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Duetting Lutes Delight


Barolomo Veneto's femal lute player (Gardner Museum)
Barolomo Veneto’s female lute player (Gardner Museum)

It was surprising to discover how clearly I could hear the lute duo of Paul O’Dette and Ronn McFarlane from the back of the the large, resonant First Church Cambridge at the end of their program on Saturday, the second BEMF duo-recital of the current season to feature the lute, following soprano Emma Kirkby’s concert with lutenist Jakob Lindberg last October. As on that occasion [reviewed here], the performers offered an intelligently crafted selection of fascinating pieces, performed exquisitely by two of the world’s finest masters of these repertoires.

As the two players explained “Virtuoso Duets from Italy and England” during a pre-concert talk, the duet was the normal performance medium for the lute during its first centuries in Europe, in the late middle ages and early Renaissance. Then a master would typically be accompanied by an apprentice playing a simpler part, at a time when the lute, which we think of today as a chordal instrument like the guitar, was confined to single-note lines (and played with a pick).

The pieces on Saturday’s program were later in origin and performance style, chiefly from the years just before 1600, and most had challenging polyphonic parts for both players. But several selections echoed the older tradition, and throughout the evening the two players alternated between “master” and accompanist roles, sometimes within, sometimes between individual pieces. These numbered twenty-six, evenly divided between the two halves of the program. If the individual selections were mostly short, the concert as a whole was serious and substantial, though not without its lighter moments.

Part 1 comprised music from Italy, more specifically Milan, Florence, and Venice in the north. Part 2 focused on Elizabethan England. Included on both halves were pieces that the two players described as high points of the repertory: the “spectacular” Toccata for Two Lutes by Alessandro Piccinini, and the Passing Measures (or Passamezzo) Galliard by John Danyel, designated as the “masterpiece” of English “treble-ground” writing for virtuoso and accompanist. (Two years ago I heard a performance of Piccinini’s toccata on lute and harp by Olav Chris Henriksen and Barbara Poeschl-Edrich, reviewed here.)

For this listener the high point of each half was nevertheless the lone solo piece: a Passacaglia by Piccinini and John Dowland’s Fantasia no. 7. McFarlane’s rendition of the Passacaglia—an early-Baroque “ground” related to Monteverdi’s famous Lament of the Nymph—struck me at first as slightly more driven than it needed to be. But the playing was masterful, and it became expressive in time for a passage near the end in which a chromatic melody was deftly combined with a running bass. O’Dette gave a splended performance of the Dowland piece, perhaps the most challenging of the composer’s fantasias. It presents an extraordinary range of textures and rhythms and was executed as close to perfection as I can imagine.

The duets reached those peaks only occasionally, though this was no fault of the performers. Rarely do these pieces aim for the contrapuntal depth of choral or keyboard music of the period, or of Francesco and Dowland in their pieces for solo lute. This music tends to focus instead on florid embellishment, which, although potentially expressive and frequently a vehicle of virtuosity, can become a mere sheen of sound if two overlapping melodic lines have to compete for the listener’s attention, as they often do in this repertory. To be sure, the sound of two lutes, resembling that of two harps heard quietly in the distance, can be quite ravishing, especially when played as beautifully as they were on this occasion.

Yet even from the fifth-row seat where I spent most of the evening, the interplay between the two performers, using closely matched copies of late-Renaissance instruments, could be hard to follow. In comments that preceded the second half, O’Dette won applause for a remark about the high esteem given to “conversational” music-making during the Renaissance. O’Dette won applause for a remark about the preference for “conversational” over loud music during the Renaissance. Yet I was not always convinced that the addition of a second part, or perhaps of improvised decoration in some pieces, was an improvement.

This seemed particularly so in three solo fantasias by Francesco da Milano, the first great exponent of the lute whose music survives in quantity. Originally contemporary with the choral polyphony of Clemens and Gombert, the complex textures of these pieces were not made clearer by the addition of second lute parts after 1550 by the Flemish composer Ioanne Matelart. Likewise, Giovanni Antonio Terzi’s arrangements of two canzoni by Claudio Merulo were tours de force of late-Renaissance embellishment, but though brilliantly played they failed to move me.

Even the original duets from Italy, including three composed or arranged by Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer), were less than entirely persuasive. Perhaps these and other pieces on the first half needed a more rhetorical approach, with greater clarity and more time taken between phrases and sections, to make their points in the resonant First Church. On the second half, the English composers’ use of singing or dance-like melodies and more distinctly articulated formal designs made the selections easier to follow.

These English pieces were certainly more familiar. A number of them were reworkings for two lutes of popular songs and dances of the time. I was surprised that neither the otherwise informative program notes nor the pre-concert talk explained the anonymous arrangement of Richard Allison’s “De la tromba” pavane, an entertaining if war-like dance marked in this version by echoing fanfares between the two lutes. Another dance, Dowland’s “Earl of Essex” galliard (also known as the song “Can she excuse”), received a spirited performance in a fine arrangement by the modern player and lute-maker Ray Nurse.

A concluding set of pieces by John Johnson struck me as slighter than the rest. But these set the stage for two substantial encores: a ragtime arrangement of a tune that I did not recognize—perhaps a reader can identify it—and a musically convincing (and visually charming) rendition of Dowland’s famous galliard “for two to play upon one lute.”

David Schulenberg’s The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was published in 2014 by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at the Juilliard School in New York City. His website is here.

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