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Double Pleasures: Sublimity and Comedy


Early Cervantes edition.
Early Cervantes edition

On Halloween night the dark roads of Weston had a Washington Irving feeling about them as I hunted for the Congregational Church of Weston, where the Cambridge Society of Early Music and Les Bostonades presented a concert of Telemann and Bach that dispelled any dark forebodings.

Les Bostonades were represented on this occasion by Asako Takeuchi and Emily Dahl, violin; Jason Fisher, viola, Kate Haynes, cello; Matthew Wadsworth, theorbo; and Akiko Enoki Sato, harpsichord. The theme of the concert was “Diverse Pleasures—From the Sublime to the Ridiculous,” although the music presented never reached either of those opposed poles. The most “ridiculous” piece was Telemann’s “Burlesque de Quixotte”, a suite of six brief movements inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote that has good humor and a vivid imagination but never descends into ridicule. Sublimity was perhaps on offer with the two trio sonatas by J. S. Bach, BWV 527 and 529. On this evening, however, the Bach felt out of place. The sonatas, originally written for organ, are densely contrapuntal, and the performances on this evening were careful and thoughtful but lacking spark. They felt long and academic, especially in contrast to the Telemann selections. The ensemble seems to have realized this: after BWV 529 opened the first half, Wadsworth offered us something not in the program, Giovanni Girolamo’s Kapsberger’s Toccata Arpegiatta as a transition from the “intensity” of Bach to the Quixote settings that were to finish the evening. Built up of repeated and shifting arpeggios, the Toccata was gorgeous; it instantly brings to mind the first prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Wadsworth’s playing was sensitive to every change of mood implied by a change of harmony without ever feeling studied, and he produced a remarkably vivid palette of colors from the theorbo.

Telemann was remarkably fecund and well-traveled, with a huge oeuvre in many styles and moods. This evening’s choices were selected to create an environment that was especially good-natured and colorful. For example, the Concerto for Strings in F major, TWV 43:F1, opened with a passionate Italianate adagio which featured Takeuchi in a dramatic recitative that took unusual harmonic turns. It was followed by a triple-time allegro that was both boisterous and wistful by turns; then by another adagio, affording Dahl a chance to sing in duet with Takeuchi (hinting obliquely at the slow movement of Bach’s two-violin concerto); and then finally a rustic blow-out of a finale. The Concerto TWV 43:D4 was built much the same way, though the descriptions of the movements would differ: an opening slow ocean pastorale, with waves of arpeggios; a raucous allegro filled with bariolage and recalling some of the violent weather from the “Four Seasons”; a slow walking movement played with meticulous spacing and separation; and a richly voiced fugue that wears its counterpoint so lightly you might not even notice the entry of the separate lines. Les Bostonades on this evening were a group of strong personalities who had joined in joyous community. Takeuchi and Dahl brought very different sensibilities to play, Takeuchi bright and insistent and just a touch distant; Dahl warmer but shaded, with more bow in her tone. When they played together, they made a unique sound, a duo sound rather than an ensemble sound, preserving their individual qualities.

The continuo players, Wadsworth, Sato and Haynes, had their own interesting conversation going on. Sato and Wadsworth were the foundation of the continuo, Sato absolutely solid and grounded, Wadsworth adding just enough filigree to keep the texture clear and open. Haynes, by contrast, played almost extravagantly, with a great deal expression and personality. With less assertive partners it might have been too much, but instead it was just as much as the music could handle. The boisterous, extroverted movements were driven forward as much by her dynamism as by Telemann’s notes. Her playing was showcased in the Sonata for Cello and Basso Continuo, TWV 41:D6, another slow-fast-slow-fast sonata da chiesa. In this example, less extroverted than those of TWV 43, Haynes turned her outward energy inward and invested the work with depth. Her realization of odd low slurs that interrupted the forward thrust of the second movement had a grotesque quality that were the only overt hint that it was in fact Halloween.

The Don Quixote suite brought the evening to a light-hearted close: this was a comic and optimistic vision of Don Quixote untroubled by the trials and failures he suffered. Each movement carried a subtitle to expressly tie it to some episode in the book: Le Réveil de Quixotte imagines the Don awakening immediately into a whirl of activity with episodes of nostalgic music that evoke a past nobility; Son Attaque des Moulins à Vent depicts the attack on the windmills with frantic Vivaldi-esque roulades of notes, getting a laugh by the end; stepwise falling figures evoke Les Soupires amoureux après la Princess Dulcinée. More laughs were provoked by the up-and-down tossing of Sancho Panza in a blanket it Sanche Panse berné, and by the contrasting “gallops” of Rosinante and Panza’s donkey in the minuet and trio Le Galop de Rosinante & Celui d’Ane de Sanche. Rosinante’s gallop was realized with a rather fragile and delicate performance that surprising and charming; the donkey’s was more predictably coarse. The Don rides off into the sunset in his dreams in the final movement, Le Couché de Quixotte, the music fading away as he fades off to sleep. The playing was varied and suited to the episode: pathetic and sentimental in the Soupires, gallant in the battles, awkward and foolish in Sanche Panse. I cannot recall a performance of early music that was more purely pleasurable than this.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

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