On the Saturday night before St. Valentine’s Day, Blue Heron and its Artistic Director, Scott Metcalfe, fittingly programmed groupings of musical settings of sonnets limning one of literature’s great albeit unrequited love stories: Petrarch’s passion for Laura. The First Church Cambridge audience heard how the 22-year-old poet chanced to see the beautiful young woman at a Good Friday Mass in 1327. Already married, she remained unattainable for him, but this did nothing to quell his amorous obsession with her; his ardor outlasted her death 21 years later. This passion inspired some 366 poems—sonnets, canzonas, and sestinas—which in turn provided a rich source for many Renaissance composers of different countries. Petrarch (1304-1374) may not have expected his poetry to be sung but certainly was accustomed to recitations of it; Blue Heron made the excellent decision to include two gifted readers: Jade Guerra read selected texts in English, and Alessandro Quarta rendered them in Italian. Metcalfe grouped the settings—as originally done by the poet—as In vita and In morte, reflecting those conceived during Laura’s life and those created after her death, respectively. AD Metcalfe gave a helpful introduction (I was unfortunately unable to hear an earlier pre-concert talk by Boston University’s Professor of English Christopher Martin), noting the evolution of Petrarch’s feelings for Laura over time as well as the recurrence of certain vital buzzwords in the texts: sospiri (sighs), speranza (hope), pianto (weeping), stile (style), etc.
Though six singers took part, each madrigal required either four or five, one to a part, in different configurations (e.g., mezzo/2 tenors/bass, mezzo/3 tenors/bass, 3 tenors/bass, etc.). Mezzo-sopranos Sophie Michaux and Kim Leeds, tenors Jason McStoots, Aaron Sheehan, and Sumner Thompson, and bass Paul Guttry, proved exemplary. The Franco-Flemish composer Giaches de Wert’s (1535-96) setting of Voi ch’ ascoltate in rime sparse (You who hear in scattered verses) began the proceedings with strikingly smooth blend and balance. Though Renaissance madrigals inhabit a constricted emotional spectrum by later standards, these seasoned musicians yet managed to communicate the poet’s yearning with plentiful messe di voce, especially in the second stanza (“the varying style in which I weep and speak amid vain hopes and vain suffering”).
Francesco de Layolle’s (1492-c. 1540) Lasciar’ il velo (I have never seen you put aside your veil) provided a contrast, employing more florid writing typified by many showy melismas which were particularly appropriate when Petrarch describes Laura’s blond tresses (even though veiled since her becoming aware of his love).
Chiare fresche et dolci acque (Clear, cool, sweet waters) by Jacques Arcadelt (?1507-1568) evoked the titular sweet waters, grass and flowers, and sacred, serene air with a simpler texture tending more towards the homophonic. The performers’ sweet intonation and well-coordinated dynamics were shown to fine advantage here. Adrian Willaert’s (c. 1490-1562) Quante volte diss’ io (How often I did say . . . “For certain she was born in Paradise!”) catalogued Laura’s seemingly divine attributes. Willaert alternated unified rhythmic motion with independent lines, and the singers subtly accentuated the high point of “paradiso”.
Metcalfe cleverly piqued interest by selecting two composers’ settings of the same text: Solo et pensoso (Alone and deep in thought). Arcadelt’s setting in four parts had rather more animation, utilized much imitative writing among the parts, and the antiphonal style of the final stanza reflected the poet’s unwilling conversation with Love. The five-voice setting of Luca Marenzio (1553/4-1599) was mesmerizing from the start as the treble part gradually rose over an octave by half steps, then descended most of that distance, generating colorful harmonies all the way. Though it would be overstating the case to say that Marenzio engaged in actual word-painting, his setting is more attentive to individual words and phrases than his predecessor’s, and the singers were ever attuned to the numerous corresponding changes of texture.
Italia mia, set by Philippe Verdelot (c. 1480/5-?1530/32), stood alone on this program, as its political subject temporarily supplanted Petrarch’s amorous obsession. Perhaps inspired by the readers’ powerfully emotional recitations of the poem, the singers’ delivery was the most intensely dramatic of the evening. Beginning with a keen lament for the “mortal wounds” inflicted on Italy by war, it later developed into a fierce denunciation of hearts hardened by haughty Mars, and closed with a heartfelt plea to God to open and unbind those hearts.
In the remaining poems, Petrarch’s thoughts turn from “vain suffering” and hopes of being with Laura to wishing for his earthly life to be over, desiring to join her in the afterlife. Another one-off on the program was Matteo Rampollini’s (1497-c. 1553) Che debb’ io far? (What should I do?): it uniquely excluded the treble voice in favor of a four-part men’s ensemble. The three tenors and bass supplied a dark, warm sound that retained clarity. Though the work begins as a measured lament, halfway in, Petrarch expresses a desire to “interrupt these wretched years” and follow his heart to Laura in death: Rampollini does indeed interrupt the heretofore sedate elegy with more energetic writing.
Scorching readings of the bitter, recriminating next poem preceded settings that put stanza 3 first, Ov’ è condotto (Where has it been led, my amorous style?), set by Marenzio, followed by 1 and 2, Mia benigna fortuna (My kindly fortune), set by de Wert. Though not quite as fiery as the readings, the musicians’ rendering did not lack energy and intensity. The Marenzio was unique here for its use of two treble parts with tenor and bass. As always, the singers evinced detailed comprehension of the poet’s unsparing utterance, to the point that the average listener could almost be forgiven for overlooking that the three stanzas form a sestina—the most demanding of poetic forms—which de Wert sets to music of corresponding brilliance.
The evening’s representative sampling of Petrarch’s poems, having begun with Canzoniere 1, appropriately concluded with Canzoniere 366, Vergine bella (Beautiful virgin). Cipriano de Rore (1515/16-1565) chose to set the poem’s ten stanzas as individual madrigals; we heard the tenth and the concluding congedo (leave-taking). Sensing that his death is near, Petrarch now desires to purge and consecrate his “thoughts and wit and style,” calling on the Virgin Mary to intercede with Jesus and God on his behalf. But even at this extremity of the bard’s life, his passion remained manifest thanks to de Rore’s sophisticated polyphonic setting and Blue Heron’s fully committed rendering. Only at the concluding cadence (“that He accept my final breath in peace”) did both words and music achieve a blissful repose. The standing ovation and five separate bows proved that the audience did not want this sterling concert to end. Once more Blue Heron fully upheld its standard of literary and musical excellence.