IN: Reviews

Renaissance Band Fugued Fearlessly


Previewing the very well argued 5,000-plus-word music history lesson included in Boston Early Music Festival’s elegant and well-larded booklet for Piffaro’s[i] performance Sunday afternoon at First Lutheran Church Boston left us dreading the presentation as something of a dusty lecture demonstration. Such was not at all the case. Rather, after the Renaissance Band’s Co-Artistic director Bob Wiemken précised his “Point/Counterpoint: Fuguing in Renaissance Music” enterprise as “Chasing and fleeing,” a very delightfully varied sonically illuminated book of an hour opened to us.  We imagined depictions of nymphs, satyrs, hunters, noblemen, and prey in this well-restored tapestry cavorting in an orderly frame

If these always charming aperitifs had gone on for more than an hour, we would have hungered for a main course, but the excellent playing and sonic variety left us with a very good appetite… if for a roast instead of more sparkling, clear broth.

The permutations inherent in the mixing of 35 instrumental colors allowed the 33 examples of German and Italian repertoire spanning 1450-1750 to come across as well-plotted—and always inviting—change ringing. Aside from some intense emotion from a Bach chorale (transcribed from voices to instruments as, apparently, was much of the program), and some surprising harmonies and chromaticism from Praetorius and Lassus, though, the repertoire, with its predictable cadences, felt samey. Indeed, one of the players acknowledged afterwards that if he’d had to listen to the 33 works with uniform instrumentation, he would have experienced no little ennui.

A glance at the magicians’ table of instruments laid out before the Lord’s table (Luther, no puritan in his love of music, probably smiled down from behind the strangely shadowed cross) underscored the resources at hand: besides the usual lute, guitar, recorders, and percussion, we discovered dulcians, krumhorns, douçaine, shawm, schalmei, bagpipe, straight trumpet, sackbuts, and string drum. And indeed, well-choreographed visits to those instrumentariums added pleasant anticipation the concept.

Just taking the straight trumpets as an example, one could see that the number of crooks, tubes, and extensions could lead to an intriguing number of configurations: seven confusingly un-marked tubes could be assembled in 60 combinations to allow for playing at three different pitches in 19 mean-tone tuned keys. [see cheat sheet HERE] The trumpeters made many trips to the table to essentially build new instruments for each piece in which they participated. Their very long and slender straight busines, were nicknamed Billingsgate for the low tide mud in which a prototype materialized after centuries of silent rest.

The section titles, Fanfare, Fuguing on a hymn tune, Melody to Fantasy, A Contrapuntal Journey, Canon, Imitation & Chromaticism, Profane Polyphony: Fantasia, Contraponto, Canzona, Counterpoint meets the Dance, gave some hint as to organizing principles. while also providing inflection points for applause, which, on a couple of occasions,  rose to a demonstrative, if Covid-distanced fervor.

The takeaway: Don’t be afraid of early counterpoint and fugues when experts like these deliver them with such ardor and lightness of being. The three or four more poignant examples served as a worthy memento mori for those lost to Covid.

Point/Counterpoint: Fuguing in Renaissance Music

Arr. Piffaro: Fanfare
Jakob Obrecht: Fuga
Glogauer Liederbuch: Christ is erstanden à3
Heinrich Isaac: Christ ist erstanden à4
Heinrich Finck: Christ ist erstanden à5
Stephen Mahu: Christ ist erstanden à5
Johann Walter: Christ ist erstanden à4 “auf Bergreihenweis”
Walter: Christ ist erstanden Chorale à4
Johann Sebastian Bach: Christ ist erstanden Chorale BWV 276
Arr. Piffaro: Innsbruck, ich muess dich lassen
Isaac: Isprugk ick muess dich lassen
Anon. 16th c.: Bruder Conrads Tantzmass
Anon. 11th c.: A solis ortus cardine
Anon. 15th c.: A solis ortus cardine
Walter: Christum wir sollen loben schon à4
Walter: Christum wir sollen loben schon à5
Praetorius: A solus ortus cardine à4
Samuel Scheidt: A solus ortus cardine à4
Bach: Christum wir sollen loben schon à4
Arr. Piffaro: Hildebrandslied – Es taget vor dem Walde – Zart liep
Thomas Stoltzer: Octo Tenorum Melodia, Septimi Toni
Orlande de Lassus: Carmina chromatico, Prologue
Lassus: Musica, Dei donum optimi
Josquin Despres: Il Fantazies du Joskin
Costanzo Festa: Contraponto Ottogesima Prima
Costanzo Antegnati: Canzon La borga
Claudio Merulo: Canzona Prima
Praetorius: Pazzameze
Scheidt: Alamande
Praetorius: Volta

Grant Herreid, lute, guitar, recorders, shawm & percussion
Priscilla Herreid, shawm, schalmei, recorders, krumhorn & bagpipe
Greg Ingles, sackbut, straight trumpet, recorders & krumhorn
Joan Kimball, shawm, dulcian, recorders, krumhorn & bagpipes
Erik Schmalz, sackbuts, straight trumpet, recorders, krumhorn & string drum
Bob Wiemken, dulcians, recorders, krumhorn & douçaine
Guest Artist: Fiona Last, shawms, dulcian, recorders & bagpipe

The concert will be available virtually in a couple of weeks. Click HERE to download the program book.

BEMF season continues with it Chamber Opera Series pairing Georg Philipp Telemann’s comedic intermezzo Piminone, first performed in 1725, with his canta Ino, written in 1765, when he was 84. The concert is at Jordan Hall over the Thanksgiving weekend.

[i] Piffaro has been active in the field of education since its inception, and has been honored twice for its work by Early Music America, receiving the “Early Music Brings History Alive” award in 2003, and the Laurette Goldberg “Lifetime Achievement Award in Early Music Outreach” in 2011. Its National Recorder Competition for Young Players attracts talented competitors from around the country to Philadelphia every two years. The ensemble was honored in 2015 by The American Recorder Society with its “Distinguished Artist Award.” Another honor arrived for the Artistic Directors this past season, the “Howard Mayer Brown Award” for Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Early Music.

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