Perhaps you’ve wondered about the large black “serpent” ensconced behind glass in the Cohen Wing at Symphony Hall. A wood and leather instrument with a cup-shaped mouthpiece and finger-holes along the side, it was used in the 16th and 17th centuries to reinforce the sound of church choirs, adopted in the 18th century by military bands, and gradually supplanted in the 19th century by more modern brass instruments. The serpent’s treble relative, on the other hand, the agile cornett or cornetto, not only supported choirs; it was also capable of spectacular virtuoso display, rivaling the voice and the violin in its brilliance. Most often it consisted of two pieces of wood in a curved shape that makers hollowed out, glued together and then wrapped with leather. It had a cup-shaped mouthpiece similar to the serpent’s, as well as six finger-holes and a thumb hole. Bruce Dickey, probably the world’s foremost modern exponent of the cornetto, partnered with Hana Blažíková, Prague-born soprano, and Baroque violinists Monica Huggett and Tekla Cunningham on Friday in motets, arias, and sonatas that were breathtaking in virtuosic expressivity. Joanna Blendulf, viola da gamba, Michael Sponseller, continuo organ and harpsichord, and Stephen Stubbs, theorbo and Baroque guitar basso provided continuo support. The concert, under the auspices of the Boston Early Music Festival, took place at the First Church, Congregational, in Cambridge.
The first half featured motets and sonatas by Italian composers active in major churches and cathedrals in Rome, Bologna, and northern Italy, institutions that employed skilled instrumentalists as well as singers. Since female singers did not perform in churches, sopranos were either falsettists, castratos, or highly trained boy singers. Hana Blažíková has completely mastered the kind of agility these voices must have had, along with a strikingly beautiful if somewhat disembodied sound quality. Texts, whether in Latin or Italian, tended to get obscured in a flurry of ornamentation, particularly in the upper range. Fortunately, the handout supplied complete texts and translations (and lights remained on). “Regina coeli” (Queen of the Heavens), by Maurizio Cassati, maestro di cappella at the basilica of San Petronio in Bologna in the 1650s, with song-like arioso passages alternating with expressive recitatives, gave us our first taste of the way in which the timbres of voice, violin, and cornetto could interpenetrate one another in virtuosic rivalry. The motet by Niccolò Corradini of Cremona paired voice and cornetto in joyful “Alleluias” of exuberant virtuosity. Giacomo Carissimi composed his Nativity motet “Summi regis puerpera” (The birth of the highest king) for two sopranos and two violins. Assigning one of the soprano parts to the cornetto showed how its expressivity could match that of voice or violin over a wide dynamic range.
Composers under the Counter-Reformation continued to favor texts from the “Song of Songs” that first came to the fore during the 15th century, their erotic imagery held to symbolize the Church as Bride of Christ. The motet by Sigismondo d’India “Dilectus meus loquitur mihi” (My beloved said to me), and his madrigal “Langue al vostro languir” (My heart aches when I see you suffering), both for two sopranos and continuo, with one soprano part taken by the cornetto, employed a similarly emotive musical language: sustained dissonances punctuated expressive melodies, rocketing scales ascended at breathtaking speed. Tarquinio Merula of Cremona set another “Song of Songs” text, “Nigra sum sed formosa” (Black am I, yet lovely), in a lively melodic style in which the two solo parts (voice and cornetto in this performance) exchanged short motives and rivalled in virtuosity. As a counterweight to this early setting, Dickey and Blažíková commissioned from the Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki a work that would also “explore the affinity between cornetto and voice.” As text she chose the Byzantine Greek version of “Nigra sum.” Her setting began with a low-range solo for voice that gradually found its way with increasing force to the middle and then the high range, the cornetto answering with a dreamlike progression from high to low; following their extensive duet came a meditative solo by Joanna Blendulf on the viola da gamba.
Vocal works on the program were interspersed with instrumental “sonatas.” In the Second Sonata for Two Violins, by Biagio Marini, performed by the excellent Baroque violinists Monica Huggett and Tekla Cunningham with organ and theorbo continuo, a sequence of short sections employing characteristic motives in imitation contrasted from one another in meter and tempo. Giovanni Battista Bassani’s Sonata Prima à 3 for two violins and continuo consisted of a series of contrasting movements in alternating fast and slow tempo, concluding with an unmistakable Giga. Monica Huggett and Bruce Dickey paired in Giovanni Battista Fontana’s Sonata II à 2 for two instruments and continuo. This work was notable for the alternation of fast, dance-like sections with ornaments in the style of diminutions or “divisions” and slow-moving motet-like sections in a retrospective stile antico proceeding in long notes.
The second half focused primarily on arias by Bassani and Alessandro Scarlatti. Bassani’s moralizing oratorio La Morte Delusa from 1686 celebrates the defeat of the Turks in the Battle of Budapest. In place of the theorbo, Stephen Stubbs took up a resonant Baroque guitar, which provided a percussive accent to the continuo ensemble. A sinfonia combining the cornetto with two violins and basso continuo introduced each aria. Assuming the persona of Justice, the first aria railed, in fast triple time, against the false promise of Hope. Pity’s aria, in fast duple time, encouraged a peaceful acceptance of Death as the welcome release of the soul from the appetite for power. In a slow arioso accompanied only by the theorbo, Pity concluded that a soul must suffer for its errors. A final sinfonia returned to the celebratory fast tempo of the opening movement with its percussive guitar. Near the end of the 17th century, a cluster of operas composed for Naples included obbligato parts for the cornetto, probably with a local virtuoso in mind. The cornetto part in Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1697 opera L’Emireno, o vero Il consiglio dell’ombra is unusually high and extremely difficult. In the first of three arias selected for Friday’s program, the heroine, Rosinda, bemoaned the absence of her lover and longed to weep with the nightingale, whose song the cornetto imitated in a bit of charming word painting. In the second aria, a gently rocking siciliano, she claimed to be dying of love. Emireno’s arias, like Rosinda’s, were sung in Naples by a female soprano. Here Blažíková’s voice took on an almost strident quality in contrast to the more nuanced, vibrato-laced tone she employed in Rosinda’s arias. In an emotionally charged and paradoxically triumphant outburst in fast duple time, Emireno revelled in the torment caused by the knowledge of his lover’s devotion. The display of vocal and instrumental fireworks in this final bravura contest between Blažíková and Dickey brought down the house — and was repeated as an encore.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.