Boston Baroque presented the second of its New Directions Chamber Series concerts last night. Spanning five centuries on one concert, there were old friends and new, delights and excitement on this program. Aldo Abreu stood alone on the Pickman Hall stage for the opening set of works for solo Renaissance recorder: Pieter de Vois’s (c. 1581-1654) Fantasia, and a series of five Petit Branles by Jacob van Noort (1619-1681). This music is a century earlier than Boston Baroque’s usual fare, and is closer to popular dance music of the time; indeed a Branle is a circular country dance, and van Noort’s compositions seemed to hew closely to that original. Abreu brought out multiple musical lines in the Fantasia using a variety of articulations, and kept the Branles dancing in a jaunty rhythm. The more powerful tone of a Renaissance recorder helped, of course, but credit for the verve and excitement of these pieces rightly goes to Abreu, who brought a wonderful earthiness to this dance music of long ago.
Following this solo act an ensemble took the stage for Johann Christoph Bach’s Ach, daß ich Wassers g’nug hätte. This solo-cantata is based on texts from Jeremiah and Psalms, with music composed by J. S. Bach’s first cousin once removed (1642-1703), and showcased Katherine Growdon, mezzo-soprano along with Peter Sykes on organ, Sarah Darling on Baroque violin, and a quartet of viols played by Sarah Freiberg, Laura Jeppesen, Emily Walhout, and Jane Hershey. The music is an exploration of the middle range, with the violin serving as descant above the voice. The ensemble relied on a restrained and judicious use of vibrato, and took full advantage of the decay of sound these stringed instruments offer; the result was well-suited to Lamentations. Even the slower middle movement, based on text from Psalm 38:4, is a lament, decrying the overwhelming burden of iniquities. Through the structuring of the music, here brought to life in an affective performance, the pathos and depth of the words found sublime uplift in the musical setting.
Jeppesen, Walhout, Hershey, and Freiberg returned as a viol consort for three works: Thomas Lupo (1571-c. 1627), Fantasia a 3; Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625), Fantasia a 3; and Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Fantasia a 4 (Freiberg joining in at last). Spanning Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, these English composers give us a window into Early Modern music-making in the private sphere, a consort of viols being the province of a sufficiently well-off and accomplished family. These violists are not a family, but a good ensemble of skilled players who did justice to these little-heard works. I found the Lupo to be touching, the Gibbons to be haunting; the Purcell, in four sections, had a different character in each. The performers gave perceptive readings of these works, and clearly enjoyed consorting with one another.
Another ensemble piece rounded out the first half of the program: two vocal duos and one aria by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Composed during the early days of his English career, these compositions reveal a composer feeling his way from opera to oratorio, and while they predate the Messiah, the music was recycled into that oratorio so the works have a veneer of greater familiarity about them. The instrumental ensemble for all three remained constant: Sarah Darling, Baroque violin; Sarah Freiberg, Baroque cello; and Peter Sykes, harpsichord. Brenna Wells, soprano, and Katherine Growdon, mezzo-soprano, sang the first duo, Se tu non lasci amore, which is composed somewhere between the styles of opera and oratorio. The singers responded appropriately and brought out this tension in the music. Teresa Wakim sang Handel’s German Aria no. 6 for soprano and violin, Meine Seele hört im Sehen. Over a walking bass on cello, Wakim sang with great tone and clarity; Darling matched violin to voice, delivering a fine reading of this duet, in name an aria. Wells and Wakim joined forces for the duo Quel fior che all’ alba ride, a meditation on the inevitable passage of time, rounding out this set of music on a satisfying and rosy note.
Following intermission, Abreu, Freiberg and Martin Pearlman (harpsichord) offered a g minor transcription of Arcangelo Corelli’s La Folia, op. 5, no. 12. Originally for violin, this sonata was here transposed for the range of the recorder. Its famous tune proved a virtuosic vehicle for Abreu and the ensemble. The music was agitated and calm by turns; the performance was gripping as the three musicians met and mastered this Italian madness.
Pearlman prefaced Luciano Berio’s (1925–2003), Gesti for solo recorder by describing Berio’s Sequenzas: fourteen compositions written over the course of his career for different solo instruments, each work is a musical étude in extended technique expanding the horizons of a given instrument. Gesti is not part of this project, but could be; this work is a study in dissociating two key aspects of playing a recorder – breathing dissociated from fingering. Each aspect is written on a separate staff, and it is presumably on the “breathing staff” that the performer’s own vocalizations, called for at the end of the piece, are also notated. The soundscape recalls chirping of birds at times, the breathiness of panpipes at others, and I found Pearlman’s comparison with a strobe light to be very apt (sometimes breath and fingering in sync, other times not). There is great dynamic range and variation in this piece; it is an interesting exploration of the possibilities of a recorder as an instrument— here given a spirited performance by Abreu.
Pearlman next performed a pair of harpsichord compositions which, as he related in his prefatory remarks, both explore sonorities. François Couperin (1668-1733), Les barricades mistérieuses, presents a constant series of sixteenth notes. This is not musical homeostasis, though; this work, as Thomas Adès put it, creates melody out of harmony and vice versa. The shifting sonic landscape makes of this Baroque work, part of Couperin’s Sixième Ordre pour clavecin (1716-17), a very modern work requiring horizontal listening and somehow evoked the slowly changing compositions of Philip Glass.
György Ligeti (1923-2006) may have known Couperin’s piece (I suspect he did but have no evidence for this) but his Continuum (1968) tackles some of the same musical ground and issues. In his minimalist composition recalling the work of Glass or Reich, Ligeti wrings changes within the continuity of notes by varying the note groupings (triplets, septuplets, and so on), along with changing the settings on the action during the performance (so Sarah Darling, as page turner, did double duty as harpsichord — on stage). The sound of the harpsichord, coded by our expectations to read “Baroque,” now embraces sounds reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s music for the shower scene in “Psycho,” and, at the end of the composition, the tapping of a telegraph operator. Pearlman rose to the challenges of both Couperin and Ligeti, and was equally at home in both musical periods; they were captivating performances.
The program concluded with a return to Handel — his duo Nò, di voi non vo’ fidarmi for sopranos Teresa Wakim and Brenna Wells, with Sarah Freiberg on Baroque cello and Pearlman on harpsichord. Wakim and Wells gave a spirited reading, at times matching vocal timbres and at others highlighting the differences between the two vocal lines. The result was a moving performance by talented musicians — a fitting conclusion and apt summary of the concert as a whole.
I was sorry the modern works on this program came after intermission, fearing it fed into the comment expressed by a woman seated down the row from me, “It keeps getting weirder and weirder.” I found that remark unkind, but also untrue. It made me think that Martin Pearlman is able to present these Baroque and modern chamber music concerts only now, after decades of winning over the local audience; the flip side is that many in the audience may now be too stalwart in their hearing and their expectations. Personally, I found plenty of titillating weirdness in the Baroque chamber music on this program and found the more modern compositions firmly rooted in the experiments of an earlier age. Mixing up the program order and presenting modern works earlier in the evening might have helped forestall such an unjust reaction and allowed us all to focus our attention more undividedly where it belonged — on the music.
What would the usual Boston Baroque audience make of Jean-Féry Rebel’s Le Chaos, I wondered as I went out into the night.