Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Boston Early Music Festival 2011 – I: Of Medieval Ovid and Schubert on the Fortepiano

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Waiting for Michael Tsalka in the Auditorium of the First Church Boston. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.
Waiting for Michael Tsalka in the Auditorium of the First Church Boston. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

1. Ensemble Lucidarium directed by Avery Gosfield & Francis Biggi: Ninfale—Ovid, poetry, and music in Italy at the end of the Middle Ages,

2. Fringe: Concert-symposium on Schubert and the piano: Stephen Porter, piano

3. Organ Mini-Festival, William Porter plays Bach’s Leipzig Chorales

4. Jordi Savall, The Celtic Viol

5. BEMF Orchestra, Robert Mealy, leader, “The Orchestra at Play.”

6. Paul O’Dette plays Marco dall’Aquila

7. Fortepiano section of the Keyboard Mini-Festival: Christoph Hammer and Kristian Bezuidenhout

8. Clavichord section: Michael Tsalka

9. Fringe: Christoph Hammer Trio at the Church of the Covenant in 18th and 19th century music

10. Trio Settecento: The Alchemical Violin

11. Tallis Scholars: Choral Music of Victoria

12. Kristian Bezuidenhout and soloists from Freiburg Chamber Orchestra: Mozart Fantasie and Piano Quartets

13. Tragicomedia: Steffani, Handel, etc.

14. Mezzaluna and Paul O’Dette: Ottaviano Petrucci: music for Recorder ensemble and lute

A contemporary art dealer I know once exclaimed, as I was taking him around an old master drawings show I had organized, “this stuff has a lot of history. There’s a lot of history here…” as if history were a tangible quality that was somehow imparted to an object, whether by the artist, or by the physical touch of time, or by the many people who had successively owned it, or perhaps by something else…history! Every two years in June, history pours into the already deeply historical city of Boston in the form of historically-informed instrumentalists and singers, musicologists, historical instruments, historical instrument builders, historical editions, and manuscripts. Only a few of the historical folk—locals, most likely—knew that history was being made all around them, while some were immersed in the Roman de Fauvel and others were enraptured by Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, as I was. As I sat down for the performance, I noticed a few more empty seat than I might have expected, and during the first intermission, I ventured out on Tremont Street for a few minutes. The Niobe audience crowded along the pavement, as if it were a riverbank, some absorbed in lively conversation about what they had just seen and heard, others, mostly neatly suited males, who were  perhaps there because of their position in the business or philanthropic worlds, or accompanying their wives, gazed longingly across the street at the Irish bars, where the flat screens blazed and roars of excitement escaped into the street. Some almost began to make a move, but they were stopped, either by the public gaze or a wifely hand, and contented themselves with a furtive look at their smartphones. “I think we’re winning,” one distinguished gentleman said under his breath. Not a soul was ready to indulge in the traditional—unquotable—hockey cheer. While Queen Niobe’s mental condition deteriorated so shockingly on stage, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup from the Vancouver Canucks, the first time they have possessed it since 1971-72.

The excitement remained palpable in the streets, leading up to a victory parade on Saturday, June 18 and further ceremonies on Sunday. Meanwhile early musicians, early music scholars, and early music enthusiasts spent happy days weaving paths between the exhibition in the Radisson Boston and the churches and other venues of the Back Bay for the fringe concerts and mini-festivals, and eventually over to Jordan Hall or the Cutler Majestic for the main events and the opera. On Saturday, the day of  the victory parade, the historicists, either alone or in small groups, had to wend their way through waves of enthusiasts of a different ilk. Little untoward occurred between the historicists and the history-makers. I have heard that the festival-goers were on their best behavior, with few, if any arrests and a negligible presence in Boston emergency rooms. If they displayed less of their usual rowdiness, it was perhaps due to length of the opera, which left no time for a pint between the final curtain and the late-night concerts.

As you will hear in my interview with Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette, the traditional musical nightcaps placed a limit on the operatic production, which can’t last longer than four hours and still accommodate this time-honored BEMF tradition. Uncut, Niobe would not release its audiences until past midnight, if it began at 7 pm, that is, with barely enough time to cross town from the 5 pm concert in Jordan Hall. Making cuts in an opera of this quality and rarity is most unfortunate, since, as for Wagner almost two centuries later, each line in the libretto conveys an important detail of plot or character and each bar a crucial link in the harmonic structure. The cuts presented the organizers with a painful decision, but to a large degree they followed the composer’s own cuts, which he made when he learned that the first act was going to be too long. As at the Munich premiere in 1688, Boston audiences were given a complete libretto with the cuts clearly indicated, so that they could supplement what they saw and heard from the stage. This is important for Niobe, since its plot is rather convoluted—and not in a detrimental way—and one can only really follow it as a stage spectacle. A synopsis or a read of the libretto can’t successfully unwind it. But enough of the opera for now. This important and brilliantly successful production deserves separate discussion.

