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Ionarts in Manchester: Charpentier's Four Seasons

This is a continuation of Ionarts coverage of the Eleventh Biennial International Conference on Baroque Music in Manchester, England. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

ChopinWe were treated to two concerts as part of the Baroque Conference, which took place in the octagonal Brown Shipley Concert Hall on the campus of the Royal Northern College of Music. Ludwika Nitschowa's Giacomettiesque bronze sculpture, shown at right, in the lobby of this building was given in 1973 by the Fryderyk Chopin Society in Warsaw. It commemorates a concert that Chopin gave in Manchester, to an audience of 1,200 people, on August 28, 1848, on his way to several engagements in Scotland. Thanks to the RNCM and other groups like the Manchester Chamber Concerts Society and the Manchester Opera House, there is still plenty of good music to hear in Manchester.

The first concert we heard, on Thursday night (July 15), featured sopranos Claire Tomlin and Nicola Mills, with Robert Rawson on bass viol. Peter Holman (professor of musicology at the University of Leeds since 2000 and consultant in period performance at the RNCM since 2002) put the concert together and played the chamber organ. Peter is well known as the founder and director of The Parley of Instruments, a group I heard in the opera theater of the Château of Versailles last fall (see review on October 14, 2003), and as the author and editor of numerous articles and editions. This program of music was selected to honor the tricentennial year of Baroque composers Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1645–1704) and Heinrich Biber (1644–1704), who both died 300 years ago this year.

The main work on the program was Charpentier's Quatuor Anni Tempestates (H. 335 to 338, from 1685), or The Four Seasons (on the recording shown below, by a different group). These works for two sopranos set texts selected, apparently by the composer, from the Song of Songs, and they were performed in order, in alternation with other pieces of music. The first of these motets, Ver (Spring), begins with the words "Surge propera amica mea," and its first part appears to be in a responsorial form (with a "verse" followed by the return of "Surge propera amica mea"). However, its liturgical function, if it had any, is confused by the addition of a second part, "Et cito pulchra es." The texts selected for spring include references to winter being past, flowers and other plants appearing on the earth, and birdsong. This was followed by an actual motet, Sicut spina rosam genuit (H. 309), a text proper to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (September 8). This piece was truly responsorial in form, with a verse in triple meter followed by the return of the respond.

The next piece was Æstas (Summer, "Nolite me considerare") is a dialogue, reflecting the narrative structure of the source text. In reference to summer, the female voice says, "Do not look upon me for I am dark, because the sun has looked on me" (Nolite me considerare quod fusca sim quia decoloravit me sol, Song of Songs 1:5). This is answered by the male voice, "You are black but comely" (Nigra es sed formosa), which is a modified version of the Biblical text. The final section, to the words "Quia moriar amore" (for I die of love), is set to languishing music that seems to indicate the secular function of these four pieces. The fourth selection was Biber's Salve Regina (1663), with Claire Tomlin singing the missing soprano part, reconstructed by Peter Holman. As this piece was composed when Biber was only 19, as Peter put it before they performed it, "some of it's fairly crude."

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Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Quatuor Anni Tempestates and three motets, Strasbourg Parlement of Musique
The third season, Autumnus ("Osculetur me osculo oris sui" [Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth]), has text that is not particularly autumnal, since there is no mention of that time of year in the Song of Songs. A few references to harvesting, wine, and feasting are what Charpentier brings together, and the final section ("comedite amici et bibite et inebriate" [eat, friends, and drink and get drunk]) is set with virtuosically tipsy melismas that were quite thrilling. A short piece by Gottfried Finger, the Sonata no. 4 in D minor, for bass viol and continuo, came next. The two sopranos returned for the last season, Hyems (Winter), which is the longest of the four pieces, in several sections. Other than the opening text, "Surge aquilo et veni auster" (Awake, north wind, and come, south wind), there is nothing that is particularly wintry here either, so most of the text focuses on the search of the female voice for her lover. One section, "Quæsivi eum et non inveni" (I sought him but found him not), is absolutely charming. The final piece was Charpentier's early setting of the Marian antiphon Regina cæli lætare (H. 32), with text-painted melismas scurrying upwards on the word "resurrexit" (he has risen).

After this concert, I went out to dinner with a group of friends from New Zealand and Peter Holman, at an Indian restaurant in a part of Manchester famous for its curry places. I learned there that Claire Tomlin is a singer who works with Peter regularly in the Parley of Instruments, among other groups. Although Nicola Mills is a soprano based in Manchester, who has never performed with Peter or Claire before, their two voices were perfectly matched for this program of two-soprano pieces. This type of work, in which two treble voices are like soaring twins, was so important in the Baroque period, as the vocal equivalent of the trio sonata. (The best Italian examples were composed by Claudio Monteverdi, such as my favorite, his Salve Regina for two sopranos—published in the Selva morale e spirituale, 1640—which two soprano friends performed at my wedding. It was recorded memorably on this 1991 recording by Emma Kirkby and Christopher Hogwood, Venice Preserved.) Peter Holman said that he wants to put together a program of two-soprano works for these two women, which would be something I would like to hear. Their work on this concert, especially in the Charpentier Four Seasons, was excellent. Bass violist Robert Rawson (who presented a paper on Biber at the Baroque Conference) seemed most comfortable accompanying the vocal pieces, and his only solo appearance was not sparkling, although the Finger piece is not particulary memorable.

Go to Part 4.

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