An on-line etymologic dictionary traces the word “obsession” to French and Latin roots, implying an “action of besieging, blockading, or blocking up.” On Sunday, the Isabella Stewart Gardner presented its resident chamber orchestra, A Far Cry, assisted by soprano Amanda Forsythe, in “Obsession.” And the intimate confines of ISGʼs Calderwood Hall, A Far Cryʼs collaborative spirit, and Forsytheʼs extraordinary gifts as singer and musician combined to make this program a siege of musical and aural delights.
The program began with a musical battle, excerpted from Johann Valentin Mederʼs opera, Die beständige Argenia. Meder was a contemporary of Heinrich Biber and J.S. Bachʼs father Ambrosius, trained in southern Germany, who served as Kantor in what is now known as Tallinn, Estonia. The Sonata di Battaglia extracted from his opera is in eleven movements (though I had difficulty following the sections, or the musical narrative; the Criers themselves confessed a similar challenge). It offered a series of elaborations around a jaunty march tune; some slower, more contemplative music; and music with aggressive rhythms, bows slapped against strings, and savage tremolos. These musical ideas were elaborated with decorative filigree, ornamented rhythms, and denser clusters of tremolo. The Criers, arranged in a great circle with violins on one side, violas and cellos on the other, and harpsichord and theorbo in the middle, dug into this colorful score with gusto, playing hushed pianissimo passages with just as much spring and energy as the louder, furious parts. Though the work obsessed around C major, A Far Cry offered the kind of vivid color and sprightly articulation to keep it from ever getting boring.
Violinist Jesse Irons spoke after the Battaglia, introducing the group, explaining the inspiration behind the programming and some surprising elements in the performance. There are many Criers with experience in period instrument performance, but the group has never done an all-Baroque concert before. They brought in harpsichord and theorbo for the continuo group (prompting an audience member to ask about the latter, you can read more here) about theorbos here), and the ensemble of 16 instrumentalists and one singer included eight guest Criers, or almost half the performers. They played using baroque bows (you can see some examples) and some Criers played modern-style, steel-strung violins while others played historically informed, gut-strung violins. Steel and gut strings project, decay, and go out of tune in different ways, so I was mightily impressed that a hybrid string orchestra like this could play with surprisingly clean, matched pitch, gesture, and intonation.
The energy level kicked up a notch when they were joined by another young Boston star, soprano Amanda Forsythe. They performed an Antonio Vivaldi motet, Nulla in mundo pax sincera, a work with aria, recitative, another aria, and an Alleluia. The text hails Jesus and the joys of the pure life of renunciation, but the music dwells more compellingly on bitterness, punishments and torments, alluring deceptions, and venomous love. And there was an enveloping blockade of sensory delights in this performance. Forsythe is an esteemed member of the Boston early music scene, for her consistent vocal production throughout her registers, her thoughtful, colorful ornamentations, and her fiercely articulate coloratura singing, all placed at the service of text and harmony. Many a sopranoʼs high soaring lines get lost in a miasma of indistinct “ah” vowels and sloppy consonants, but Forsythe can deliver sharp, stinging attacks and fusillades of notes with crystal-clear enunciation and enough inflection to render clear Italian grammar through impossible Baroque vocal lines. And the Criers matched her step for step, deferring tastefully to give Forsythe her well-deserved spotlight, but inflecting and shaping string lines to match the sung line. The final Alleluia was a high point of the afternoon, filled with dazzling vocal passagework and skillful rhythmic string support. Audience members were grinning, bobbing their heads, and swaying back and forth, and erupted with applause at the motetʼs close.
The Criers returned with another Meder instrumental work, the Sonata, Der Polnische Pracher (the Polish Beggar). This work sends up the rivalry between professional musicians and street entertainers and panhandlers. Each of the four movements began with a pizzicato string figure of comically oafish simplicity. In the Preludio, the pizzicato is followed by a bowed elaboration and eventually by five-voice counterpoint. The Chorale features a simpering, simple church hymn-like tune, played insouciantly out of tune by violists Colin Brookes, Margaret Dyer, Jason Fisher, and Dana Kelley. (Never mind the broad list of viola jokes, the skill of the detuned playing reminded me how British theater productions call on their most skilled character actors to simulate deliberately bad acting on stage.) The Finale recapitulates some of the counterpoint and lyrical segments, and the final Aria fades gradually to a beautifully hushed pizzicato pianississimo. A Far Cry played this piece with droll wit and an impressive range of colors (all the more impressive, when I perused a score at the intermission and saw how few expressive markings were on the page).
Handelʼs cantata, Armida abbandonata came with Forsythe, but without violas; it offers three sets of recitatives and arias which explore the mindset of Armida, the sorceress who was abandoned by the Italian crusader Rinaldo. Handel uses the various texts as a compositional laboratory, accompanying the first recitative with two violins rather than the standard basso continuo group (and violinists Liesl Doty and Jesse Irons provided virtuosic accompaniment to Forsytheʼs lament). The first aria provided more of Forsytheʼs glorious tone and thoughtful diction, with a delightfully crunchy dissonance on the word “diletto” (delight of my heart). The second recitative led into an accompanied section, in which Forsytheʼs sorceress summons forth the beasts of the deep to wreak revenge, and the strings provided remarkably evocative musical turbulence and raging. The second aria stills that rage with a barcarolle-like gentle rocking motion, and here Forsythe provided comfort to match the rage. The third recitative goes back to doubt and uncertainty, and Forsythe lent a particularly sensitive color to the words “dubbioso e palpitante” (doubtful and throbbing). The final aria offered a beautifully shaped duet between Forsythe and violinist Irons, a gorgeous suspension to play up the dissonance on the words “fa chʼio non ami più” (make me no longer love) and a sharp blue note on the final word, “traditore” (traitor). In all, this work played up the obsessions and ruminations of the spurned lover, and showed off the ability of singer and strings to play off of each other and respond to each other in marvelously sensitive fashion.
Irons described Vivaldiʼs Sonata a tre, “La folia,” Op. 1, No. 12 as a “group meltdown,” an apt description for this musical essay similar in structure to the ciaccona or passacaglia. Its simple melody, subject to increasingly elaborate variations with the bass line of the melody repeating over and over in obsessive fashion. This made for a kaleidoscopic explosion of colors, and particularly virtuosic fast passagework from cellists Hamilton Berry and Michael Unterman and double-bassist Erik Higgins. I counted some 19 variations, getting faster and wilder, with more and more complicated call-and-response, executed with style and flair by the Criers.
On Sunday, the Criers partied like it was 1694. Next Sunday, the Gardner Museum keeps the party in 1694 with a concert featuring Les Délices. On Friday, November 21st at New England Conservatoryʼs Jordan Hall, A Far Cry will party like itʼs 1964, offering three works that celebrate the 50th anniversary of their composition, with choreography by Urbanity Dance.