IN: Reviews

The Most Celebrated Woman in History


Dorothy Cummings as Mary with Micky Moore as the healed cripple. from King of Kings (1927)

The 2023 Boston Early Music Festival styles itself “A Celebration of Women”, and the choral ensemble Vox Luminis (Voice of Light), aiming seriously high, selected as its theme the most celebrated woman in history, the Virgin Mary. On Tuesday at Jordan Hall we heard music from the 13th to the 18th century largely concerned with Mary’s agonized contemplation of Jesus on the cross. The selections sampled third- and first-person narratives culminating in a single setting of the standard Stabat Mater text. While the fine booklet essays referred to a mixture of sacred and secular works, one would not be surprised to hear the ur-Christian texts and their musical settings performed in an ecclesiastical setting. The world-class performers were sopranos Zsuzsi Tóth, Viola Blache, Perrine Devillers, Victoria Cassano; altos Alexander Chance and Jan Kullmann; tenors Florian Sievers and João Moreira; basses Sebastian Myrus and Lionel Meunier (who also serves as Artistic Director); Anthony Romaniuk, organ; Simon Linné, theorbo and lute; and Adrienne Hyde, viola da gamba and lirone.

Singing unaccompanied from the rear of the hall, one of the sopranos (no soloists received printed credit) delivered a moving account of Lamentation de la Vierge au pied de la Croix (The Virgin’s Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross), a medieval monody by an anonymous 13th-century composer. This was, perhaps, the most nearly secular work, setting Mary’s most personal reflections: more than any other featured text, this described Mary’s joy at giving birth to her son and protecting him, as contrasted with her suffering as she watches his slow, excruciating execution. The singer successfully made a millennium-old event seem relevant and topical, juxtaposing the Virgin’s love for and joy in Jesus with her agony at witnessing his “cruel and bitter death.” The performer used one device to particularly striking effect multiple times: a phrase repeated in an echo, evoking a public pronouncement followed by an introspective reflection on the same thought.

Antonio Lotti (ca. 1667-1740) created settings of the Crucifixus text from the Mass, for six, eight, and ten voices, with perceptible similarities of harmony and texture, yet the eight-part setting (as heard on this occasion) seems to be the favored one, perhaps for its highest degree of unification (literally and figuratively) as well as its nearly continuous expressive dissonances and resolutions. Vox Luminis responded in full measure to these harmonies, making the plethora of appoggiaturas and suspensions ache and their resolutions soothe, frequently in a sighing manner. Lotti’s beautiful imitative counterpoint emerged in full and transparent detail, owing to the ideal balances and unanimity of dynamics among the singers. Although one often hears it a cappella, the use of organo continuo here further enriched the plaintive harmonies.

The Adoramus te, Christe (We Adore You, O Christ) of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) stood nearly alone in presenting the perspective of Christ’s followers rather than that of his mother. Moving back roughly a century, the illustrative dissonances came less frequently than Lotti’s but hardly less affectingly. Monteverdi alternates sustained chordal progressions (“We adore you, O Christ, and bless you”)—which the ensemble infused with elegant messa di voce dynamics—with polyphonic writing, giving voice parts independence and using speech rhythms (“because through your precious blood you have redeemed the world”). In a pleasing touch of symmetry, the composer brings back the long, chordal writing of the opening section for the final Miserere nobis (“Have mercy on us”), and the artists gave us a final phrase of surpassing beauty and tenderness.

Though not a household name today, Domenico Mazzocchi (1592-1665), had an impressive résumé as a trained musician, a Doctor of Law, and an ordained priest. Like his older contemporary, Monteverdi, Mazzocchi selected a text more universal than Mary’s lamentation, Girolamo Preti’s Dovremo piangere la Passione di Nostre Signore (Let us weep for the Passion of Our Lord), with a subtitle—Piangete occhi, piangete (Weep, eyes, weep)which also served as the closing line of every stanza, set to different music. Mazzocchi’s setting, contrasting greatly with Monteverdi’s, employs only two sopranos and continuo but manages to have comparable drama, in part due to some startling harmonic progressions (“He languishes because he is thirsty for my health”) but also due to the individual singers’ masterful performances on this occasion. One soprano made an affecting vocal portamento on “who languishes” while the other unleashed a torrential melisma at “pour out a flood of tears.” The final stanza, with the two singers joining together for the first time since the first stanza, seemed a microcosm of the others with both passionate outcries and a very quiet attenuated conclusion.