For me the festival began with Ninfale, Ovid, Poetry, and Music at the End of the Middle Ages.  This was a rich collection of Ovidian themes in Italian poetry and song in the late Middle Ages, performed with precision and spirit by the Ensemble Lucidarium, an international, although primarily Italian group, playing bowed and plucked strings, winds, percussion, and, of course, including song everywhere. For variety instrumental works were interspersed with the songs. The most important instrument of all was the lira da braccio, which was an important feature in an intriguing and iconographically important painting, shown at the Clark Art Institute this spring, which I have attributed to Lorenzo di Credi. In this a fair-featured young man gazes out at the viewer from the far side of a parapet, the strings of his lira da braccio broken, most likely a sign of his premature death, or perhaps rejection in love. The lira da braccio was first and foremost a poet’s instrument. In its heyday poets and improvisors favored it, because, while playing it resting on their shoulder, they could accompany themselves in poetry, delivered in a mixed kind of singing-recitation. This program, featuring songs on texts by Landini, Petrarch, and Politian, brought us deep into that tradition, and I can only hope that a few people who found themselves fascinated by the portrait were able to hear this concert, which brought the instrument and the culture surrounding it to life. It has a rather mournful, elegiac sound sound, lending itself to songs of yearning and unfulfilled love.

At the center of the program stood the tradition of ottava rima, a strophic vernacular form in which early translations of Ovid appeared. From the title of the concert, “Ninfale,” I was rather expecting something to do with Boccaccio’s Ninfale fiesolano, but that was not what it was about. Reading the all too brief notes on the concert, I was surprised to find a discussion of the Ovidian tradition which approached it from the popular, vernacular sources rather than the Latin transmission, which was strong throughout the Middle Ages. Rather than repress or censor Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Christians chose to interpret the poem in Neoplatonic or Christian allegories in the manner of Ovide moralisé, as the notes explain. However, the name of Riccardo Colotti, the modern author of one of the songs, appears prominently in the notes and tantalizes us non-Italians as something of a mystery. Colotti (1900-90) was one of the most prominent peasant-poets who flourished in the postwar years in his native Tarquinia (La Tuscia). Colotti and the other farmer-poets emerge from a centuries-old oral tradition, as well as a deep reverence and knowledge of the classics: not only Homer, Virgil, and Ovid, but Ariosto and Cartari as well. These poets gathered in bars for exchanges of ideas and competitions in the ancient manner, rather like the coffee shops of Yugoslavia, where Milman Parry’s oral bards assembled, which were exclusively male in their clientele. In fact the story has it that Colotti had to hide his classical texts from his disapproving wife in the barn—true or false a “myth” justifying the exclusively male milieu of the tradition. In any case the program included a spirited poem of Colotti’s, Ottave cupe, set to a traditional Tuscan tune, complete with an Alexandrian sense of the exclusivity of mythological learning. Those of you who have read the Review’s articles on Bomarzo know of my connection to La Tuscia and can imagine that I am hot on the tracks of this intriguing subject, either for publication here or in some obscure journal of local history.

