Concertgoers were—to use an old phrase—transported to another world Wednesday night: one in which Elizabeth Kenny’s lute was a loud and commanding presence that filled the room with sound. It wasn’t anything like that, of course, not from any objective standpoint; Emmanuel Church is cavernous, and the lute is simply not a loud instrument. Yet Kenny’s masterful performance so drew in the listener that, by the end of the opening chords, one could not imagine a sound more rich and robust—such was our suspension of disbelief.
Beginning at 11:27, the concert was one of the later early music performances in recent memory. It seemed suitable for Kenny’s description of the program as the lute’s “dark side.” But it was more like dark chocolate than anything out of Star Wars: mellow, textured, bittersweet, and best enjoyed in moderation, lest the flavor overwhelm. This 45-minute program, though, was just the right length for the music’s melancholy tone, and it was the subtleties of these 17th-century English and French pieces that really drew listeners into Kenny’s sound world. The smallest details became important musical decisions, and even a single cough could and would overpower the sound.
Kenny is a master of the kind of tiny gestures that leave one wanting not to breathe. Her left hand would continue playing a cadential trill, long after the lute’s resonance had faded away, leaving just the sound of her fingers gently brushing the strings. Or, on a delicate release of a final chord, her right hand would gently rise and fall with the decay of the sound, taking the audience’s eyes with her. Maintaining bass line, melody, and harmony on an instrument designed for a decaying sound is to establish a bond of trust between listener and performer—that the lutenist will commit to shaping those elements beautifully and convincingly, and that the audience will continue the sound in its collective imagination, even when the notes fade away. Kenny certainly succeeded in establishing that bond, at least for this reviewer; and, if that all just sounds like dark magic, fellow attendees described certain pieces as “the highlight of the festival,” which is really no small accomplishment for a lutenist when there’s an opera going on down the street.
It would be difficult to describe all the pieces on the program, in part due to their brevity, but also because their moods were so similar, ranging from dark to “slightly less dark, dark,” in Kenny’s words. But a few in particular stood out as the real dark meat of the program. The variations of Daniel Bacheler’s Une jeune fillette were a wonderful showcase for Kenny’s contrapuntal and harmonic mastery. Each voice was entirely distinct from the other, helped along by rhythmic freedom, a great sense of breathing, and the wonderful swells Kenny would make into particularly mournful harmonies. Jacques Gaultier’s Les cloches had a pleasing sway to the large beats that recalled the titulaire bells. The notes of Ennemond Gaultier’s Chaconne La Cascade bubbled up continuously like boiling water, while Robert Johnson’s The Prince’s Almain allowed for some lilting rhythmic inequality and regal shifts of character. The Pavan in C minor of Johnson was the heartbreaking highlight of the evening, its aching, ascending melody steadily intensifying as it rose. Here Kenny offered the widest range of strums and thrums all evening, from loud, guitar-like twangs to poignantly understated dissonances. By varying the speed and intensity of her rolled chords, and adding the occasional touch of vibrato, Kenny further broadened her rich palette.
Ultimately, the evening was a study of contrast within constraint. That Kenny could so effectively achieve her musical ends spoke to her consummate artistry and mastery over an instrument not inherently commanding, but flush with musical potential. Between the fine playing, superb programming, and Kenny’s own charming remarks, it was a night indeed dark, but not drear.