“Atonement,” the Fermata Chamber Soloists’ compact but exquisite selection of mostly 20th-century works delivered Respighi, Tavener, Pärt, and Bruch at the Church of the Covenant in Boston last Friday.
Founded recently in 2018 by Thomas Cooper and Nicholas Stewart, the Fermata Chamber Soloists are a small and self-functioning group aiming to refocus classic music on the live concert experience. The chamber orchestra for “Atonement” numbered only 15, with eight violins, two violas, three cellos, a bass, a harp, and no conductor. Such a group with no conductor posed potential balancing challenges, especially within a hall as grand as the Church of the Covenant.
Bulgarian-British-American soprano Theodora Ivanova Nestorova and a string quartet opened with Respighi’s Il Tramonto (1914), a setting of a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem translated to Italian that tells the story of two lovers and their tragic fate. In its maelstrom of interwoven dramatic textures and fiery passion, Il Tramonto exemplifies the late Romantic aesthetic, thereby providing an apt canvas for Nestorova’s dramatic higher register to shine. Despite the existence of a chamber orchestra version of Il Tramonto, and despite having a chamber orchestra waiting in the audience, the players chose the more intimate quartet arrangement. Doing so freed Nestorova to fill the expansive and grandiose space while not having to do sonic battle. While her fearsome upper register required no aid to pierce through, as a soprano singing a mezzo-soprano part, much of her lower register lost resonance and energy and could only barely be heard. Had a complete chamber orchestra accompanied her, without a sensitive conductor attuned to balance, they would have covered much of her soft lower register. The supportive string quartet (Thomas Cooper – Violin 1, Sophia Bernitz – Violin 2, Lisa Sung – Viola, Linda Hwang – Cello) allowed Nestorova to shine.
In Tavener’s Akhmatova Songs for Soprano and Cello (1993), the orchestration shrank further, with just cellist Alex Fowler accompanying Nestorova. Much as the multinational and linguaphilic Nestorova, Tavener drew from many musical influences and cultures. The British composer set the text of a Russian poet with what sounds like Oriental church music. It is simultaneously new in age and old in style, as well as multinational. Tavener attempted to reflect Akhmatova’s strikingly simple anti-Stalinist verses that stemmed from the classical tradition by writing chant-like music set against a repeating drone or rhythm. Fowler’s cello functioned as this almost arrhythmic drone that allowed for Nestorova to ascend in virtuosic vocal runs amidst an exotic tonality of flat seconds, tritones, and major sevenths. Nestorova’s coloratura impressed, but her most memorable moments proved to be the times she suddenly broke out into demonically held high long notes, which heralded her as a transformative artist.
While Fowler held back to support Nestorova on the Tavener, he dispatched his own arrangement of Pärt’s Fratres for cello and orchestra, oscillating between crazed rapidity and melancholic lyricism. The tonal dichotomy of Fratres proves surprising when considering the entire composition arose from a simple mathematical formula. The performer faces a challenge of communicating these contrasting emotions while also relaying structural consistency and cohesion. With the exception of one missed false harmonic resulting in a quickly rectified squeak, Fowler executed at a very high level. His renditions of the rapid technical sessions especially impressed. The conventional solo instrument for Fratres, the violin, cuts through the orchestra well. Fowler had a harder time in this version, resulting in the loss of much of his midrange. The orchestra played together immaculately with impeccable balance among the players and provided a very satisfying sound in the resonant sanctuary…when they weren’t covering the cellist. A conductor would have rectified the balance issues.
Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (1881) showcased the best of both Fowler and the Fermata Chamber Soloists, clearly communicating enthusiasm and passion, and allowed Fowler to project clarity, warmth, and resonance; his artistic voice soared. After a brief departure to modernism with Tavener’s unconventional tonalities and Pärt’s mathematical minimalism, a return to Romanticism roused the heart as a revitalizing conclusion. Clearly the heart of the program, the Fermata Chamber Soloists performance of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei evoked the gravity of the Day of the Atonement, leaving the audience asking questions within themselves. The chamber orchestra’s flawless intonation never lapsed, and it developed outstanding warmth of tone throughout. Bassist Ian Saunders possibly finger muted too much, thereby preventing a warm ringing tone to fit the timbre of the orchestra, but by doing so avoided covering the cellist. The Fermata Chamber Soloists successfully navigated the many challenges and complications of playing within a large resonant hall, and the group’s cohesive and heartfelt performance left me wishing to hear more