Stephen Porter, Pianist
Stephen Porter, Pianist

Thursday morning a concert-symposium on Schubert and the piano culminated in an extraordinary recital by Stephen Porter, playing Rodney Regier’s “Grafendorfer” fortepiano, which the maker modelled on historical instruments from around 1830 by Conrad Graf and Ignaz Bösendorfer. This instrument is in fact an old friend. It travelled to the Berkshires twice in 2006, played by Aaron Berkowitz in a song recital by Richard Giarusso and by Emanuel Ax at Tanglewood, in a program of Beethoven cello works with Yo Yo Ma. That morning, Stephen Porter played, among other works, a broad, probing reading of Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 2 in A Flat, D. 280:2, followed by the great B Flat Sonata, in a many-sided interpretation which explored both the song-like aspects of the work, as well as its harmonic and structural elements, aided, not least, by Porter’s decision to include the repeat of the first movement exposition, with its disorienting chordal “interruption.” He began the first movement with a steady, forward-moving, and songful treatment of the main subject, establishing the sonata’s relation to the Lieder which had been performed earlier that morning. (Mr. Porter reaffirmed this at the end of his program with his transcription of the song, Nacht und Traüme.) In his hands the gorgeous melody unfolded over steady broken chords which recalled a guitar accompaniment, handsomely supported by the characterful midrange of Regier’s instrument. Against this, he set Schubert’s long pauses and meditative progressions. The trill in the bass, of course, had none of the murky rumbling of a modern instrument, rather the mellow, resonant sound Schubert envisioned. Once the basic pace of the movement and the shape of the sonata was established, Porter took advantage of the pauses to slow the tempo to a point at which the exploratory character of the composition could be felt. The slow movement, broad, grave, and not without its despairing moments was especially moving. In the last movement, although Schubert sets up a pattern of rhythmical interruption with octaves in the very first bars, Mr. Porter hewed to Schubert’s more song-like mode at the beginning, allowing counter-rhythms and nervous pauses to develop later. His sense of timing in the coda was perfect, bringing the monumental sonata to to a close appropriate to its scale, nobility, and emotional depth. Stephen Porter had prepared this performance with the Regier fortepiano in mind, and he was clearly enjoying this magnificent instrument and making the most of its many virtues. Across its range a robust fortepiano of this sort will have a much greater gamut of color and nuance than a modern instrument, and Schubert clearly conceived this work for an instrument which has a mellow, open bass, a midrange distinct from the upper and lower registers, and a full, non-metallic top, like this one. The event was intended to persuade, but its primary gift was this compelling and moving performance.

As part of the Organ Mini-Festival, William Porter played the the so-called Leipzig Chorales of J. S. Bach. Like many of the festival regulars, I am fascinated and moved by Porter’s basically straightforward accounts of the keyboard music of Bach and his contemporaries. Beyond that, he clearly loves the Fowkes organ at the First Lutheran Church, and he makes the most of its colorful reed and brass stops. Now finally complete, with the final installation of the vox humana, Schalmei, and cornet registers, it gave him a welcome opportunity to add more color to his performance. While Porter relished the reedy tones the instrument provided, his reading was rooted in the basics, and we left with a feeling of intimate contact with these supreme works.

At New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, Jordi Savall joined Paul O’Dette and percussionist Shane Shanahan for The Celtic Viol, a recital of music from Irish, Scotish, and English traditions. As usual, Savall presented a program carefully curated for quality, mood, and theme, and as always his playing, not to mention O’Dette’s and Shanahan’s, was of the highest virtuosity and expressiveness. This listener was thoroughly transfixed by the elegance of Savall’s playing and the beauty of the sound of his viols in Jordan Hall. To hear this sort of music-making is one of the great privileges for any kind of music-lover, but its pristine refinement—which you will never hear at The Plough and Stars—is a bit like hearing Jascha Heifetz play “Deep River” or “The Old Folks at Home.”

The main concert Thursday evening was a program of baroque favorites, brilliantly played by the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra, including sinfonie from Bach cantatas, a concerto grosso from Handel’s Opus 3, another one from Corelli’s Opus 4, Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A Major, and finally his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major. Led by Robert Mealy, the orchestra played with the same inner unanimity they bring to the BEMF opera performances. Their attacks had all the solidity one could desire, and the performances sang, energized with an infectious rhythmic bounce which, not imposed by a conductor, emanated from the players themselves. The double-manual German harpsichord by D. Jacques Way, which is a fixture in Jordan Hall, was no match for the orchestra, however, no matter how drastically they scaled back their sound, and we could barely hear Kristian Bezuidenhout’s brilliant playing of the Bach concerto. Some of the tempi, especially in the Bach orchestral suite, were very fast, bringing its extroverted moments to the fore and making it something of a tour de force. The title of the concert was, after all, “The Orchestra at Play.”

The evening closed with Paul O’Dette in a program of works by Marco dall’Aquila, a composer of astonishing invention and sensitivity, whose daring progressions and outstanding quality have made him a great favorite with lutenists in recent years. Mr. O’Dette has been occupied with an edition of the composer’s works, complicated by the earthquake which destroyed L’Aquila and the death of his collaborator, Maurizio Pratola, and he is without question the world authority on this composer. What we heard was nothing like the statement of a scholarly authority but an intimate, heartfelt expression of feelings it seems no man but Marco could express. From the basic modern repertory one might compare Schubert, Schumann, Webern, or Kurtág, but none of these can match the informal directness of Marco Dall’Aquila’s expression. This sent us off to bed with some of the deepest, but most personal and informal ruminations in music, not to mention the memory of the amazing sound of these quiet instruments in the Jordan Hall acoustic.

