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ArcoVoce at the Phillips Collection

The free Sunday concerts at the Phillips Collection are probably the most hampered of all the museum series because of its small—if exceedingly beautiful (with Milton Avery's Girl Writing [1942] on the wall behind the performers, especially)—music room. On this past Sunday, to close out this year's season, the crowd as usual overflowed into the galleries on the other side of the entrance to what used to be the Phillips' house, now the museum's old wing. ArcoVoce has become almost the resident ensemble at the Phillips, featured every year, and they came with a program called Three Centuries of Music from Central Europe. The idea, an interesting one musicologically, was to showcase ArcoVoce's unusual performing practice—they play on both Baroque and modern instruments, according to what period of music is on their stands—in one geographical area and thus discover what sounds in the Baroque period may have been in the collective unconscious of central European composers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Other Review:

Joan Reinthaler, A Taste of Eastern Europe (Washington Post, May 31)

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Available at Amazon

ArcoVoce Chamber Ensemble
Violinists Nina Falk and Elizabeth Field brought out their modern instruments first, to give us seven of the Duets for Two Violins by Béla Bartók. These character miniatures are excellent examples of how Bartók's study of folk melody informed his compositions, providing a sturdy melos—a collection of types rather than actual tunes, for the most part—to be combined with modern contrapuntal and dissonant structures. As played so well here, I would much rather listen to Bartók's folk-inspired idiom than, say, that of Mark O'Connor. (I did not enjoy hearing an O'Connor piece played by members of the Beaux Arts Trio last December, and I am not happy about having to share an NSO program between O'Connor and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg later in June. Washington listeners apparently can't get enough of his music, as he will be coming back next May, with his Appalachia Waltz Trio, to the George Mason University Center for the Arts.)

The players then took us through a quick tour of Baroque Poland, where as keyboard player Steven Silverman explained in his brief introductory comments, composers were deeply influenced by styles of Italian music. (You can find out a lot more about early music in Poland at the Web site of Adam Jarczyk and Bogusław Krawczyk, Completorium.) Mr. Silverman set the tone with a Praeludium by Jan Podbielski (c. 1680–1730), which with its short improvisatory sections sounded like it could indeed have been composed by a contemporary of J. S. Bach. We then went backward to the early 17th century for the Concerto Primo by Adam Jarzębski (c. 1590–1649)—who worked in Berlin and visited Italy—in which Ms. Field and cellist Douglas McNames had a dialogue, with keyboard assistance from Mr. Silverman at the harpsichord. A presumably similar Jarzębski piece, but with two violin parts, Bentrovata (Concerto a 3), was removed from the program, or as Silverman put it in his opening remarks, it had "become perduta."

Two other instrumental selections showed the influence of Monteverdi on these Polish composers, most of whom had worked in Italy for at least part of their careers. The Canzona Seconda a 2 by 17th-century composer Marcin Mielczewski is a sort of trio sonata, with cello and keyboard sharing a simpler continuo line and the violins in imitation, temporally separated like Venetian cori spezzati. The best of the instrumental pieces was the Canon: Sonata Prima detta la Monteverdi by Giovanni Buonamente (c. 1580–1642), an Italian composer who probably worked with Monteverdi in Mantua. The style was the same, featuring Ms. Falk and Ms. Field in stunning sequential imitation. (Incidentally, Buonamente later worked in Vienna and apparently got to Prague once, slim justification for his inclusion in this program. As far as I have read in the musicological literature, Buonamente never made it to Poland, and certainly did not spend "much of his career in Poland" as the Post reviewer claims in her review. Luca Marenzio worked in Poland, and so did Tarquinio Merula, with whom Buonamente worked in Bergamo. Peter Allsop, whom I met in Manchester last summer, has just published a new book on Buonamente, and he does not mention a sojourn in Poland. Buonamente's music, however, was certainly known and played in Poland.)

The real find of the Baroque portion of the program was the solo motet Jesu spes mea by Stanisław Szarzyński, which I wish I had known about before we made the recording in Rome, as it would have been a great piece with which to honor the former Pontiff. The Latin text is a series of short exclamations, sometimes echoing prayers addressed to the Virgin Mary, which are answered by the two violins. Something about the text made me think this highly personal text was meant to be in the voice of the Virgin Mary speaking to her son, but that is only speculation. Mr. Silverman mentioned that the piece quotes from a Polish religious song, which turns out to be Przez czyściowe upalenia, and it is found in both the voice and violin parts. It's a gorgeous piece, the only one on the program to feature the entire ensemble together, and it was a good showcase for the pure silvery voice of soprano Rosa Lamoreaux. ArcoVoce's Baroque instrument playing may not be the best I have heard, but all of the advantages of the strings especially were evident in the hands of these skilled performers.

In the second half, the performers brought us back to the 19th century, with the piano and their modern string instruments. First, Ms. Lamoreaux gave a charming performance of four of Chopin's few songs (from Piesni i piosnki, or Polish Songs, op. 74). As explained before the performance, Chopin wrote his songs not for the concert stage but for skilled amateurs to sing and play at home. (Liszt did transcribe some of them in concert versions.) They set simple poems in Polish, a language with a bewildering number of consonants, which Ms. Lamoreaux seemed to have well in hand. (What the hell would I know? I can only say, from having recorded the Polish hymn Serdeczna Matko for the Rome recording, that you wonder sometimes if the music needs twice as many notes as you have for all those consonants.) The poetry and folk song of his native Poland were often a consolation to Chopin, so it is touching to see the sorts of poetry he chose for these intimate songs. Schumann wrote that the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz gave Chopin the rhythms for parts of his ballades, although I don't know if anyone can really say exactly which poems.

The final selection took us at last to Bohemia, for Dvořák's Piano Quartet in E-Flat, op. 87, with the instrumentalists of ArcoVoce (Ms. Falk on her modern viola). Here, Mr. McNames seemed most at home, producing a gorgeously rich tone in the Romantic work. Mr. Silverman's observations at the beginning of the concert held true, that only the later selections sound particularly Polish, Hungarian, or Czech. Listening to the Dvořák (and remembering the Bartók earlier in the program—less so, the Chopin) after the Baroque selections, I realized again just how much of a leap in development those nationalistic composers made by breaking with not only how they were trained but with centuries of compositional reliance on the models of music from other countries.

ArcoVoce will perform again in Washington this fall, on October 30 at the National Gallery of Art.

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