes reverberating in the historic space could have had some basis in reality. There was indeed resonance of time and place with the program itself, a pleasant enough thought to beguile myself with as the concert got underway.

My pleasant reveries were drawn up short, however, by the first wavering tones of a truculent recorder and the unsteady, unexpected rockiness of tempi that wouldn’t settle in the Leclair sonata. Historically informed instruments are notoriously hard to keep in tune, and the early October cold patch probably made the recorder, its segments apparently pushed completely in, fight being brought up to pitch. It helps if one tunes to others with a bit more than a puff to clear the head joint and a scrape of the bow on the strings, but presumably the problem had been identified earlier in the evening’s preparations for the concert, and the players realized what they were up against.

The second half was more pleasing: warmer, steadier, and more fluent. And with a change of instrument, the recorder line’s pitch problems abated — but returned at the end, when the use of the tenor was resumed, suggesting the instrument itself was the likely culprit.  But much of the first half was seriously off-putting, and I kept wanting it not to be so, trying to explain to myself why it took so long for me to relax into listening to music I usually enjoy, even love. I felt shut off from, alienated by, the rough edges on what I’d imagined could be, if not pure pleasure, then something very close. Instead, I kept going around those edges, trying to find a way in but feeling repulsed at the borders almost every time in the first half.

The jam in my head was going, “How can the recorder be so flat, how can the tempi be so uneven, where’s the sense of phrasing, these are good players…?” and I kept trying to talk myself out of hearing what I was hearing because their fingers moved so swiftly and beautifully on keys and strings, they so energetically bobbed and bowed together, and they had chosen such very interesting pieces — whose coherent phrases yet kept being denied and whose rhythmic pulse, seemingly about to erupt into steadiness, repeatedly got snatched away.

That’s not to say that the first half didn’t have a couple of lovely “ah” endings, those moments when the resolved consonance of a piece swirls about in the mind’s ear for a second or third tasting, and no one in the audience wants to start clapping. Certain parts of the first half — the enchanting rappelles des oiseaux (the last movement of the Rameau) and the meditative tribute to a valued teacher, Marais’s Tombeau pour Mr. de Ste-Colombe, overcame all challenges to the contrary, speaking their parts clearly and well. The soloists had a stronger sense of control over the ensemble’s work in these more frequently heard pieces. These were also the two met with a hushed, appreciative air before the applause began.

Each individual player’s technique was, as billed, astounding. Each also has more breadth and depth than the program showed. Legêne’s handling of the fluttery trills, a staple of the early tone-poem repertoire, warbled in and out like true birdsong in the Rameau. Her contemporary global repertoire is equally amazing. Her performance of Chinese works and the extensive recorded Baroque repertoire that both she and the Kuijkens have behind them (Weiland and Bart, his brother, have recorded all the Leclair sonatas, for example) bespeaks a capacity for a more consistently enmeshed ensemble in other settings. So why not this one?

Did the harpsichord rev up ever so slightly into high gear, then abate under pressure to consensus? A relentlessly pressed continuo can be a juggernaut, and no one member of a small chamber group may have the requisite specific gravity to slow the engine back down. But the situation seemed more nuanced than that, and I began to tie my analysis to my observations that the phrasing also seemed insufficiently legible to the ear, and that the issue was most noticeable early in the program, on the older pieces. Timing issues may have originated in the continuo, but I began to suspect that they were exacerbated by two different kinds of phrasing in use at the same time, leading to a subtle game of “catch-up.”

Earlier pieces, like those in the first segment of the program, are usually made up of shorter phrases and smaller internal sections, their motives developed over fewer measures than in later works. In the Marais sonata, for example, sections change frequently, in character, speed, and rhythmic organization. These can seem choppy to fidgety modern listeners unused to the era’s conventions, who must learn to take the music on its own terms and not compare it to later works. Both the Bachs’ developmental thoughts are longer and more dimensionally structured: their more complex matrices of sound help keep the timing of the thing in true.

Such swift shifts of thought can become disconnected, though, and ways to avoid this vary. Some of the variance may be between something I’ve started to think of (perhaps over-characterize), as “American” and “European” approaches to the early-music repertoire. (I may generalize too much, here, but there may also be some validity in looking at things this way.) What I’m calling “American” features a self-announced stylistic treatment of individual phrases, with self-conscious dynamic contours based on melodic line. It insists that each small sub-unit be acknowledged, shaped, even mourned as it dies out, decays, ends. It has a bit of an over-dramatized, evangelical fervor, perhaps because, long in the minority, early music interpreters here were made to carry the burden of proof for the genre’s values, a feeling that to win audiences and get grants, “we have to help/make people love this stuff.”

A drier, less articulated but no less valid approach to these brief modulatory moments might hypothetically be termed “European.” Early material was always a part of the European patrimoine, its continuity with later forms less in question, more dramatic gestural approaches spurned as de trop. Phrases played in this way are less shaped, thinner in sound, and often more wry in their very offhandedness; they do not taper dynamically but simply end, the next phrase following anew with a linear, un-modulated coupling of dynamic and melodic energy. This style takes all comers under its belt, strolling along quietly and steadily with a slightly tilted head, interested to see what will happen next but unhampered by enthusiastic bursts of editorial dynamics or deterministic announcements of the beginnings and endings of phrases. This more squared-off style lets the melody do its own work, opus operandum.