On Friday morning the fortepiano section of the Keyboard Mini-Festival proved rich in Mozartian revelations. Christoph Hammer gave a lecture-recital called “Ciarlattani—Mozart in Competition,” in which he played the works by Mozart and Clementi related to the famous 1781 competition, which the Emperor Joseph held for the entertainment of the Grand Duke Paul of Russia, who was visiting Vienna. Quite a lot has been published about this event, and there was little if anything new in Dr. Hammer’s presentation, but the charm of his delivery and his superb pianism were more than enough to justify the session. I had not had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Hammer play before and was thoroughly delighted with his elegant pianism on the Regier fortepiano modelled on Walter instruments from 1785-1795. His performances would have sounded equally compelling on a top-quality modern instrument, a Hamburg Steinway or a Bösendorfer, and he favored longer phrases than is usual among historically-informed musicians. He struck me above all as a more than worthy heir of Walter Gieseking, although his musicianship has a distinct Viennese quality, which the French-born Gieseking never cultivated. We don’t know what the future Tsar thought of Clementi and Mozart, but the Emperor Joseph preferred Mozart for his feeling and taste. Hammer took pains to give Clementi his due, but Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor shows a dimension of invention and feeling which of course leaves Clementi in the dust.

Kristian Bezuidenhout followed with a presentation on dynamics and articulation in Mozart, which gave us a chance to hear a different style of playing at its very best on the same instrument. Mr. Bezuidenhout compared Mozart’s two basic methods of musical annotation: pieces he wrote for other players were published with meticulous, detailed indications of dynamics and phrasing, while pieces based on his own improvisations or which he wrote for himself to play have hardly any of these annotations at all. Hence we must rely on how he wanted other musicians to play his music to get an idea of how he himself would have played it. There are of course other sources—like the comments of people who heard Mozart play or Mozart’s own comments in his letters. Bezuidenhout also discussed Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s arrangements of Mozart piano concertos, written many years after Moart’s death, but presumably derived from what Hummel learned as Mozart’s student. In this way, he. was able to give us a detailed account of Mozart’s intentions, phrase by phrase, which he then proceeded to demonstrate in snippets and a couple of complete works played in their entirety. His playing was all the more exciting for its experimental quality. Every bar was alive with expression and feeling, as if everything were improvised. As far as improvisation is concerned, Bezuidenhout varies each return of a theme with a fluency that surpasses almost anyone else. In this, he is following Mozart’s example, which encourages us to be brave and to trust our own taste and imagination—that is, if we have the necessary gift. One became especially aware of the extraordinary brilliance of Mozart’s invention, even to the point of a certain almost diabolical quirkiness—which could well exemplify what his enemies found expecially irksome in him, apart from simple professional jealousy. There is no dearth of Mozartian talent these days, but few if any can approach the brilliance of Kristian Bezuidenhout’s insights, which are as impressive for the hard research on which they are based, as well as his own intuition and personal charm. The fruits of his Mozart researches can now be heard in a series of recordings for Harmonia Mundi, which are highly recommended.

I should add that these events took place in the auditorium of the First Church Boston, an elegant design by Paul Rudolph, which opened in 1972. Not only did its handsome contours and textures conjure up the best of what may be remembered as a bleak period, its acoustics, although a little reverberant for the intelligibility of the spoken word, were quite effective for the fortepiano and even the clavichord, for which I of course got close.

The quality did not flag, as the clavichord took over. Michael Tsalka’s performances were both virtuosic and interpretively revealing. The Allan Winkler clavichord sounded rich and varied in color, entirely equal to the great range of nuance and hue Tsalka elicited from it in his expressive readings of music ranging from Cabezón in the early to middle sixteenth century to late Mozart. It was fascinating, in fact, to hear Mozart’s rich, but seldom played variations on Paisiello’s “Salve Tu, Domine,” K. 398, played earlier by Christoph Hammer, once again on the clavichord, an instrument Mozart himself used for practice and composition while travelling. Cabezón’s Variations and Froberger’s Fantasia II led into Bach’s “other” set of variations, the Aria Variata BWV 989, like the Mozart, seldom heard. The clavichord seems the perfect instrument for C. P. E. Bach’s mercurial ruminations, and I never imagined how splendid Mozart could sound. Tsalka showed almost incredible virtuosity throughout, but especially in the Mozart. K. 398 and the even more demanding Variations on “Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding,” K. 613., which followed and concluded the concert.

