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SoHip’s Sublime Prière


Marc-Antoine Charpentier
Marc-Antoine Charpentier

SoHIP’s (Society for Historically Informed Performances) 2015 Summer Concert Season opened with a program entitled “Prière: 1 7th-century French music for voices and viols.” One of the objectives of this first in a series of three concerts (in Andover and Lindsey Chapel at Emmanuel Church, Boston) featuring Tramontana and Long & Away was to present some of the sublime French sacred music of the 17th century. And the pieces by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) were sublime indeed.

The inspiration for Prière came to soprano Elise Groves and mezzo-soprano Hilary Anne Walker in 2011, when they performed part of Charpentier’s Litanies de la Vierge as part of the International Baroque Institute at Longy. The composers added for this concert, Henry Dumont (1610-1684), Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), and Marin Marais (1656-1728), were all associated with the court of Louis XIV.

If you cover Early Music concert in Boston, eventually you start to recognize a lot of names and faces. If you have a group of, say 6, most of the superior vocal ensembles will figure in the singers’ résumés. Tramontana, the classical name of one of the North Winds, is a quintet of singers who, like Long & Away, a quartet of viols, has an unusually good blend and superior musicality. Their concert was a perfect way to start a summer season, with the exception of the monstrously hot and humid hall of St. Peter’s Church in Weston (lovely during other months). Listening to the poor viols’ tuning and retuning reminded me how grateful I was not to be tuning—or playing—my 47 string behemoth in this weather.

The concert was bookended by two of Charpentier’s choral works for voices and viols, Annunsciate superi, H. 333 and Litanies de la Vierge, H. 83, both composed in the summer of 1684. What a wonderful introduction to this composer these performers gave! From the thoughtful program notes by Elisa Groves, Anne Legêne, and James Williamson: 

“During his lifetime, Charpentier was drastically overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of Lully. Even after Lully’s death opened the doors for other French opera composers, the cult-like followers of Lully vehemently condemned anyone that may have been perceived as a threat to Lully or his ideals. With the exception of a handful of airs from Circe and the full score of Médée, none of Charpentier’s music was published during his lifetime, and he remained virtually unknown until the late 20th century.”

Published in 1652, Akkemanda gravis a4 are instrumental dances for viols by the Belgian composer Henry Dumont, published in 1652, followed. A harpsichordist and organist, Dumont was named harpsichordist to the Duke of Anjou, which gave him access to the French court, “French composers, the notes explain, were slow to adopt the Italians’ innovations in continuo accompaniment, “preferring old-fashioned polyphony that worked so well in matched consorts of instruments.” By the 1650s, his works were among the earliest French pieces published with figures in the bass. 

I just loved the performance of Lully’s motet, Ave coeli munus supernum, LWV 77/2, sung by a heavenly trio of men’s voices (guest tenor Sean Lair, tenor Marcio de Oliveria, and baritone James Dargan) with organ. I could have listened to this piece all evening. I have only heard James Dargan five times, but each time I’ve struck at the uncommon beauty and power of his voice, as if he is offering us a look at the soul of the composer, as well as his own. Everything in which he sang benefited from the sensitivity of his voice and the intelligence behind it.

Much Marin Marais for viols followed. Founded in Boston in 2005, Long & Away’s name refers to the music of Orlando Gibbons, “a beloved composer of English viol music.” In 2012 they received the Silbiger Grant from the Viola da Gamba Society of New England to support performances of music for voices and viols, which probably doesn’t get any better than tonight’s well-designed program. The members, Karen Burciaga, Carol Lewis, David Hunt,  Shirley Hunt, and  James Williamson play very stylishly, with good intonation, no small accomplishment on such a muggy evening. Dylan Sauerwald was the standing (and very good) continuo player on a small, portable organ. Allemande, Sarabande, and Petite Paysane, all from “Première Suite from 3 Viols (and organ) in D Major” were the lovely viol selections for after intermission.’Marais studied composition with Lully and was loyal to Lully his whole career. The finest viol da gamba player of his time, he published 5 books of viol compositions, 596 pieces divided into 39 suites, collectively considered the summit of French baroque viol music. I was glad to have such a well-played introduction to this composer.

Charpentier’s Gaude Virginis Mariae, H. 59, was scored for Tramontana’s three top voices and Long & Away’s four viols. The sense of camaraderie among the musicians was palpable. Soprano Elise Groves, mezzo-soprano Hilary Anne Walker, and the excellent countertenor whom I always enjoy hearing, Gerrod Pagenkopf, sang very well the whole evening. Next came an exquisite performance of Lully’s Dixit Dominus LWV 773 with the three lower-voiced men, and Lully’s Chaconne for 5 viols from L’amour Médecin, LWV 29. Beautiful.

A spectacular performance of Litanies de la Virge by Charpentier closed this unusual SoHIP concert. Five more weeks of fascinating concerts happen three times a week the next five weeks. If you like Early Music (all instrumental after this concert) SoHIP could easily brighten up your summer, through July 28-30.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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