The Handel and Haydn Society’s program this Friday and Sunday at Jordan Hall carries the rather anodyne name “Baroque Masters”, perhaps because my alternative title, “The Insane Genius of Castello” sounds more like a Halloween-themed party than an evening of early music. But I imagine Richard Egarr, returning once again to direct H&H, might have preferred my flashier appellation. Don’t mistake my tone, however: for all of its strangeness, this concert was a model “deep dive,” which provided a rare chance to encounter infrequently heard music delivered with passion and intensity.
The program was ostensibly an overview of the music scene in Venice in the early- to mid-17th century, a time and place typically associated with Giovanni Gabrieli and his students. Gabrieli was on the program: his Canzona a6 (published 1615, three years after the composer’s death) provided a stately but lithe introduction to the techniques of the music that would fill the evening. Gabrieli was a craftsman of contrast: the music moved from double to triple meter and back again with no sense of interruption, but with a distinct feeling that time was suddenly shifting under your feet.
However graceful, this opening merely orientated us, as most of the music which followed was impulsive, surprising, dramatic and virtuosic in ways that would likely have made Gabrieli pale. There was quite a lot of it: of the 13 works performed, eight of them were by Dario Castello (ca. 1590 – ca. 1658) a man almost entirely unknown to history. No facts of his biography remain, and even his death date is uncertain. Only the two books of his Sonate Concertante and one motet remain. Egarr clearly sees Castello as a fellow soul. He was a Castello’s passionate and entertaining advocate this evening, both in his comments from the stage and in his leading of the ensemble from harpsichord and organ. In this chamber edition of H&H, a total of eight players including Egarr performed in various combinations.
This music develops architecturally through a sequence of sections, each of which has its own tempo, motivic shape and texture. The textures can be broadly classified into aria (where one instrument dominates) and imitation. Within aria there is a range from simple melody to virtuosic cadenza; within imitation there is a large catalog of effects: simple round-like entries; echoes; and intense overlappings barely separated from one another whose mutual strainings invite erotic metaphor. Castello belongs with among those artists who care little for smoothness of effect or seamlessness of construction. His materials careen off in wild directions, often start surprisingly or end suddenly. There’s a world of invention in these works, but also great reserves of impatience. There’s a sense of pushing against the musical fabric, as if Castello’s urges couldn’t quite be contained in the forms he was using. Attempting to summarize any one work would be tedious; attempting to catalog them all would take too long. Among the highlights in the eight pieces we heard was the cello playing of Guy Fishman in the Sonata duodecima a3 (Book II), with its occasional crazy virtuosity matched with a touchingly plaintive, almost hoarse tone giving the work an affecting emotional raggedness. The Sonata secunda a2 (Book I) that followed featured two violins down in the bottom of their range, Castello’s agitation transmuted here into a blurry, almost drugged sense of shifting light. Several works on the second half featured Andrew Schwartz’s dulcian, a precursor to the bassoon. It had a pleasant sound with a halo of buzz around it: every note had just a slightly different color. In the Sonata nona a3 (Book II) his playing was technically fearless, great sheets of notes pouring out of an instrument that had no keywork to simplify its fingering. In several pieces we also heard Erik Schmalz play trombone: this was a revelation in that the historical instrument, smaller but otherwise almost unchanged from a modern instrument, blended so well and so easily with the strings, giving a deeper vibration to the works in which it appeared.
As interesting as Castello is, his kaleidoscopic variations rarely reach deep, so other pieces served to leaven the mix. Several were works for three violins, an ensemble of some modishness at this time, according to Egarr, and which featured Aisslinn Nosky, Christina Day Martinson, and Susanna Ogata. Gabrieli appeared a second time with his Sonata for Three Violins. It is historically notable for the relative paucity of forces for Gabrieli, who frequently wrote for six or more voices. Perhaps inevitably, it came off a bit stodgy in this company. Biagio Marini (ca. 1587 -1663) was represented by a Sonata in Echo for Three Violins which gave Nosky the spotlight: her warm and muscular playing was occasionally echoed by the other two violinists, who stood invisibly backstage and who were heard through opened stage doors. Giovanni Battista Fontana’s (ca 1580/89 – ca. 1630) three violin Sonata had its own rather soft-edged quirkiness, more playful and efflorescent than Castello, whose effects have often a hard edge. Finally, as if to prove Castello wasn’t all that weird, we had Egarr playing the Toccata settima for harpsichord by Michaelangelo Rossi (ca. 1601 – 1656), which took this common musical architecture and fragmented it almost beyond recognition. It ends with a dizzying, even nauseating chromatic spiral to its final cadence, a passage made even more uncomfortable by the unequal temperament of the harpsichord, producing a cloud of microtonal dissonances worthy of Ligeti, only to end on a perfectly plain chord, somehow bringing an end to the journey while leaving the listener stranded.
Egarr was a helpful guide throughout without ever overstaying his welcome: he “explained” the temperament quickly and thoroughly by quickly playing a sweet C chord then an excruciating C#; he gave historical lessons briefly; and his love of the music was disarming. He was an excellent pathfinder through the subtleties (and not-so-subtleties) of the works at hand, making it possible to hear worlds of difference that we might have missed. He had the audience well trained enough that several of Castello’s volte-faces in the second half inspired appropriate laughter. He even made the inevitable early music waiting-around-for-tuning humorous, pumping his arms when Paul Morton’s recalcitrant theorbo finally settled in, and having had at the harpsichord himself a couple of times with a wrench. One might argue that 13 pieces in essentially the same form and style were a bit rich for one evening. If some of the audience decided at intermission that they gotten the idea, t they were wrong: they missed the revelation of the dulcian, and the extraterrestrial experience of the Rossi. You may not need another 17th-century Venetian evening again after hearing this concert, but I recommend this particular way of becoming saturated with it. Repeats tomorrow at Jordan Hall.