It was not an easy choice, but I decided to leave before the second clavichord session, with Miklós Spányi, and to follow Christoph Hammer over to the Church of the Covenant, another handsome church I had never visited, in spite of over fifteen years’ residence in Cambridge and Boston. The Tiffany windows and decorations are worth a far longer trip than I ever would have had to make to see them. The acoustics, whoever, are far too reverberant for classical chamber music, although nicely balanced across the octaves. Hammer was joined by Cynthia Roberts, who played the Mozart Violin Sonata in E Minor. K. 304, and by Allen Whear, who played Beethoven’s Variations on a Theme by Handel. They all joined together in Hummel. I really have the greatest admiration for Dr. Hammer’s playing and will keep an alert eye out for him in the future. Fortunately he has been prolific in the recording studio, above all with the Hofkapelle München, which he founded.

In the five o’clock concert, entitled “The Alchemical Violin,” the brilliant Rachel Barton Pine joined two  equally remarkable Chicago musicians with whom she plays regularly as the Trio Settecento, and BEMF’s Robert Mealy for a program of works which explicitly relate to transformation, in some cases with possible occult, or specifically alchemical associations. Muffat composed the Sonata in D Major which opened the program in Prague in 1677, when Rudolf II’s esoteric culture had not yet been forgotten. There was also a strange and fiery Sonata in D Minor by the eccentric and ceaselessly wandering Francesco Maria Veracini, who became absorbed in his musical work and in alchemy to the point where he no longer slept and, while residing in Dresden in 1722, went mad, throwing himself out of a window and injuring himself seriously. In C. P. E. Bach’s C Minor Sonata, Dialogue of Sanguineus et Melancholicus, Ms. Pine, as the sanguine personality, engaged in a dialogue with Robert Mealy, who played the opposing humor. The two had as much fun acting out the conflict, as in playing the music. A brilliant sonata, by Pisendel, leader of the Dresden court orchestra and one of the great German violinists of his time, concluded the program. Rachel Barton Pine’s Olympian technique, universal musical curiosity, and humane musicianship are well known, and John Mark Rozendaal matched her with spirit and wit. Through all this David Schrader remained a lively, but discreet partner. His moment arrived in Bach’s great Chromatic Fantasy, which he played with jaw-dropping virtuosity and assurance, not to mention a complete and profound understanding of the music. Everyone was transfixed by the completeness of his reading. For his part, he seemed a bit surprised by the long standing ovation he received. All is well with music in Chicago.

This was followed at eight o’clock by another star turn, the Tallis Scholars in a diverse program of liturgical music by Victoria, followed by two works by the lesser-known Sebastián de Vivanco. The Tallis Scholars have already celebrated the quatercentenary of Victoria’s death in Boston with a different, eclectic program, from which only Vivanco’s Magnificat Octavi Toni was repeated here. Some might argue that this was the musical high point of the festival. No music is more deeply affecting than Victoria’s Lamentations, or his Salve Regina, or, for that matter, O Magnum Mysterium and its related Mass; and the Scholars sang all with consummate technique and an understanding of its essence which they have developed over years of work. Their sopranos and altos are mature women, but vibrato and melodic shaping were kept within a balance that made the most of their rich voices, but maintained the clarity of Victoria’s textures. And not only could one appreciate the music as a connoisseur, one could participate in its liturgical meaning, even though it was performed out of context.

Colin Balzer as Tiberino, with bear, in Agostino Steffani's Niobe. Photo: André Costantini.
Colin Balzer as Tiberino, with bear, in Agostino Steffani's Niobe. Photo: André Costantini.

There was really nowhere one could go, either musically or spiritually from there, and I left the festival, missing a program of fiddle music from Central Europe and the British Isles. The next morning brought the symposium on Steffani’s Niobe and BEMF’s production. One of the details we learned was that the prominent ursine character in the production was expanded, to highlight the theme of early civilization, and to spare audiences the sight of the hunting down of a bear—not a celebration of Boston’s historic victory on the ice. Cocooned in the auditorium of the Radisson, we all seemed totally isolated from the boisterous goings on in the streets. Stuart and South Charles were away from the center of things, and, as we headed for Starbuck’s during the break, only some flotsam and jetsam that had fallen away from the crowd, either over-excited or drunk, milled around randomly on the sidewalks and the street. There was one ugly moment when a flag-bearing fan attacked a cab-driver with the colors, or rather the stick they were affixed to, otherwise, there was nothing untoward to be seen.

