The Boston Early Music Festival continued its practice of introducing European performers to local audiences with a concert Tuesday afternoon by the Marseille-based Concerto Soave. I had been looking forward to this concert, as the group is primarily a vehicle for the Danish-Argentine soprano María Cristina Kiehr. Little known in the US, Kiehr has been a consistent explorer of under-performed repertories. I remember in particular her pioneering recording of sacred cantatas by Barbara Strozzi (Sacri musicali affetti, on the Empreinte Digital label, 1995). She also was one of the two sopranos on Cantus Cölln’s beautiful recording of the Bach motets (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, 1997).
Kiehr’s BEMF performance on at Jordan Hall was an exquisitely sung program of early-Baroque works, with special emphasis on rarely heard music by some of the first composers of opera and their contemporaries. Also featured were rare compositions of south-Italian extraction, including solo madrigals by the Sicilian-born Sigismondo d’India and two noteworthy instrumental pieces by the Neapolitan composer Ascanio Mayone. The latter were performed by harpist Elena Spotti and harpsichordist Jean-Marc Aymes, co-founder of the group; gambist Christine Plubeau also played.
Despite an intelligently planned program and many impressive and moving moments, the concert as a whole was less successful than it might have been. The mostly short selections were linked not only thematically but in terms of key or tonality. Thus the messenger scene from Peri’s opera Euridice, in which the nymph Dafne relates the death of the heroine, was followed immediately by a French harpsichord version of a passacaglia by Luigi Rossi. But what looks good in a printed program does not always work in practice. In this case the result was a jarring discrepancy between Peri’s quiet, austere simplicity and the more sonorous harpsichord piece—even if the latter alludes to Monteverdi’s famous Lament of the Nymph. One wished instead for silence after the long monologue by Peri, which, accompanied only by harp, was perhaps the most touching of the afternoon’s performances.
The longest and, in principle, the most dramatic selection on the program was a work new to me and, I imagine, most listeners: the cantata Proserpina gelosa by Giovanni Felice Sances. Here the composer—a Roman, despite his Spanish name (Sanchez)—sets a text full of vivid fulminations against Persephone’s unloved husband Pluto. These were accompanied by noisy rumblings from all three continuo players, especially harpsichordist Aymes. Yet the performance was oddly unaffecting. I suspect this was due to the over-reliance on the sort of continuo “orchestration” that is fashionable today: elaborate, busy realizations of the sketchily notated accompaniments, which here, as in most of the selections on the program, were probably conceived for performance on a single plucked instrument.
This problem was evident above all in Barbara Strozzi’s Amante segreto, which closed the program’s first half. The tongue-in-cheek complaint of a “secret lover,” this was taken far more seriously than it needs to be, its prevailing dance character reduced to that of a dirge. The piece’s ciaconna structure elicited some inventive improvisations from the harp and harpsichord. But the continual changes of instrumentation, although introducing welcome variety to the sonority—perhaps necessary, given the slow tempo—ultimately became a distraction. For this is music that depends above all on the singer, from whom we simply did not hear enough involvement, at least not in relation to what the instruments were doing
Kiehr’s sovereign technique and pure, precise diction and ornamentation were everywhere evident. Particularly impressive was the ending of Peri’s “Tu dormi”: a quiet note held out seemingly forever on the penultimate syllable of the words “il morir mio” (my death), accompanied, again, only by harp. Yet elsewhere the seeming effortlessness of the singing worked against the dark, painful expression of some of the music. D’India’s “Amico, hai vinto” is based on three stanzas from Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Liberated, familiar today from their later setting at the end of Monteverdi’s Combattimento. Yet the extraordinary harmonies which d’India used for Clorinda’s dying words received no particular response. The unresolved dissonance in the final cadence—imitated by Monteverdi—passed by as if unnoticed.
The same austerity marked Aymes’s performance—on chamber organ—of the famous Second “Stravaganza” by Giovanni de Macque, a Flemish immigrant to Naples. His harmonic “extravagances” seemed tame in this performance. More effective was Mayone’s embellished transcription of “Ancidetemi pur,” an early madrigal by another Fleming, Arcadelt. Here Aymes made good sense of Mayone’s potentially baffling streams of figuration. Mayone’s counterpoint, which in other hands might have become pedantic, always seemed interesting, even if the later arrangement by Frescobaldi is more imaginative.
The high point among the instrumental solos, however, was surely Spotti’s performance of Mayone’s Chromatic Toccata (no. 5 from book 2). This, too, might have benefited from greater attention to the piece’s harmonic tensions. But the virtuoso figuration that follows the toccata’s chromatic opening was clear and very expressive—no mean feat on the early Baroque instrument which we heard.
Even this, however, shared a certain sobriety and under-statedness with the rest of the program, which on the whole took on the reverential tone of old-fashioned “early” music performance. By an odd coincidence, a very different approach to much the same sort of repertory was heard in a Festival “fringe” concert that immediately preceded this one. Tuesday’s performance by Les Canards Chantants at Old South Church’s Gordon Chapel included settings of some of the same poets, as well as a remarkable polyphonic madrigal by d’India. It also shared the idea of melding many short pieces into a continuous, integrated performance. Yet without in any way diminishing their attention to the poetry, the “Singing Ducks” instilled their superb performances with the liveliness and theatricality that were historically an important part of the madrigal tradition. I would hope to hear Kiehr again in a future Festival concert, with a more varied and demonstrative program. But I would also hope to see the Canards given the opportunity to display their creative approach—and their equally polished singing—in a regular Festival event.
A final word about the printed program itself. BEMF is to be thanked and congratulated for including complete texts for Kiehr’s concert, in both the original Italian and in excellent translations by Ashley Mulcahy and Ellen Hargis. Including both is absolutely essential, especially for music such as this, which depends so much on understanding the words—and which includes some truly great poetry. Many in the undeservedly sparse audience were not following the words; perhaps they were content to enjoy the sheer beauty of the singing, or perhaps they were unwilling to spring $15 for the program book. But it’s worth it.