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Folger Consort, Palestrina and Monteverdi

Also on Ionarts:

Baroque Christmas with the Folger Consort (December 23, 2005)

Opera Lafayette at La Maison Française (December 19, 2005)

Folger Consort, Isaac and Josquin (October 8, 2005)
Washington National Cathedral is a beautiful place to hear a concert, especially when early music is involved, so it was no surprise that the Folger Consort's latest program drew a nearly full audience to this vast space. From my perch by one of the crossing piers, the sound was very good but never particularly powerful, which may have made things hard to hear from the general seating area. The Folger Consort hosted a dream team of six singers, five of whom sang together for many of the evening's selections, because the pairing of composers this time combined two giants of vocal music, Palestrina and Monteverdi. This combination is innately unfair to the former, who although supremely influential on the traditions of contrapuntal composition, produced mostly sacred music in a fairly uniform style. Monteverdi, having composed sacred music on par with Palestrina's as well as genre-transforming examples of madrigals and operas, clearly has the upper hand, although Palestrina is the undisputed master of the Mass. What the program shows is the distinction between the highest achievement of the Renaissance, the prima prattica, and the new sound of the Baroque period, the secunda prattica. The two composers' lives actually overlap chronologically, but their respective, mature musical styles are radically different.

The program began with a tribute to recorder player Scott Reiss, whose death last month shocked the Washington music scene. It was an instrumental performance of a 14th-century Benedicamus Domino setting that Reiss "loved and performed with us many times," according to the Folger Consort's program. Next were three 5-voice motets from Palestrina's Motettorum liber quartus ex Canticis canticorum -- Surge amica mea, Quam pulchra es, and Descendi in hortum meum -- published in Rome in 1583 or 1584. The Song of Songs is a love poem interpreted by Christian theologians in allegorical ways. I imagine that the group chose these pieces because they are different, in their almost secular nature, from the rest of Palestrina's work. I was a little disappointed that the group did not seize this opportunity to perform some of Palestrina's secular madrigals -- little known and few in number -- as a conservative comparison to the daring madrigals of Monteverdi. The group performed the Palestrina pieces without instruments and one on a part. A collection of solo singers does not necessarily make an ensemble, but this group had a rather good balance. Soprano Rosa Lamoreaux's restraint on the highest part was a model. This set was rounded out with two instrumental pieces in two parts by Orlando di Lasso.

Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall, Folger ConsortThe best Palestrina selections were the Mass excerpts at the end of the first half, beginning with the Sanctus movement from the earlier of Palestrina's two Ordinary settings based on the medieval tune L'Homme armé, from the fourth book of Masses (à 5, 1570), of an astounding thirteen books. There is a great moment at the end of the Hosanna part of this movement, where the end of the cantus firmus ("On a fait partout crier, / Que chascun se viengne armer / D'un haubregon de fer"), the highest and most identifiable part of the tune, is set quite audibly to the words "Hosanna in excelsis." The Kyrie movement of the 6-voice Missa Papae Marcelli -- perhaps Palestrina's most famous composition because of its alleged and probably legendary role in saving polyphony as an approved form of composition at the Council of Trent -- was exquisitely performed, with tenor Philip Cave who finally joined the group. The Gloria got off to a rough start, due to a disagreement about the tempo, but Rosa Lamoreaux's directional nods righted the performance.

Probably to make a good match with the Palestrina first half, the group focused largely on Monteverdi's sacred music in the second half. The Pianto della Madonna is from the late collection Selva morale e spirituale, from 1641, and is a contrafactum -- in the voice of Mary addressed to Jesus -- of the famous lament of Arianna, the only part of his early opera Arianna to survive. Countertenor Drew Minter negotiated the dramatic monodic style fairly well, although his handling of the Latin was at times either unclear or mistaken. As far as the quality of the voice, it is cool and accurate, but I would have preferred a feminine, more maternal sound for this piece. The text reminded me somewhat of another Marian monologue, Antonia Bembo's solo cantata spirituale, Per il Natale: In braccio di Maria, performed by the Folger Consort at their last concert.

The highlights of the Monteverdi selections included, first and foremost, the solo motet Laudate dominum omnes gentes (not the Laudate dominum in sanctis ejus text listed incorrectly in the program) in an excellent performance by bass-baritone François Loup. After largely controlling his sound while singing with the ensemble, here Loup -- accompanied only by Webb Wiggins on the organ (who had a less satisfying solo himself, on a Claudio Merulo toccata that lacked fluidity) -- was able to sing in his full, velvety voice, extending down to a very low note (perhaps D?) for the conclusion. The duet of Rosa Lamoreaux and Barbara Hollinshead, Cantate Domino canticum novum (à 2, with text continuing "cantate et benedicite nomini ejus: quia mirabilia fecit," again not what was printed in the program), was also well performed. This piece ends with an extended section on the words "mirabilia fecit" (wondrous things he has done), featuring long, rapturous vocal lines. The concluding piece, the 6-voice Beatus vir qui timet Dominum was a delight, with great contributions from all six singers and all players.

Other Reviews:

Cecelia Porter, Folger, Deft and Dulcet (Washington Post, January 9)
The guest artists were all in good form, although tenor Robert Petillo sometimes disappeared behind the other voices or instruments when he sang alone. Violinist David Douglass played well, including on his own set of divisions to the tune of Susanne ung jour (presented alongside those of Bassano and Dalla Casa). However, he did not impress with the same accuracy as Tim Haig at the Consort's last concert or the same flair as Ryan Brown with Opera Lafayette. The best instrumental pieces were Salamone Rossi's Sonata sopra la Bergamasca, a chaconne-type piece, and the two sonatas by Giovanni Battista Fontana. I enjoyed the two recercadas by Diego Ortiz more when I heard them played by the Baltimore Consort last summer. Christopher Kendall's contributions on lute and theorbo seemed more solid than the playing of Robert Eisenstein, which was occasionally a little rocky, most notably when he played second violin. This is one of the risks of playing several instruments, I suppose, rather than specializing in one.

The Folger Consort will return to the National Cathedral to repeat this program this evening, January 7, at 8 pm. Tickets are $27 to $40. It will be worth your time.


Anonymous said...

Thanks (again) for your kind words. FYI: I'm singing a concert w/ 2 cool Handel Cantatas (also Sonatas)with the local baroque orchestra "Modern Musick" this Sunday (the 15th) at St. Mark's Episcopal (3rd & A, SE) at 3 pm. Barbara Hollinshead

Charles T. Downey said...

Someone else sent me the info on the Modern Musick thing this Sunday, which I added to our schedule. It sounds like a great program.