IN: Reviews

Overheard Conversations Among Viols and Voices


Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Marc-Antoine Charpentier

The mostly sacred and mostly prayerful 17th-century French music for voices and viols from Tramontana with Long & Away, guests tenor Alexander Wolniak and organ continuo player, Dylan Sauerwald, was not meant for the opera or concert hall, but rather for royal chapels and palace divertissements. Much of the music had a cheerful sameness and little apparent response to the texts—at times in the sacred pieces, a veil of reverberance, and a procession of sacristans bearing incense would have helped banish disbelief. If there were flashes of bravura, they came with a quieter voice and straighter mien than in concert music. Nevertheless, there were moments in the acoustically ideal basement hall of the Church of the Advent on Friday night, especially in the tuttis, when one didn’t have to be playing the music to be moved by it.

Most of the concert was choral, and most of that was to honor and celebrate the Virgin. From the time and sometimes the court of Louis XIV came Marian music of Charpentier, Marias, Dumont and Lully in various combinations of viols and singers. Charpentier was briefly engaged for Louis XIV, but all of his music on this program was for the de Guise family’s personal establishment and the Collège Louis le Grand, a religious school, in Paris.

Standing at the continuo organ through the entire program, Dylan Sauerwald provided excellent glue and enthusiastic goading, simultaneously realizing the bass figures and cuing by nods and gestures. The portative instrument of just two stops, 8ft. and 4ft., from the collection of Peter Sykes, could produce surprising amounts of color and bass.

Sauerwald also frequently provided pitches to the viols. Tuning represents a challenge that increases geometrically with the number of viols consorting. In this case there were six players tuning up to 43 strings before every piece. Then there are the frets—they aren’t fixed to the fingerboard, they are tied on and need to be adjusted for whatever temperament the keyboardist employs, though this was done before the concert. Dylan Sauerwald chose Rameau’s modified meantone from 1726. Especially in the somewhat harmonically adventurous Ave Coeli in F Minor of Lully, that called for much more careful realization than in equal temperament. Sauerwald mentioned to us afterwards how delicacy was particularly demanded in the relative major, A-flat. The A-flat/C third is the false interval, because in this meantone the A-flat is in fact a G# (that is, lower in pitch than an A-flat). Consequently the C either had to be elided or placed in a low register where the wolf interval would not annoy. Of course composers could anticipate the appearance of the wolf and often used it to emotional and musical effect.

The opener, Annunciate superi, H. 33 of Marc-Antoine Charpentier proclaimed the arrival of the chaste and chosen mother of God. But they could also have been announcing the arrival of a consort of 13 chaste-appearing executants of a rarely heard repertoire. Charpentier’s setting of the texts was not the most observant, but I could not help but agree with his sentiment for the words, “Sing then, ye people, sing on high/ and join your voices to our happy songs.” This could have been the motto for the evening’s proceedings. The combined forces delivered with bouncy rhythms and spot-on entrances and intonation.

In Tramontana’s well-blended but individually distinctive six voices, hautcontre tenor Marcio de Oliveira was a standout for his lyric line, emotional engagement and bright ping. Over the course of the short program, Long & Away’s violas da gamba sometimes became monotonous, especially the generally nasal colorations from bowing close to the bridge, and tuning sometimes was approximate in the higher reaches beyond the frets, but it’s a new world of details of articulation for this listener. Notation for viol literature, especially Marais’s and Forqueray’s, indicate many subtleties not generally notated, such as many varieties of vibrato (usually applied only to held notes at ends of phrases) plus actual indications of phrasing and slurring, as well as indications of how to shape attacks with little swells or not. So what struck this listener as sawing—one bow stroke per note—eventually revealed its nuances. For the players of the bass lines, the excellent Shirley Hunt and Anne Legêne, the short strokes from the bow held far from the frog constituted a deliberate device to heighten the definition of the foundation. The treble viols produced somewhat more of a legato in theory.

Marin Marais
Marin Marais

Though in much of the vocal music, the viols were mostly doubling the singers or providing the bass line, they also had some moments of virtuosity. Marais’s Caprice for Three Viols in G major gave quite the display of the instruments’ possibilities. James Williamson, David Hunt and Shirley Hunt reveled in their interactions and feats of daring. Henry Dumont’s “Allemanda gravis à 4” from Meslanges à II, III, IV, et V parties had the give and take of what almost could have been a string quartet, though with a calming, radiant quality.

The program’s magnum opus, Charpentier’s Litanies de la Vierge, served generous helpings of choral variety, harmonic surprises, contrasts of tempo and texture. Mellifluous male alto Gerrod Pagenkopf’s intoning of “Fili redemptor mundi Deu” had a steadfastness and refinement that inspired innerer Klang from the rest of the forces. The most distinctive section, “Regina angelorum…” was delivered with emphatic attitude by the full ensemble. The Miserere produced some heat and pathos. The concluding Angus Dei, though not very suggestive of lambs, was a lively, bouncy closer sure to elicit a closing ovation.

 Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.

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