IN: Reviews

Some Enchanted Evening from the Barberini


Although Boston concert programs routinely include early works that were once seldom heard, there remain some broad swathes of Baroque and older repertory that are little explored by performers. Few listeners are familiar, for instance, with the music of southern Italy from the period shortly after 1600. This was the focus of last night’s concert of “Music for Viols and Friends” at First Church in Cambridge.

The program, which will be repeated Sunday afternoon at the Somerville Museum, reflected the continually inventive programming of plucked-strings specialist Olav Chris Henriksen. Henriksen is known not only for his performances on a broad variety of historical instruments but for his fascinating lecture-demonstrations in the instrument collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. In spoken commentary Friday evening, Henriksen pointed out that the program illustrated the work of “pioneers”: Piccinini, the reputed inventor of the archlute; Fontana, one of the first to publish sonatas for the violin; Rognoni, whose book on melodic embellishment represents a “climax of what you can do” when playing the viola da gamba.

During Friday evening’s concert Henriksen alternated between theorbo and archlute, two early-Baroque relatives of the guitar. He was joined by Lisa Brooke (violin), Barbara Poeschl-Edrich (harp), and Carol Lewis (viola da gamba). It was particularly gratifying to hear the harp—more specifically, the Italian triple harp. The latter was never widely played, and it is still rarely heard, although it was an important element particularly in Baroque music from southern Italy.

The very substantial program featured no fewer than 25 distinct pieces by 9 composers, as virtuoso toccatas in improvisatory style alternated with lighter dances and the occasional more serious contrapuntal piece. Of the composers, only Frescobaldi is likely to be at all familiar to most concert-goers, and he was represented by three works from his little-known Canzoni of 1628. These, however, were well worth hearing, as were, in particular, the selections by Kapsberger, who was to the early-Baroque lute what Frescobaldi was to the organ and harpsichord. Equally significant were rarely played pieces by the Neapolitans Trabaci and Mayone, whose works on the program included some of the earliest published music specifically for the harp.

Perhaps the most impressive performance of the evening was of the long and difficult First Toccata from Kapsberger’s 1640 collection of music for the theorbo or chitarrone, one of the two long-necked, many-stringed varieties of lute on which Henriksen played. In a fine demonstration of the both the expressive and technical possibilities of the theorbo, the toccata received a magisterial performance, dramatically juxtaposing thoughtful, expressive passages with flashes of extraordinary virtuosity, energy and precision. The only possible cause for complaint is that those who require visual stimulation to enjoy such music must have been disappointed by the fact that a music stand obscured the view of the player’s right hand.

The harp received an equally challenging workout in Mayone’s Ricercar on the tune by Costanzo Festa—in fact a long contrapuntal fantasia on the early-Renaissance Spagna melody. (The Neapolitans for some reason associated this dance tune with the name of Festa, a Roman composer of the early 16th century.) Exquisitely played, this was the most extended example on the program of the serious vocal-style polyphony in which composers of the period demonstrated their technical proficiency—though it also incorporated digital virtuosity as well. This took the form of scales played simultaneously by both hands, producing a contrapuntal texture hardly ever heard in the more familiar harp music of the 19th century.

The latter, of course, was written for a very different instrument. On Poeschl-Edrich’s Baroque triple harp, three rows or ranks of strings provide some of the functions that are served by pedals on the modern instrument. During the program, tuning and retuning the many strings on the various instruments necessitated a few extended breaks in the action. But this is an occupational requirement of this repertory, like the re-arranging of the stage between sets in a concert of contemporary music.

Carol Lewis had an opportunity for solo virtuosity in an embellished arrangement by Rognoni of Palestrina’s famous madrigal “Vestiva i colli.” Rognoni’s demonstration of the art of melodic decoration, published in 1620, was accompanied by harp and lute, playing the original composition of some fifty years earlier. I’m not sure that the combination was entirely successful, as the plucked versions of what were originally vocal lines occasionally clashed with and distracted from the remarkable embellishment of the same lines in the gamba part.

I had a similar impression of a toccata for two instruments by the Bolognese lutenist Alessandro Piccinini, played on harp and theorbo. This piece, too, seemed to combine simple and decorated versions of the same melody. Here I sensed an occasional stiffness in the written-out ornamentation, as also in Frescobaldi’s toccata for violin and “spinettina” (here replaced by lute) and his canzona La Franciotta for violin and gamba. Rognoni’s virtuoso arrangement was nevertheless played with the freedom and panache that it demands, despite a few intonational glitches in some extraordinary passages that must be played high above the frets. In such pieces the performer’s task was is not made easier by the unsparing acoustics of First Church’s Lindsay Chapel.

Both Lewis and violinist Brooke shone in Sonata 10 by the Venetian composer Fontana. Published in 1641 some time after his death, the piece represents the same virtuoso improvisatory style as other works on the program. Among these I would single out Sinfonia 4 from Kapsberger’s 1615 collection, which opened the program with striking modulations and violin flourishes. I was unconvinced only by a few dances and arias taken from vocal works, especially Luigi Rossi’s opera Il palazzo incantato, whose early-Baroque bizzarria made little sense without the words. Rossi’s opera, incidentally, was the source for the program’s title, “The Enchanted Palace.” The latter also alluded to the Barberini Palace in Rome, home not only to  Pope Urban VIII—whose uncle Francesco Barberini was patron of some of the music heard tonight—but to the so-called Barberini triple harp famously depicted by the artist Giovanni Lanfranco (you can see it here).

The program ended with a series of dances by the lutenist Falconiero or Falconieri. But although they are lively and popular, I have never found his melodies particularly cogent or engaging. This very enjoyable concert nevertheless deserved a larger audience than it received Friday night. Those who missed it will have another chance Sunday afternoon in Somerville.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

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