Les soûls d’amour made a raucous and at the same time refined local debut as a BEMF Fringe act at the Gordon Chapel of Old South Church this past Wednesday. “Songs of Love and Liquor” brought unusual arrangements of lesser-known repertoire from several centuries and five countries using an unusual ensemble: harpsichord, gamba, violin, bass, and soprano—with the bass doubling hurdy-gurdy and the entire ensemble thrumming on various archaic percussions.
“Su la cetra amorosa,” a lengthy ground bass of Tarquinio Merula’s was a nice opening showcase for the entire ensemble. The instrumentation changed continuously, substituting in various hurdy-gurdy sound effects and percussion to match the contours of the text. Molly Netter’s fluid, effortless soprano soared through Merula’s many diversions, giving a miniature masterclass on ornamentation, though some of the variations became bit relentless in their anticipations of Steve Reich.
David Ellis did not need texts to project bawdy imagery in solo works for the gamba; his elegant yet witty phrasings virtuosically evoked Tobias Hume’s “Tickle Me Quickly” and “Touch Me Lightly.” Andrew Padgett set down his hurdy-gurdy to sing bass in liquor-themed works of Purcell and Antonio Cesti. The former’s “Bacchus is a Pow’r Divine” showcased Padgett’s powerful baritone and impressive vocal range; a natural actor, he stumbled and hiccupped convincingly through the night’s many entreaties on the importance of good wine without overdoing the gestures. Jacob Street got his own virtuoso moment with the “Vertigo” of Pancrace Royer, a wild solo harpsichord ride replete with dramatic volume changes, sparkling runs up and down the keyboard, and the apparently uniquely harpsichord-ish gesture of rapidly repeating chords in the lowest registers of the instrument which almost prefigured the octaves in “Erlkönig.”
The somber third set opened with a duet of J.C. Bach, which transitioned into his Ciacona on the chorale “Mein Freund ist Mein.” The incredibly rich, nearly 15-minute work left the audience awed; it is an astonishing work, taking its power from the inexorable bass line. Netter made a profound emotional connection with the piece and the crowd, through Bach’s deceptively placid strophes. Eventually she left the stage to serenade us from aside and afar, lending to her repeated appeals to her lover an ambrosial affect. Alana Youssefian, her counterpart on violin, handled Bach’s moving variations with incredible poise; her sensitive dynamics and plangent emotional involvement yielded to dramatic fireworks as the work neared its close. Youssefian impressed in Monteverdi’s “Et è pur dunque vero,” with her own impressively ornamented answers to Padgett’s furious tirades against his spurning lover.
Two anonymous Spanish drinking songs began the final grouping. The first slow, romantic, and elegant made one yearn for more by anon. The second, rowdy and bawdy, found the entire ensemble singing about the “Wench of Carasa,” as each singer attempted to tell a more salacious tale about the wench before being interrupted mid-obscenity by a mortified colleague. This chorus interruptus literary device caused much hilarity as each new interruption appeared on the projection screen just in time to prevent the expected obscenity. A suite for two musettes (here hurdy-gurdy and violin) by Nicolas Chédeville was interesting, though the constant drone of the hurdy-gurdy gave it a relentless feel; this was leavened by Ellis’s lively percussion. To close, the entire ensemble channeled some engaging odes to drink which thoroughly banished the staid reputation of Johann Schein (one of the three “Sch’s” along with Scheidt and Schütz). The lively finish convinced us that antique composers and their modern day advocates could meet in the barroom and share great jokes. Received with much pleasure.