“Baroque Celebration II,” the final concert weekend of Aston Magna’s season, pitted Purcell and Sainte-Colombe against an unexpected Villa-Lobos, with a double-dose of JS Bach to round things out at Brandeis’s Slosberg Music Center. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 proved a dynamite opener, with Daniel Stepner (violin), Heloise Degrugillier (flute), and Peter Sykes (harpsichord) taking the solo parts.. Stepner and Degrugillier played off each other with the spunk of Doris Day and the charm of Rock Hudson. Sykes (who I suppose is Tony Randall in this metaphor) electrified the audience with his humorous interpretation of the first movement’s devilish cadenza. He fluctuated the tempo to create unexpected rubatos and breaths at numerous points. Many shuffled in their seats in anticipation of the movements climax which Sykes only gave to us one handful at a time. Tension built as the notes seemed to accelerate to the point that some let out small gasps after holding their breath. Had anyone exclaimed, I would have whistled. The end of the solo and return of the band brought with it some chuckles from the audience who (I think appropriately) clapped between movements of this monument..
The ripienists, like backup dancers, moved as one while supporting the soloists. Cellist Loretta O’Sullivan snuggled her basslines beneath the soloists, effectively enhancing the solos without overpowering the harpsichord. Shortly before the harpsichord’s mega-cadenza, I noticed for the first time the bassetto of repeating As which Julie Leven (violin ripieno) and Laura Jeppesen (viola) juggled back and forth beneath Sykes’s swirling arpeggios. My only request is to allow Anne Trout (violone) to play more of the time in accordance with Bach’s first conception (BWV 1050a) instead of the standard later version where he specifies where the bass should drop in and out of the texture. Trout’s sensitive playing grounded the ensemble on a clear 16’ line which widened the soundscape of the piece from a chamber work to that of the symphonic.
Bach’s Gottes Zeit ist der allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 displayed the performer’s ensemble awareness even in the cantatas wickedly difficult writing. The chorus dispatched Gottes Zeit and Glorie, Lob, Her und Herrlichkeit with the sensitivity of an Italian madrigal. I have always been slightly unsettled by Bach’s use of two unison recorders, but Heloise Degrugillier and Roy Sansom (recorders) convinced me of the combination’s potential to create a dynamic and beautiful sound. Their dueling presence in the first set of arias matched the singers’ expression in color and shaping. This set showcased some of the most beautiful moments in the work, such as tenor Jason McStoots’s craning high B flat in Ach Herr, lehre unc bedenken or Watson’s deliciously languishing cadenza at the end of Ja, komm, Herr Jesu. The second half contained many lovely moments as well, particularly Jeppesen’s (viola da gamba) and Moore’s aria In deine Hände which demands the tightest interplay of voice and string.
Purcell’s “The Seasons,” a set of songs extracted from his semi-opera The Fairy-Queen, is (in the best sense of the word) popcorn music. The delightful collection showcased each of the group’s vocalists as they mused about the changing states of nature throughout the year. Kristen Watson’s light soprano imbued Spring with grace and jollity. Alto Deborah Rentz Moore and McStoots delivered Summer and Autumn respectively with a solemn but festive tone that greatly enlivened Purcell’s severity. In contrast, baritone David McFerrin powerful voiced Winter with the gravitas of a requiem as audience members shuffled to brace themselves against his unflinching engagement. A crowning chorus utilizing all performers closed the set.
The program notes offered no raison d’être for including a modern composer on a program explicitly celebrating Baroque music, but it couldn’t have been happenstance that it followed one of JS Bach’s magnum opera which, under the nickname ‘the first piano concerto,’ is renowned for its generic and technical novelty. Thus Hector Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 (originally for soprano and orchestra of cellos), came to us in a string quintet accompaniment appropriate to the forces at hand. The arranger deserves praise for retaining the expansive spirit of Villa-Lobo’s original orchestration while forming the music into idiomatic violin and vola lines. For this number, soprano Kristen Watson used a period-accurate rapid vibrato and somewhat thinner tone, imitating the aesthetic of early 20th-century masters captured on 78 rpm records. The technique clearly distinguished her voice in the vocalise passages that bookend the first movement, Cantilena, while drawing us into the song’s unique soundscape. When Laura Jeppesen (viola) or Loretta O’Sullivan (cello) doubled the wordless melody with their warm gut-strung instruments, the comingling of instrument and voice sounded like birds undisturbed in a forest singing back and forth to each other. Watson’s humming in the recapitulation of the vocalise heightened the tension as the audience held onto every note until the movements sublime, shimmering conclusion. The second movement, Dança, displayed Watson’s facility for diction in the rapid-fire patter song. Throughout the set, she engaged the audience with subtle gestures illustrating the text, from soft caresses of moonlight to the animated motions of a melodious uirapuru bird.
In subtle moments of dialogue between the singer and strings, Villa-Lobos crafted melodies with careful counterpoint that felt jagged and mismatched yet fit together like two strands of Velcro. He breathed new life into the vocalise which had fallen from popularity after Rachmaninoff’s masterpiece-of-the-same-name from some 25 years earlier. The work, dedicated to JS Bach (‘Bachianas Brasileiras’ meaning something like ‘Bach-inspired Brazilian music’), taps into Debussy’s understanding of Bach’s music as ‘primitive’ in a sense that it grows and moves organically, seemingly unencumbered by the rules of music or part-writing. Aston Manga captured much of this spirit in their risk-taking attitude. Unfortunately, most (if not all) of this seemed to fly over the head of the philistine who sat behind me who queried “What the hell was that all about?” as the rest of the hall drowned out her concerns with rowdy applause.
Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe’s enrapturing Le Raporté utilized only two players (gambists Sarah Cunningham and Laura Jeppesen), yet seemed to have the widest scope of any number we heard. Jeppesen prepared us with an admonition that the work was the product of “intensely personal writing.” She continued (paraphrasing here, my shorthand isn’t fast enough), “There are spots where some performers feel the need to ‘correct’ Sainte-Colombe’s writing. Please judge for yourself what you think of our solution.” Considering that the two performers read from families of the manuscript, I suspect they decided to preserve the composer’s vision. And what a vision it was! Instead of another French rondeau or dance, Le Raporté sounded like a stream of consciousness rant on Facebook post. The music progressed in stages from a slow, atmospheric prelude (with the performers’ emotive, meter-less ornaments concealing any feeling of tempo) through an agitated fugal development to a perplexing series of evolving ground basses. Cunningham and Jeppesen fully integrated this music, dissolving any distinction between accompanist and accompanee. Neither seemed to give cues to the other, yet they meshed perfectly. At times, the parts seemed so different, I wondered if one of the players had skipped a line, but the resolution of that tension became the most magical element of the composition. The morphing among changing textures, intensifying chordal sections and relaxing recitative-like episodes defined the structure. This number probably received the largest applause of the evening, with cries of ‘wow’ and ‘beautiful.’