A capacity crowd filled the main sanctuary of the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational on Friday for the opening concert of the Boston Early Music Festival’s 24th season. Guest violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock (the longtime concert mistress of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra) and award-wining soprano Dominique Labelle joined Boston’s Sarasa Ensemble for a two-hour presentation of works of Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), a direct contemporary of Joseph Haydn and Antonio Salieri. Blumenstock played a violin built by Andrea Guarneri (1660, Cremona), on loan from the Philharmonia Baroque Period Instrument Trust.
Displaying a wide variety of styles and moods, the program began with one of Boccherini’s 90 string quartets. The first half concluded with a remarkable string quintet (one of 125 Boccherini composed, featuring two cellos), and the last piece showcased the composer’s first version of his beautiful Stabat mater, set as a solo cantata for soprano and strings. Forrest Larson’s detailed notes for Sarasa’s program emphasized ways that Boccherini’s writing for strings built on Viennese models, but was distinctive and recognizable.
Elizabeth Blumenstock led the opening work, the String Quartet in G major, Op. 52, No. 3, G. 234, with an incredible variety of articulation. Some audience members felt that the hall was too resonant for this delicate work, but Blumenstock’s aggressive rhythmic choices allowed Boccherini’s motivic repetitions, thematic development, and quick contrasts to sail beyond the first rows. Multiple stops (double and triple) emphasized sudden shifts between lyrical melodies in the lower strings (especially Jenny Stirling’s nuanced and virtuosic viola playing). This work is one of four string quartets written for King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia (1744-1797), near the end of his life. The king commissioned works featuring himself on cello from more than a dozen Viennese classical composers, and Boccherini composed several significant melodies for him in this quartet: Timothy Merton, cellist and artistic director for Sarasa, played these passages with the sensuality of feeling that Boccherini was lauded for in his own career. As a young virtuoso cellist and son of a double bass player, Boccherini may have participated in the very first professional public performance of a string quartet (Milan, 1765), and Merton’s choice of this work gave the audience a chance to question whether Haydn should be unchallenged as “the father of the string quartet.”
The most remarkable and captivating work on the program was the String Quintet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 1, G. 283, one of the first substantial compositions for string quartet with an additional cello. This chromatic work followed classical models more closely, but featured the violins as more equal partners. It featured Christina Day Martinson in the kind of expressive playing for which she has become famous. The third movement recalled slower, contrapuntal sonorities more common in Baroque music for consorts of viols, and Martinson played with great nuance. Her recent recital of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas with Martin Perlman, harpsichord have shown her to be a master of Baroque ornamentation and difficult scordatura tunings: this quintet and the Stabat mater showed her to be a fantastic ensemble player as well. Phoebe Carrai and Timothy Merton had some tuning problems in the middle of the work, but created haunting, sonorous duets in their lower registers. Blumenstock played extremely vigorously in the final movement, sometimes stomping her foot to emphasize strong downbeats (à la Kennedy?) and spurring the quintet to rhapsodic heights.
The concert closed with Dominque Labelle’s moving presentation of Boccherini’s Stabat mater, a composition probably completed in 1781, while the composer was working for Don Luis in Las Arenas, Spain. Labelle’s incredible control of the difficult melismatic lines and gorgeous tone in the lowest tessitura contrasted with light pizzicato playing from the strings (representing the virgin’s tears) and plaintive dissonance in the searing, lyrical passages. This was clearly modeled on earlier Baroque settings, such as the well-known treatment by Pergolesi, but rivaled the classical lightness of Haydn’s 1767 setting. A study in contrasts, only a few movements employed ternary (ABA) form, and operatic virtuosity emerged gradually as the work progressed, as if we were moving forward in time a few years which each stanza of text. The prestissimo rising scales in the violins contrasted with virtuosic flourishes for the lower strings, and Labelle’s rich, dark tone brought the Biblical lament to life, resulting in a four-minute standing ovation from the enthusiastic and appreciative crowd.