Alessandro Della Ciaia (ca. 1605-ca. 1670), also a younger contemporary of Monteverdi, was a nobleman of Siena but also an accomplished amateur composer, as evidenced by his Lamentatio Virginis in depositione Filii de Cruce (Lamentation of the Virgin at the taking down of her Son from the Cross). One could quickly see how easily the text of this work evolved into the Stabat Mater as they share important Latin texts; however, Della Ciaia’s work alone features characters assigned to different singers: Historicus (Narrator [two voices]), Virgo (solo soprano), and Angeli (the full chorus). Generally speaking, the single-voice stanzas, representing the Virgin Mary, are notably more dramatic, urgent, and emotionally fraught, while the multiple voice stanzas (Narrator and Angels), though maintaining the mournful mood, are calmer and less immediately personal. Likewise, the composer underlines Mary’s emotional turmoil with numerous arresting harmonic progressions and florid writing, but the choruses contain more conservative writing, placing greater emphasis on poignant beauty. The chief exception to this trend comes in the antepenultimate stanza when the angel chorus shares Mary’s grief (“Who could not be saddened at the sight of the tender Mother in pain over her Son?”): Della Ciaia heightens the tension with ascending chromatic lines, and the performers evoked a climax of anguish. The Virgin’s final solo takes her as well to a peak of intensity, with both anger (“Ungrateful sons of Juda . . . What more did he have to do for you, and did he not do?”) and grief (“Weep, O Heaven, weep, O earth, weep for the dead one, all things”). The concluding section has both Mary and the angels continuing their call for weeping with more sustained chordal writing but also remarkably modern chord progressions. The concluding ethereal, luminous major chord left this listener emotionally wrung out.

The average non-specialist knows Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) chiefly for his distinctive, indeed ground-breaking, keyboard sonatas, but in fact while still in his 20s he received an appointment to the Vatican as a composer and maestro di cappella for six years. While his father, Alessandro Scarlatti, wrote more prolifically for the voice (chiefly opera), Domenico did compose some liturgical music, receiving particular acclaim for his Salve Regina and his Stabat Mater dolorosa; the latter would seem to be the work of a different composer from that of the keyboard sonatas; the choral writing incorporates both Renaissance and High Baroque influences while incorporating none of the Iberian flavor and guitar-like devices of the sonatas. Using the perspective of a male follower of Jesus, the opening stanzas set the scene of the grieving mother standing beside the cross, using imitative counterpoint and harmony that hearken back to Monteverdi. The performers gave much drama, however, to the agitated Quis est homo stanza (“Who is the man who would not weep if he saw the Mother of Christ in such agony?”). Later, at the telling of the moment when Christ gave up his spirit, a more sustained tempo allowed the singers and players to highlight the more adventurous, searching harmonies, particularly on the words moriendo desolatum (“forsaken in dying”). In the larger part of the work the artists traversed a number of moods: woefulness, calm, determination, regained strength, yearning, quiet acceptance, and finally hopeful, even exuberant anticipation of shared mortality. One must also commend the tenor and soprano soloists for the brilliant coloratura of Inflammatus et accensus (“Lest I be destroyed, set alight, then through you, Virgin, may I be defended on the day of judgment”). The final triple-time Amen fairly danced in perhaps the only faint echo of some of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas.

Vox Luminis gave us one beautiful encore, Monteverdi’s Christe, adoramus te (“Christ, we adore you”), a different setting of essentially the same text as the Monteverdi work heard earlier. As before, we delighted in the ensemble’s ubiquitous choral virtues: exquisite blend, pure intonation, precise balances, and elegant word highlighting.

Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is Organist of First Parish Church of Weston as well as a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.

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  1. A thorough, well written review of what must have been a sublime performance. I only wish I didn’t live just far enough away to miss it. Thank you.

    Comment by Robert Humberston — June 14, 2023 at 6:40 am

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