Aston Magna suggested a minor bobble here and there, but its latest performance was music making at its finest: vigorous, thoughtful, appropriate in tempos, stylistic in dynamics, featuring suitably-integrated embellishments and well-directed ensemble work.
Aston Magna. Daniel Stepner, Artistic Director. AtSlosberg Auditorium, Brandeis University, June 8. The group will be performing at Brandeis University, Bard College, and Bard College at Simon’s Rock throughout June and July. Check the website for details.
By Anthony J. Palmer.
Perfect in spirit and substantial in early music performance practice, Aston Magna celebrated both ends of the pillars of Baroque music in its latest outing, beginning its 40th anniversary concert with Claudio Monteverdi, traversing through Henry Purcell and George Frederic Handel, and arriving at the other monolith, J. S. Bach. The two pillars of the Baroque may well be considered the two towers of the musical world, particularly in Boston. Devotees of both masters of vocal and instrumental music may well pose the question, “Why would anyone want to listen to anything else?” When Aston Magna performs, the question becomes, “Why would anyone want to listen to any other group?”
The evening began with Monteverdi’s “Chiome d’oro,” from madrigal book 7 (1619), appropriately selected to showcase the seconda prattica in music composition, now a rule. Rules were paramount in this period of Western music, normally used as guides to follow but also as a set of dicta to break or bend for those whose talent demanded a challenge. The master musicians revealed a number of startling—for the times—techniques that are unfailingly effective, e.g., the trillo for the voice and tremolo for the strings, correctly identified with Monteverdi.
Kristen Watson and Roberta Anderson were in excellent voice, expressing this era of music with unerring style, and they were compatible with their compatriots on violins, Daniel Stepner and Linda Quan. The sextet of soloists and the instrumental ensemble performed another work of renown, “Hor che’l e la terra,” this from book eight of the madrigals. They didn’t mar a wonderful rendition, but the opening of part one was, to my ears, soft but insecure, and David Ripley had troubles transcending the orchestra’s dynamic level in his low range.
Remaining in book eight, the group next presented “Lamento della ninfa,” beginning with the three men, Frank Kelly, Jonas Budris, and Ripley, whose fully resonant voices were much more solid in approach. Monteverdi’s interplay of the voices was exhibited with great detail. And again, Anderson showed her Monteverdi mettle in handling the vocal requirements. A beautiful voice is the bare minimum for singing Baroque music, but she also revealed the additional required attributes in abundance.
Concluding the Monteverdi set was, after three secular works, anomalously the “Laetatus sum (Psalm 122),” a sacred work but included here no doubt to take advantage of the voices and instruments gathered this evening. The latest of the first set of the program, published in 1650, this work demonstrated another Baroque feature, the ostinato, a continually played bass theme upon which the other parts were composed. In this case a four-note figure repeated throughout the work gave it unity and cause for invention. Psalm 122, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’,” was a popular psalm, having been set by many composers such as Vivaldi and Scarlatti and lately Sir Hubert Parry.
The piece served as a tour de force for vocalists and instrumental ensemble. Aston Magna showed why they are preeminent on the early music scene. The vocal melismas were sung with a calm but zestful articulation, matching the similarly written instrumental parts. The instrumental ensemble throughout the Monteverdi set was excellently performed, whether solo or as equal partners in accompanying the vocalists. The six-voiced piece was written with two sopranos, two tenors, and two basses, requiring one of the altos to take the upper tenor part, effective nevertheless to shape the balance. Quite often, the “Gloria Patria,” the usual psalm coda is in triple meter because of the obvious symbolism of the Trinity. In this case, Monteverdi deviated from that pattern by preceding the “Gloria Patri” with the last two lines of the psalm, “Propter fraters . . . “ (For my brethren . . . ) in triple meter, while the “Gloria Patri” resumed in duple meter.
Peter Sykes was at his best on organ or harpsichord, as were his basso continuo mates, Loretta O’Sullivan on baroque cello, Anne Trout on violone, and Catherine Liddell on theorbo. One additional feature that gave the sound of the concert a mellowness, particularly the voices, was the lower tuning, typical for early music performance (probably around 415 cps). Lower tuning has a peculiar effect on the voice because of where the vocal mechanism usually has adjustments. Contemporary tuning (440+ cps), although more brilliant, also makes it more difficult to achieve a sense of natural passage on the f#’s to the upper range.
Scenes from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas followed, featuring some outstanding performances in acting and vocality: Lynn Torgove was a wonderful sorceress and was nimbly joined by two other witches, Watson and Anderson; the trio was delightfully bewitching and captivating. One highlight of the excerpts was Dido’s famous “lament.” Although sometimes lacking in consistently vibrant tone, Deborah Rentz-Moore has a mature, full, and resonant sound. Her rendition of the “lament” was heartfelt and engrossing. The Purcell surpassed the Monteverdi in energy by a couple of degrees.
Handel certainly shared the quintessence of the Baroque with Bach and was given his due with presence of the first oratorio he composed. Handel was in Italy in 1707 when he was attracted to a libretto by the accomplished poet Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, a setting that would be revised twice more over the course of several decades, the final version in English in 1757. The original version was performed on this program with English recitatives and Italian arias from the original.
Although their names are philosophical abstractions —Truth, Beauty, Time, and Pleasure —the characters were made concrete through their animated personifications. Watson was at her best in the role of Beauty and was given the closing recitative and aria, which reminded the audience of the rich soprano and vocal acuity she had displayed throughout the evening. Frank Kelly was at his best in the role of Time. The Handel work is, in essence, a dramatic work. Occasionally, one vocal problem appeared that is found frequently in singers: when trying to be inordinately dramatic, the voice becomes slightly rough, however, to be fair, this was of minor significance. Peter Sykes was again featured on organ with his two oboes as companions on an energetic Sonata nicely placed in the oratorio’s schema. The Handel work was performed with verve and beauty, each member of the group contributing sensitive musicianship and nuanced interpretation.
J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number 1 closed the program felicitously as a representation of the high points of Baroque composition. This was the first concerto of six that Bach composed for Christian Ludwig, margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, although most were certainly composed earlier. The concerto calls for two natural horns, three Baroque oboes, Baroque bassoon, and the usual strings and basso continuo. Aston Magna, because of the music’s structure, performed the work antiphonally, strings on stage left and the winds on stage right, each flanking the basso continuo instruments.
The performance, led by Stepner, was done with vigor and enthusiasm. The Adagio movement featured the oboes, the first alternating with the piccolo violin when displaying the appealing theme. The horn players, absent the Adagio, rejoined for the Allegro and Minuet, with their energetic precise playing. CDs can be produced with great digital accuracy: live performance is not usually so mechanical and polished. Thus Aston Magna suggested a minor bobble here and there, but this concerto was music making at its finest: vigorous, thoughtful, appropriate in tempos, and stylistic in dynamics, featuring suitably-integrated embellishments and well-directed ensemble work. A rare evening of music exceptionally performed.