Exsultemus brought 15th-century songs on themes of love and war in beautiful performances on Friday night at First Lutheran Church of Boston. Artistic director and sole soprano Shannon Canavin writes that the inspiration for this program occurred when she saw the MFA’s Art of the Americas collection, “filled with soldiers and armor.” (Exsultemus’s “Songs of Love and War” bore the same title as, although different music from, the Boston Early Music Festival concert just last month.)
Founded in 2003 by Canavin, Exsultemus, like so many of the excellent early-music groups (of which Boston has a surfeit), makes use of the latest research into historically informed performance. Its singers, who perform one on a part without conductor, have included the city’s best. Friday night was no exception. The five excellent vocalists were Canavin, countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf, tenors Jason McStoots and Matthew Anderson, and bass-baritone Ulysses Thomas. Exsultemus sounded as beautiful as ever in a sensuous program based on a new CD, “O Rex Orbis, the Rhymed Office of Charlemagne.”
Perhaps it is because of my decades as a book reviewer that I really appreciate good program notes. Shannon Canavin’s were extremely informative. Another part of my past was as a student of “Song of Songs,” which appeared as the text in many of the evening’s works. Could they have been set more astutely or deliciously than in these settings? I don’t think so.
As so often happens in ensembles like this, personnel shift around in place and number; no two pieces seem to have the same singers consecutively. “Reveillez-vous, Boulongnois” by Clément Janequin (c. 1485-1558) opened the program with a high-spirited welcoming number. Here is an example of Canavin’s notes:
Among the great composers of his age, Clément Janequin looms as something of a sport, a master storyteller, an audacious joker, a lover of the bawdy anecdote, an imperishable tone poet, a keen observer who turned street cries to music through the medium of the chanson. While his contemporaries practiced flowing contrapuntal austerities and exquisite charm, Janequin’s onomatopoeic glees are alive with a sensation of the actual that lends him a close kinship to his great contemporary, Francois Rabelais, and has kept his music in performance from his time to now.
The next four numbers were set to various parts of the “Song of Songs,” beginning with Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Quam pulcra es,” which perfectly illustrates “How beautiful you are and how lovely, my dove…. Come, my beloved for your voice is sweet and your face is lovely to me.” A serene, heavenly setting, it was followed by Lasso’s “Tota pulchra es,” which includes the famous lines, “For now the winter is past, the rains over and gone…. The voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land.”
Throughout the evening, countertenor Gerrod Pagenkopf contributed mightily to the sublime sound of the ensemble. I would also like to mention the always superb singing, full of life and joy, of Jason McStoots, whom I have praised regularly. Early vocal music in this city is almost unthinkable without his voice or his infectious humor and stage presence.
After another “Song of Songs” “Surge, propera amica mea” by Johannes de Lymburgia” (1408-1430) came Alonso Lobo’s (1555-1617) “Ego flos campi” — “Arise my dove … and the voice of the turtle-dove is [again] heard in our land.” By music so exquisite one might not mind being awakened twice in such a short amount of time!
More love songs followed: “Porta negli occhi” by Constanzo Festa (c. 1485-1545) and finally the slow, quasi-religious-sounding “Amore tante virtu” by Philippe Verdelot (c. 1480-1531) featuring some gorgeous melismas by McStoots. Janequin’s “La guerre” stirringly ended the evening’s first half, in a major change from all the languid love music. All were having a ball singing this two-part song with fun and funny sound effects amid fast nonsense syllables. The huge part for countertenor was dispatched with charm and humor.
Throughout the evening, the ensemble’s intonation and enunciation were admirable. The second half featured more beautiful, unfamiliar love music by unfamiliar composers, more by Festa along with the mellifluously named Luzzasco Luzzaschi (c. 1545-1607), Alessandro Striggio (c. 1536-1592), Antoine Brumel (c. 1460- 1512), Johannes Tinctoris (c. 1435-1511), and Gioseffo Zarlino (1517-1590), the 16th-century’s most famous music theorist, composer of the evening’s final piece, “Ego rosa saron” (“I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valley”) from Song of Songs, the first polyphonic cycle of that often lascivious set of poems. “Neither arouse nor cause to awaken my beloved until she wishes,” it ended.
And with that, the evening’s four men delivered a languid prayer of peace, leaving the audience agape, under their spell. An extraordinary evening.