Early Music fans are in the know: they seek out acoustic music performed on period instruments (sometimes accompanied by singers performing the lilting songs of Dowland or Purcell or the passionate operas of Monteverdi and Handel), and they know that such music stirs the ear and soul like no other music can. For audiophiles too, (who crave the illusion of hearing the naturally projected sounds of acoustic instruments and voices in their true textures, dynamic shadings and spatial clues on their favorite recordings), there is nothing to compare to an Early Music performance recorded superbly. Luckily, here in Boston we have the treasure that is the Boston Early Music Festival (“BEMF”) (www.bemf.org) and its calendar of associated Early Music concerts throughout the year.
In its 2015 edition, the BEMF brought to Boston some amazing performances, including the full staging of three Monteverdi operas. I attended the BEMF performance of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Boston University Theatre and sitting in the first row, (nearly shoulder to shoulder with the dynamic BEMF Chamber Ensemble with its eclectic collection of Baroque period instruments that included the Baroque harp, the chitarrone, the lirone and the viola de gamba), a new world of sounds and instrumental colors unfolded before my ears in crisp, vivid fashion. Here was Paul O’ Dette’s chitarrone clipping along with fantastic plucking lightness while Erin Headley’s viola da gamba bowed soulful next to the scamper of Michael Sponseller’s harpsichord notes, (sounding like little drops of rain as they dashed away). Robert Nairn’s double bass churned away under the sway of violin and viola bowing with Stephen Stubbs’ Baroque guitar strums soft, airy and punctual. It was a feast for the ears to hear all of this sparkling dynamic action, all vivid and up close.
Swirling around all of this bright musical action was the superb cast telling the story of Poppea in all of its intrigue, tragedy and mystery. Jose Lemos played the role of Nutrice, (a female nurse) with rakish comic poise in his upper registers (all fluttering high and dextourous) while Christian Immler’s Seneca and Amanda Forsythe’s Poppea soared in their vocals with great power and a regal elegance. David Hansen was equally dignified as Nerone, with a voice pliable and expressive, carrying out his march towards his fate with charged intensity and a lyrical suppleness, (his voice always accompanied by a soft harpsichord run or a whispering line from a violin). The synergy between orchestra and singers was brilliant and the entire production was an amazing journey from start to finish: ear-opening in every way.
To catch a wonderful slice of what one can be experienced in these special BEMF opera productions, (there are more to come! See www.bemf.org for upcoming productions) I urge a listen to the superb new recording of a BEMF production of another Baroque opera, that from composer Agostino Steffani’s (1653-1728) entitled Niobe Regina Di Tebe (“Niobe”) and appearing on a Erato Label (3 CD) set. (www.warnerclassics.com] BEMF staged the American premier of Niobe in 2011 in Boston and this studio recording was done in Bremen, Germany in 2013 and involved many of the same BEMF orchestra members and vocalists who appeared in Poppea staged in Boston.
This Niobe recording is a treasure. If your audio system is capable, every soft acoustic swipe of harpsichord, every pungent distant drum and light tambourine and every powerful climb of soprano vocals (from Amanda Forsyth and Karina Gauvin) jump to life in all of their natural timbre and dynamic shadings – all heard within the acoustic space that they naturally occupy. [With the addition of a new amplifier from Constellation Audio, www.constellationaudio.com, partnered with our newly upgraded First Sound Paramount MKIII-S preamplifier from First Sound Audio, www.firstsoundaudio.com, (reviews forthcoming), the vivid realism of this stellar recording was all the more thrilling]. The music of Steffani reaches across the ages to grab our ears and minds and does not let go. The unspoken lithe chemistry between instrumentalists and vocalists is captured beautifully on this disc, bringing us the glory of Early Music instrumental and vocal invention in all of its immediacy and sparkling presence.
This same magic can be heard in another outstanding Early Music recording that involves the ancient sound of an instrument called a “Sackbutt”. The Sackbutt (its name may be derived from the Spanish “sacar” – to push or pull a tube or pipe) is the ancestor to the modern trombone and was played with gusto during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. The sounds of this ardent metallic creature are extraordinary. Its most elegant and funky plunges and soars are captured on a superb recording by the eminent trombonist Jorgen van Rijen, accompanied by his sympathetic partners in the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam, on Sackbutt [Channel Classics Multi channel SACD and CD; www.channelclassics.com].
Channel Classics is always a reliable audiophile label and the glory of instrumental colors and textures that abound in the Early Music compositions found on this recording are beautifully ensnared on this effort. Van Rijen’s Sackbutt is featured in a number of small ensemble and orchestral works here, and in each context, van Rijen pounces on the Sackbutt’s delivery of emotional heft, airy delivery and a metallic sliding sound all its own. Of particular joy are the pieces by Antonio Bertali (1605-1669) in which the Sackbutt joins in small ensembles of violin and continuo to slither and punctuate in the most funky and fresh ways. The music romps and soars propelled by the Sackbutt’s unusual tones and titanic grooves, with the orchestra light and buoyant by its side.
Finally, no Baroque feast would be complete without enjoying the bounty of gifts from the ingenuous world of Johann Sebastian Bach. There is a new audiophile recording of Bach’s Six Brandenburg Concertos (which he completed in March, 1721) that raises to the rafters this genius’ work (for finding every nuance and magical twist in contrapuntal joy). This new recording is found on the audiophile label, Linn Records (www.linnrecords.com) and it delivers a sparkling performance of these works by the eminent Dunedin Consort recorded at Perth Concert Hall in the U.K. [Multi channel SACD and CD].
This two- disc set brings all of the opulent textures of this radiant music front and center, with an intimacy and presence that is infectious. Form the flowing recorder way back on stage left (on the opening of Bach’s Concerto No. 4) to the sinuous string ebb and flow in Bach’s lilting Concerto No. 6, every small musical gesture is ensnared with a great sense of flow and momentum on this recording. Particularly of note is the SACD layer of this disc which provides even more air and palpable recording space. On its SACD layer, the air surrounding the bright and fastidious sounds of the horns arching high (from the back of the stage) on the opening to Bach’s Concerto No. 1 are resolute and clear, illustrating how Bach ingeniously interwove these sounds with the cascading strings and woodwinds into a contrapuntal frolic that one never wants to end for the joy of exploring every little nuance of it. Throughout this ravishing recording, the Dunedin Consort delve into this feast with gusto. This is quintessential Early Music: fresh and funky in all of its glorious instrumental tones, textures, colors and vibrant immediacy.
HOT FUTURE CONCERT TIPS: Continue to feast on Early Music this summer at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s leafy summer home in Tanglewood as a number of great Early Music performances are on tap. (See www.bso.org for the full summer schedule). One highlight of the BEMF 2015 in Boston was the performance of Hesperion XXI led by Jordi Savall at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall that I reviewed as being one of the most thrilling acoustic music adventures in recent memory.
This amazing group of musicians returns to Tanglewood this summer on 7/7/16. To get the opportunity to hear this sparkling acoustic music performed within the confines of one of the world’s great summer concert halls – Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood – will be a treat.
Also appearing at Ozawa Hall this summer is the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (8/25) performing Scarlatti’s La Gloria di Primavera and pianist Jeremy Denk (8/24) in a recital he has entitled “Medieval To Modern” in which he will play everything from Bach to Couperin to Stravinsky on his masterful keyboard (within Ozawa’s quicksilver acoustic). Get thee to Tanglewood!