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Brilliant 17th-Century Pairings and Contrasts


Capella Clausura (file photo)
Capella Clausura (file photo)

Employing a small choir joined with an ensemble of nine virtuoso instrumentalists, Capella Clausura’s brilliant concert last night at Emmanuel Church’s Lindsay Chapel paired two complementary 17th-century works: the stirring Vespers of 1650 by the Milanese nun, Chiara Maria Cozzolani and Buxtehude’s solemn, pensive Membra Jesu Nostri. While I have reservations about the interweaving the movements of the two pieces, the concert was a powerful experience.

Capella Clausura is in its second year of including men in its focus on women composers. Cozzolani and Buxtehude complement each other in having mellifluous four-syllable names, and in these two pieces employing similar instrumental ensembles. The pieces complement each other in their tone and compositional approaches. The Cozzolani is celebratory and joyful; its musical style, while sharing a similar harmonic vocabulary with that of Buxtehude, is one of wonderful spontaneity, of individual words being heightened and repeated in their own tempo and mood. The effect is exhilarating, one of constantly shifting and changing expressions. The Buxtehude is more staid in expression, made up of cohesive sections that build in expressing a single affect; it is an intimate and thoughtful work, dark and even brooding.

LeClair pointed out (in her genial comments after the first half) a biographical irony—that here, Cozzolani has written an exuberant work, that seems breathlessly determined to share God’s love with the whole world. Yet she was a nun, confined within the walls of her Milanese convent for almost her entire life. Buxtehude, while also a church musician, had access to worldly freedoms; he could travel, work outside the church and associate with whom he wanted. Yet his work (in this case) is inward-looking, reflective, a serious and singular meditation on Jesus’s sacrifice on behalf of a devoted listener, alone in thought.

The Cozzolani offered virtuosic language that showcased the abilities of the individual singers. Eric Perry’s clarion tenor was nothing short of electrifying in the opening incipit of the Vespers, which was then supercharged by the expansive entry of the full ensemble. Cozzolani creates a sense of awe-inspiring vastness here, and the vigor of ensemble seemed to suggest not 21 but rather countless dozens of fervent musicians. In the Dixit Dominus, Baritone Will Prapestis offered stunning florid flourishes. Laudate Pueri was vertiginous in the motion of the phrases flung back and forth between the singers. Laetatus Sum was also jubilant and ornate in its declarations of praise.

Buxtehude’s mediation on Jesus’s sacrifice has each movement focus on a different body part (Membra). Each movement is framed by an Old Testament verse (set chorally), with a middle section of first-person contemplation, sung by soloists or a small group of singers. “Ad manus,” To the Hands, began with the three sopranos in poignant and sustained dissonances; alto Jennifer Webb followed with a searing solo.

LeClair (in the program notes) states that the idea of interweaving the movements of the two pieces, came from the practice of inserting short instrumental works between the movements of Vespers. An instrumental work, not having a specific verbal narrative, can serve as a meditation on the preceding text. But interweaving sections of texted works seems to disrupt the meanings of both. The overtly joyful content of the Cozzolani could withstand the treatment. But with the Buxtehude I wondered if connections between the movements and the larger arc of the work were hidden by the, uh, dis-membering. Certainly there was great sensitivity by the performers to the differences in mood and expressive language in the music. But I would like to hear the Buxtehude again sometime. Its own weighty Amen seemed to cry out to be a real ending – of a section of the concert, if not the event as a whole.

Emmanuel Church’s Lindsay Chapel is a quirky venue. Long and narrow, with a soaring high ceiling, it offers a great resonant acoustic. With the choir divided on the two sides, there were spectacular sonic effects of motives being passed across from singer to singer and then joining up to span the sonority. With the richness of two lute and theorbo players, the instrumentalists were also often divided to add these vivid spatial effects. But sitting in the second row was definitely too close, I was better able to get the big picture when I moved back behind the musicians after intermission. The creaky seats and dim lighting may be authentic but are not helpful. I was thinking the Jordan Hall would be an ideal venue for the grand and magnificent Magnificat in particular

The concert repeats today (Sunday) at 4 PM at Eliot Church, Newton Corner.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is President of Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy and The Rebecca Clarke Society, Inc.  Her website is here.

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  1. Thank you, Liane, for your kind words! The Vespers of Cozzolani are scored for two choirs and continuo. I asked our instruments to play colla parte and arranged where and when they played. The beauty of these baroque scores by nuns is that the performer is free to use whatever instruments or voices are “at hand”, just as the nuns would have. The use of male voices is of course in-authentic!

    Comment by Amelia LeClair — November 5, 2014 at 9:31 am

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