Everyone knows Blue Heron as one of the best Early Music ensembles in the world, acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic for having clearly gone beyond first-wave Early Music interpretation to a place where high-end scholarship works hand in hand with serious musical virtuosity and communicative expressivity. Blue Heron is also clearly a very intelligent group. Scott Metcalfe directs with incredible precision and textual insight. So what’s left for them to do? In the group’s program of16thcentury chansons by Le Jeune, Pevernage, Sweelinck and others at a packed First Congregational Church in Cambridge on Saturday, it struck me that the intention was to develop the canon of generally known and recognized Early Music. In the pre-concert talk, expert anecdotes from Professor Peter Urquhart made it clear that Le Jeune isn’t currently held in such esteem as the program’s weighting towards his composition might suggest. Basically, nobody yet knows much Le Jeune (save for his Greatest Hits), and Scott Metcalfe wants to bring him to a wider and more appreciative audience.
The concert reminded me of visiting the National Museum in Warsaw and walking through room after room before seeing the Portrait of Maerten Soolmans by Rembrandt. The Le Jeunes really shone when juxtaposed with other works of the period, and was presented with a tangibly different emotional immediacy. So, mission accomplished Scott Metcalfe. Having prepared myself somewhat to be confronted with lots of Musique mesurée à l’antique, a contrivance of the poet Baif and composer De Courville and their Friends in High Places (including Louis IV) at the Academie de poise et de la musique in the early 1570s, I was overwhelmed by how free-sounding and “Barocco” in its most literal sense this sound-world really is. Musique mesurée sought inspiration in the metrical effects of Classical poetry, and aspired to a Grecian regulation of the emotions through an “ethos of the modes.” Told that the music itself would closely follow the spondees and dactyls of French, I rather assumed a lumpy and ungainly sensation would be the result: nothing could be further from the art of Le Jeune as sung by Blue Heron. The transparent diction of the group in the mesurée passages and virtuosity in the melismatic passages made for a gorgeous interplay between text and music, most immediately in the opening song and Le Jeune’s best known work: Revecy venir de printans.
But what of the musicians? Lawrence Lipnik should be kept out of public view by his colleagues if they hope ever again to secure the limelight; he’s an absolute musical magnet, stealing our attention and the show through his fabulous communicative flare. Actually, he should lock his colleagues up until they promise to play his game. I’ve never seen viol-playing as slick and assured as Lipnik’s—sheer pleasure. The viols in general were at their most pleasing in the capricious Debat la noste trill’en May of Le Jeune as they tossed points of imitation amongst themselves gleefully—not an adverb I’d usually associate with viol bands. The decision to double voice parts with viols and to vary who did what from verse to verse was ideal from an audience perspective, as well as solving the question posed in the pre-concert talk “Where is the viol music of 16th Century France?”. The ensuing kaleidoscope of sonorities really shone. Some of my favorite effects of the evening were the liquid tones of counter-tenor Martin Near weaving in and out of the lucidity of soprano Shari Wilson’s. Jason Mc Stoots was brought back for multiple calls for his soulful rendition of the anonymous Une Jeune fillette, which describes the frustrations of a young nun, forced into a vocation by her parents. One might have thought his classically dashing “Early Music Beard” would do nothing to help his cause in characterizing a nubile young Religious, although he clearly wasn’t hindered: his memorable narrative communication had my wife was humming this doleful ditty in the car on the way home. Another striking sonority was the addition of Scott’s sweetly tuned fiddle to the viols for Du Carroy’s Fantasie dur Je suis desheritée. The melancholy of the viols was perfect in this lament.
Hearing some of Sweelink’s choral works was quite a revelation for me was. His reputation has been so much as the father of the Dutch organ school, that it never occurred to me he might actually have been more prolific as a choral composer. In some ways, the highlight of the evening came the only time Scott directed the singers himself—at the very end. Sweelink’s Psalm 23 Mon dieu me paist sous sa puissance haute was devastating. Just a slight spacing of the tempo at the end created a most palpable sense of religious ecstasy as they sung “tousjours de faire ay esperance en la maison du Seigneur.”
One might quibble that grouping songs into themes creates a “Victorian Art Gallery” feel, as we moved from one fairly contrived theme to another, but Blue Heron is doubtless very self-aware about this, creating the somewhat amusingly no-identity set entitled “It’s Latin” (which might more accurately have been named “Saucy Songs We Like”). But who cares? All we really need to know is what Scott Metcalfe considers world-class repertoire—and we got it. It felt from where I sat as if it took the first few seconds in some of the a capella works for singers to really get their ears into each other for ensemble and intonation—a problem noticeably absent in everything Scott directed. I wonder if, in this rather un-focused acoustic, he could have directed more.
Amongst highlights a-plenty, the two greatest successes for me were Le Jeuns’s Te ne l’enten pas, which was delivered with incredible verve and swagger to rapturous applause and cheers, and his Fuyons tous d’amour le jeu which fled fascinatingly foot-light. I left the concert thinking Le Jeune is of the first rank- happily in the Josquin line, the equal of Sermisy and Janequin, and notably avante-garde.