There are good reasons for choosing this style, but it is particularly vulnerable to precession, especially if one happens to be playing with someone who tends to rush the beat or hears a dying line as a cue to start the next phrase. In those cases, the time between phrases is truncated, the count suddenly distributed over a shorter time and so sped along. Perhaps this was what was happening during the first half, with the group never really settling into a steady pulse, the two solistes being rushed by the harpsichord (or perhaps they were all pushing each other). Kuijken, for example, has a slighter, more spare style overall; when allowed to finish his phrases and let them breathe, they taper off pleasantly into an even, steady silence that holds its own, if allowed the next full pulse in which to do so. Legêne, it seemed to me, was somewhere in the middle of the two styles, shaping some phrases and attenuating others.

The sudden, more squarish decay of a tone, misread for the ending of a phrase, could then cause a too-sudden pickup by the next player, communicating a slightly faster pulse and taken up by the others as the intended one. This seemed, finally, to account for all my observations in some coherent way. (Whether the players or any other audience members agree or not, I would be glad to know, but my cosmos shifted back to a rational sense of things once I had tweezed this idea out of what I’d been hearing). It also helped account for a lack of clearly formed expositions of some A motifs, making the diminutions and other embellishments in the retour harder to appreciate in context. Such aurally accommodated structures usually let listeners experience the developing thought in the performer’s mind that takes the tune from its simpler to its more elaborated forms. With things rushing around as they were, and a less coherent phrasing strategy muddling the shape of the works, the formalism that usually underlies this AA’ BB’ convention was both missing, and much missed.

This also explained my disappointment in another aspect of the performed pieces: “Dancing with joy” (as the PR notes described them) they were not. It would have, in fact, been hard to dance to many of these pieces; I did a little hand-test of the Couperin rigaudon: it just passed muster. But the pulse in most of the others was so evasive, elusive, effaced, erased, denied, derided, embellished at times out of existence, that I wanted to enter the three of them into the class that used to be offered on “Dance for Musicians, and Music for Dancers,” in Longy’s Early Music Program — when it had one — in which all students took turns playing and dancing for each other. More dancer-like playing, with breath, energy, and considered use of weight, was one of the desired results.

The brash, un-modulated lighting in the church, which seemed not to have any dimming capacity, also put the whole event in a bright over-wash, flattening the performers against a busy visual background. Such light reduces the players’ contours and any nuances of movement, so that any physical cues they could have gotten from each other were probably dampened as well. Certainly the dimensional sense of bodily movement that helps transmit musical flow to the audience was blotted out; I closed my eyes for better concentration at one point, and found I could hear better.

This may have compounded the difficulties with tempo. Was the space too “dead,” as well? Perhaps. I also had to conclude that perhaps the ensemble, which had just played the same program for five evenings straight in five different locations, was simply tired. Early weeknight performances are also tough. Audiences are just starting to push their week uphill, anxiety having not yet given way to the knowing resignation that it will roll back down on them sometime after half-past Wednesday. Most welcome that respite from the néant that a Friday or Saturday night concert can bring: Monday is too soon. Weary performers can either rush or drag a tempo without even knowing it, too; those playing several sittings of the same concert in very different spaces may not even know they’re burnt out.

The Bach made up for a lot of the first section’s woes. But by the end it really felt like, “Well, we got through this.” And I was sorry to have to feel that way.

Donna La Rue researches, writes and presents on the medieval liturgical arts, focusing on the town of Sens. She has published critical reviews for the Phoenix and has taught integrated arts and art history courses for local universities.

4 Comments

  1. The reviewer writes: “Legêne’s handling of the fluttery trills, a staple of the early tone-poem repertoire, warbled in and out like true birdsong in the Rameau.”

    It should be noted that the Rameau was for solo harpsichord. Eva Legêne was sitting on the side of the room, listening, when the Rameau was played by Arthur Haas on a highly suitable harpsichord made by William Dowd.

    Comment by Flynn Warmington — October 4, 2012 at 8:31 pm

  2. I wish Ms. La Rue could have heard these same musicians perform this identical program in Weston a evening or two earlier. Few – if any at all – of the deficiencies she enumerates were audible there.

    Comment by John W. Ehrlich — October 4, 2012 at 8:47 pm

  3. @FW: I’m checking my notes, thanks for the comment; I had the subtitle in the Rameau circled and a reference to birdsong penned in that made me think, while writing, that it was the section in which I recalled Mme. Legene’s dextrous work. I also do recall her sitting through the Marais, but thought perhaps she’d joined the keyboard player for the last section of the Rameau. (Usually I use separate pages for my notes on each piece; to avoid turning pages in such tight quarters I wrote several items on the same page, which I believe contributed to my misremembering the placement of that aspect of her work.) Thanks again for the correction.

    Comment by DLa Rue — October 5, 2012 at 5:29 pm

  4. @JWE I echo your sentiments.

    Comment by DLa Rue — October 5, 2012 at 5:31 pm

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