Through period instruments and historically-informed, expert, and passionate musicianship, La Donna Musicale discovers, preserves and promotes music by women composers from the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and contemporary periods. In “All Around Love” at the United Parish in Brookline on Saturday, featuring works from the 17th and 18th centuries, one felt visited by the spirits of nearly forgotten composers and performars.
An uplifting excerpt from Francesca Caccini’s La liberazione di Ruggiero opened the program. Accompanied by muted cornetto, viola da gamba, harpsichord and violin, mezzo soprano Daniela Tošić and soprano Camila Parias sang lilting melodies filled with praises of love: “Noble Ruggiero, Love’s warrior, well may you call yourself blessed.”
Laury Gutiérrez, La Donna’s founding director and viola da gamba player unearthed from manuscript an excerpt from the little-known Camilla de Rossi’s very early 18th century cantata, Frá Dori e Fileno. Its passionate dialogue between two lovers showcased Tošić’s voluptuous timbre and Parias’s light, clear tone. Nathaniel Cox traded his cornetto for a theorbo as the lovers sang: “What unity great beauty has with great fidelity.”
“I Baci” (Kisses) by Barbara Strozzi followed; its incantory poetry and music: “…make great wounds occur in hearts.” Isabella Leonarda’s Sonata quinta scored for viola da gamba, harpsichord, cornetto, and violin came next. The ensemble filled the resonant chapel with a sound that evoked court musicians of the late 17th century.
Strozzi’s 12-minute Serenata, “Hor che Apollo from Arie,” Op. 8 (1664) ushered in the darker sentiments of love: “…if you are sorry that I am in pain be less cruel or be less beautiful.” This fully suited Tošić’s bewitching mezzo. The adagio arias, “Habbi pietà di me” and “Mi basta cosi” from Antonia Bembo’s Produzioni armoniche enveloped us in the sounds of viola da gamba, harpsichord and soprano. The 17th-century Venetian left her husband and children for Paris, where she went on to sing and compose in the court of Louis XIV. Parias’s poetic songfullness left one enamored. Strozzi’s “La vendetta” (Revenge) from Cantate, ariette, e duetti (1651) completed the first half. Its lyrics warned: “Revenge is a sweet thing…A woman who is not yet revenged has peace in her mouth and war in her heart!” Once again, Parias left us on a high note despite the foreboding tone of the texts.
La Donna Musicale has been the first to publish Julie Pinel’s music. The all-French second half began with her “Sarabande de Madame Pinel” (1675) in Nathaniel Cox’s solo theorbo reading. Probably the first U.S. performance, it set a contemplative mood, deepened afterwards by Pinel’s prayer-like “Echos indescrets, taisez vous” (Be still, indiscreet echoes), in which Tošić enchantingly entreated: “Do not repeat the name of my beloved. The Gods themselves would be jealous to see my fortune equal to their supreme bliss.”
“Vous partez, belle Iris” (You depart, beautiful Iris) by Mademoiselle Herville (1710) followed. Parias endowed this lovely tune with sadness and sinister hope: “I sense that Love will end my agony, which is less inhumane than your allowing me to die.” Excerpts from Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s four-movement Violin Sonata in D Minor, from Sonates pour le viollon et pour le clavecin of 1707 followed. Like Barbara Strozzi, Jacquet de la Guerre was fortunate to have her music published during her lifetime. Both composers came from highly musical families, de la Guerre’s having been master harpsichord builders. Her violin sonata revealed Italian influence in its second and fourth Presto movements; the French of Louis XIV’s court were more accustomed to slower, elegant phrasing. Violinist Yi-Li Chang delivered with fluid and engrossing flair and serious acuity. Dressed all in black and in a leather shirt, she was a pleasure to both hear and watch.
In Pinel’s melodius duet, “Boccages frais” (Refreshing woods): “Happy retreat, peaceful exile, in whose every delight I see my lover,” Gutiérrez held her viola da gamba like a guitar, holding and strumming it sideways next to her body.
“Aux plus heureux Amants,” published in 1696 by a “Mademoiselle” concluded the night. Gutiérrez explained that women of the aristocracy in that era could not publish because it was considered “beneath” their social rank, and for this reason, Aux plus heureux Amants’s composer remained anonymous. The entire ensemble—along with theorbo—participated in this celebratory song as the singers chanted: “Do you know what renders such a peacefulness in my life? I drink constantly. I have always drunk, I am always drinking, and I shall forever drink.”
Though all of the participants were outstanding, Gutiérrez’s engaging, scholarly commentary on individual pieces and composers made this ensemble a must see for lovers of early music and for those who wish to discover and champion the works of women composers whose stories and music would otherwise remain hidden.
Stephanie Susberich is a soprano and composer living in Somerville. She writes about music on her blog, www.sopranointhecity.com