Yesterday afternoon in Longy’s Pickman Hall, Boston Baroque presented the third concert in its “New Directions” chamber series: music for trio sonata ensemble by Corelli, Castello, Carter, and Couperin. The crowd was small, the music varied and intriguing.
The concert began with bookends of the Baroque, first Corelli with the now-familiar, quite canonical, late Baroque, then Castello, representing the more innovative, more intuitive, early Baroque. Martin Pearlman (harpsichord), Christina Day Martinson & Sarah Darling (Baroque violins), and Sarah Freiberg (Baroque cello) performed Arcangelo Corelli, Trio Sonata in B-flat, op. 3, no. 3. Using a variety of touch and articulation, the performers brought out the play between musical lines and in the development. The whole was polished, well-performed, and graceful. For Dario Castello (fl. ca. 1590–1640), Sonata No. 3 from his Sonate concertate in stile moderno, Book I, the same ensemble brought out the idiomatic seventeenth-century changes in tempi and affect, both subito and gradual. The work begins with the theme announced by solo violin and sounds like the opening of a canon theme, but it develops differently. There was an element of the rustic dance about the music, effectively brought out in this performance, and a very nice dialogue between the violins, before the race to a unison ending.
Next we jumped from the Baroque to the 20th-century with a 1952 work by Elliott Carter. His Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord is a modern riff on the Baroque trio sonata; the cello is independent from the harpsichord, there is no basso continuo line, the rhythms are jazz-inflected, and the 17.5 minute work as a whole is more gestural. Pearlman’s description from the stage is a good starting point for considering this work: the first movement, Risoluto, is akin ripples in water gradually spreading out and calming until the end, the whole movement a single gesture; the second movement, Lento, is a complex improvisation interrupted, subito, by excitation, before subsiding once more; the finale, Allegro, is a movement through-composed on Baroque dance rhythm, with tempo modulations (a recurring aspect of Carter’s musical language). Pearlman also digressed on the nature of the harpsichord; Carter wrote this work for a 1950s harpsichord, but when Pearlman asked him some 20 years ago about using a Baroque instrument (Pearlman’s preference), Carter threw his hands in the air and said that was for the performers to decide. So this performance uses a Baroque harpsichord “by Carter’s permission.” For this performance, Pearlman played harpsichord (the keyboard shifted up a semitone to modern concert pitch), joined by Sarah Brady (flute), Jennifer Slowik (oboe), and Joshua Gordon (cello). The work demands agility and command of the individual instruments, coupled with cohesive ensemble-playing even as the musical lines diverge. There is variety in the colors and timbres, some surprising, given the instrumentation; the musicians made the whole seem easy, and brought out the microscopic details as well as the sweeping gestures which this work comprises. The Lento begins and ends in unison, paralleling the Castello which preceded it (another work with tempo modulation, so another astute link in this choice of program). The Allegro had a jazzy swing to it, with its combination of rhythm and cello pizzicato. Carter’s Sonata demonstrates the still-unexplored range of possibilities for trio sonata ensemble; hopefully other composers will take up this challenge.
Following intermission, we returned for François Couperin’s L’Apothéose de Lulli (The Apotheosis of Lully), lasting some thirty minutes in performance. Day Martinson, Darling, Freiberg, and Pearlman were joined by local radio personality Cathy Fuller, who narrated the titles of the movements in this work. Described as both an instrumental concert and a trio, this nine-movement pastiche narrates on Parnassus, Apollo assisting, reconciliations between Corelli and Lully, and between Italian and French styles. The work attests to the vitriolic culture wars which rocked France during this time (in music, also literature, and even in the status of French and Latin languages in public inscriptions). This being Couperin, the composer positions himself as Apollo in the piece, which is also full of humor and wit. Each movement has its own character, ably brought out in this performance. Mercury’s Flight to the Eylsian Fields is rapid, full of quick passagework; Apollo’s Arrival is nobler. The movements mimic Lully’s operas, where a deity’s arrival is always announced first, and the musical language Couperin uses is styled after Lully’s own. Rapid passagework took on a very different character in Rumeur souterraine, causée par les auteurs contemporains de Lully (Underground rumors provoked by Lully’s contemporaries), where the music effectively captures the chittering and grousing of other composers. The following movement, Plainte des mêmes (Complaint of the same) is a comic portrayal of their whining and crying. Consecutive movements have Lully playing an air on violin, Corelli accompanying, and vice versa; Day Martinson and Darling gave nuanced readings of these movements. The work ends with a combining of French and Italian styles, which is to say in many ways a defense of Couperin’s own music. With walking bass lines, seventh chords, dotted rhythms, dance-like pacing, and the complexities of Italian musical writing, the work ends very much in the vein of Couperin and with, for the nonce, a brokered peace between the camps of French and Italian music, the adherents of Corelli and Lully. The performance was as erudite and witty as the composer, and brought a fitting end to this concert of “Trios Plus.”