With last night’s concert being repeated again today (Wednesday) in Andover and tomorrow in Boston, my bottom line is this: do not miss soprano Marina Rauschenfels’ searing emotional portrayals of some of Purcell’s finest music. Together with the superb musicianship of the three instrumentalists, Burning River Baroque left an indelible imprint on my psyche. Rauschenfels’ multidimensional communication—remarkable singing, but also physically engaged acting—brought out every nuance of this sensitive musical language in “Desperation & Desire.”
The core group of Cleveland-based Rauschenfels, Peter Lekx (violin), and Paula Maust (harpsichord was joined by David Ellis (viola da gamba) in a brilliantly sculpted program of music by Purcell and a range of his contemporaries. The space of St. Peter’s Church (Weston) was employed imaginatively as Rauschenfels and Lekx processed up the aisle (joining in to the stark ground bass stated on the viol), in the opening work, Purcell’s “O lead me to some peaceful gloom.” Rauschenfels’ remarkable instrument has powerful clarion tones and crisp articulation. This was an intimate space (well, it was for me, in the second row), but her presence would also command a much larger venue. Many singers are also good actors, but she unites both in one compelling and flexible entity. Purcell’s music is a remarkable vehicle for such an approach since individual words are singled out and heightened in an enormously varied musical palette.
Purcell’s Plaint: “O let me Weep” from the Fairy Queen was familiar, but the rest of the works was new to me. It was just seven months ago I heard two versions of Dido and Aeneas in rapid succession [BMInt review here]. But Purcell, in his short, intense life, wrote a vast (vast!) array of music and it seems I had been missing out on some amazing pieces. Take, “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation” for instance, this introspective lament gives rise to complicated feelings: fears and doubts, punctuated by desperate cries, pleading exclamations, and lilting asides. As Maust postulated in the excellent notes, the scene is one of Mary losing the child Jesus in a setting such as the market. Dealing with the anxiety of a young mother is a side of Mary that is so rarely (if ever) considered, as opposed to the standard liturgical views of the Magnificat and Stabat Mater. Again, Rauschenfels was spellbinding, and left the audience gasping and murmuring its approval.
The evening was a seamless whole: a fiddle tune from John Playford’s “The Dancing Master” was used to transition between two intense songs; Maust performed a Suite (n. 3 in c minor) by William Croft, a composer who was influenced by Purcell. Its ground bass segued nicely from the preceding work, and its melodies alluded to Purcell’s Plaint, the next work. Maust was a refined and elegant performer, but my concert-going companion, harpsichordist Vivian Montgomery offered this over-all comment: “Maust was a capable and supportive accompanist, with detailed attention to arpeggiation and color. The other performers seemed not to expect the harpsichord to play an equal role in the ensemble’s dynamism, rhetorical presence, or sheer innovation. More direct communication, of the sort that was so natural between voice, violin, and viol, would have drawn the harpsichord into the texture and, more importantly, into the theater of this performance.”
The program was carefully assembled to structure the pacing and musical direction. Given the intensity of the Purcell vocal numbers, the instrumental pieces served as lovely and vital palate cleansers, necessary to counter the sometimes overwrought emotions of the arias. For instance, the Prelude for unaccompanied violin (G minor, Z. n773) was moving and sensitively played. Purcell wrote for unaccompanied violin? Encountering it for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking it I should have heard it earlier in my life in place of some of those Bach works I run into so often. John Jenkins’ Fantasia-Suite (no. 2 in g) featured a virtuosic and taut interplay of the violin and viola da gamba (with harpsichord support), revealing the older composer’s structured and balanced formal architecture, in contrast to Purcell’s highly fluid language.
Purcell’s “No, no, Resistance is but vain,” gave us a playful and upbeat conclusion to a thrilling evening.
In an afterward, Rauschenfels mentioned that the ensemble will be back for a fringe concert at the Boston Early Music Festival—no details yet, but I made a note of it in my calendar for early June 2015.