Bruins Fever, Boston, June 18, 2011. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.
Bruins Fever, Boston, June 18, 2011. Photo © 2011 Michael Miller.

Music resumed in the afternoon, when Kristian Bezuidenhout joined three string players from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra for a program called Mozart at 29, which included the two piano quartets, G Minor, K. 478 and E Flat Major, K. 493, preceded by the Fantasie in C Minor for solo piano, K. 475. In his demonstration the previous day, Mr. Bezuidenhout had given us a brief taste of his take on Mozart’s improvisatory style, and it was a joy to hear him follow Mozart’s moody wanderings from beginning to end. The performance was both coherent in its flow and intense in the moment. Petra Müllejans, violin, Gottfried von der Goltz, viola, and Kristin von der Goltz, cello, played with an intimate fluency that comes from long collaboration. They played essentially as individual chamber musicians, each feeling the music in her or his own way, who could come together to produce a mellow, cohesive ensemble. Bezuidenhout’s emotional range was most impressive in these, as he spanned the melancholy first movement of the G Minor and the operatic effervescence of the E Flat. He always varies themes as they return, and he can do this without sounding precious or effortful, and never distracting the listener from the import of the music, even when it is as delicate and deeply felt as in the G Minor. These were two of Mozart’s greatest chamber works in great performances.

I have already discussed the splendid performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea. It was followed by the traditional late-night performance by Tragicomedia and Friends, that is, some of the core musicians and singers from BEMF. In this they performed a necessary and surely pleasurable duty, playing some of the best-known works by the composer of Niobe, his vocal duets, without which—small but substantial works that they are—the festival would have been incomplete. These were combined with vocal pieces by other contemporaries, as well as Handel, who had assimilated Steffani’s writing in depth during his journeyman’s years in Italy. Handel also borrowed from them literally, as was his wont. Hearing these works together made it possible to hear Handel with fresh ears, both in the communality of the two composers and in their differences. Steffani expressed himself from within outwards, and in Handel we proceed from his stylish surface manner inwards.

Steffani in himself is seated firmly in the early bel canto tradition. He could spin a melody with the same taste and formal beauty as we know from the classical songs singers take up early in their studies, but he proceeds to work this into flawless counterpoint, which by no means detracts from the flow of melody. From this counterpoint interaction and drama emerge, and a set lament or lover’s song becomes theater. The singers, as if it were so natural that they couldn’t resist it, played out the works like dramatic scenes. And what a fine group of singers they were! Ellen Hargis remains as full-voiced and elegant as ever. Jason McStoots, whom we usually see in comic roles, if not in drag, showed what a fine lyrical tenor he can be, shaping Steffani’s lines with a full-blooded swell and gorgeous nuances in his tenor voice. (Let’s hear more of him in this mode!) A young soprano, Mireille Asselin, contributed a resplendent voice, with wonderful flashes of color all along her range, fine taste in her phrasing, and a spririted delivery. Another young singer, Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano, filled in for countertenor Matthew White. Using almost no vibrato at all, she produced an unusual, but attractive masculine tone. Douglas Williams, bass-baritone, who had just sung his fearsome Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea, held up the bass line with resonance and a strong presence.

Perhaps Steffani should have had the last word in the festival, and in fact he did in a final Boston performance of Niobe on Sunday afternoon. My farewell to the grand event was a exquisite concert of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century polyphony for recorder ensemble, played by the German group, Mezzaluna, interspersed with a variety of works for lute, some simple, energetic, even somewhat disreputable dances, others showing the polyphonic capabilities of the instrument, which had just been discovered. What brought these disparate works together was the fact that they were published in Venice by the pioneer Ottaviano Petrucci who first employed moveable type and multiple printings to create editions of polyphonic music.

One thing I did not hear at BEMF was the dry, metronomic, excessively rapid playing attributed to the early music movement. Today, if you wanted to learn to play that way, you might have trouble finding a teacher. Even Norrington has let his hair down. You would not find such a person among the displays at the Exhibition and most certainly not at this infinitely rich and joyous series of performances.

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