Festival Review: Boston Early Music Festival

29/06/2011

Festival Review: Boston Early Music Festival, Boston, 12-6-2011 to 19-6-2011 (SSM) 

The Boston Early Musical Festival that ended this past week occurs biennially and has done so for the last 30 years. This year the event attracted an estimated 15,000 people with hundreds of concerts, operas, master classes, lectures and exhibitions. I’m not sure how the attendance compared to previous years, but at a lecture-recital given by fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, he was told that he would need 50 handouts. He was short by about 100 leaflets.

I was only able to join the Festival for the last three days, but that was enough to share in the excitement and anticipation of events with some of the great specialists in early music. In addition to Bezuidenhout, there was the young countertenor Philippe Jaroussky (more about him later); the vocal groups The King’s Singers and the Canadian Les Voix Baroques; members of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars; Jordi Savall; and the list goes on.

The BEMF Festival and Exhibition Guide runs over 300 pages. Fortunately, it reproduces most of the concerts’ programs, adding details to the somewhat skimpy playbills handed out at each performance. It was an absolutely necessary informational source for all the events.

Keyboard Mini-Festivals

 

As part of the BEMF, there were two “mini-festivals,” the first one an exploration of the organ. The second, which I attended, was devoted to the keyboard. Following the year’s main theme, “Metamorphosis: Change and Transformation,” this mini-festival was titled “The Keyboard as a Catalyst for Change and Transformation.” The offerings ranged from a musician whose lecture basically consisted of announcing the title of the work to be played, to a performer who spent much of his time talking, which just left a short period to play music.

The recital hall was the First Church of Boston, a modern space that is not quite intimate but has surprisingly good acoustics, particularly given the small dynamic range of the keyboards played. Peter Sykes introduced all three sessions, one devoted to the harpsichord, one to the fortepiano and one to the clavichord. Each instrument had two keyboardists presenting their specialty.

Harpsichord

 

Sykes first played a work by the North German Georg Böhm, whose transformation was to write a suite in the French style with a classic Lully ouverture to open and a series of dances in the French style to follow. The next piece, a work by Dietrich Buxtehude, transformed a traditional Lutheran chorale into a four-movement suite. Sykes then performed a transcription by Bach of a trio sonata of Johann Reichen, who was one of many contemporaries whose work Bach adapted. Like most everything he touched, Bach improved Reichen’s sonata, never expanding the source, but always reducing the voices to contrapuntal lines playable on a keyboard. In transcriptions of some concerti by Vivaldi, only a master such as Bach could have accurately transformed a fully orchestrated concerto into a work for two hands. As for Sykes’ performance, he didn’t particularly impress me with his playing. It was technically accomplished, but was both stiff and lacking in expressiveness.

More exciting and vibrant playing came from Luca Guglielmi who played two of Bach’s concerto transcriptions, one by Vivaldi and one by Marcello. (If it weren’t for this piece, Marcello’s name would not be known today at all.) Handel’s transcription of his own Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 6 was a delight, as was Bach’s arrangement of his Suite for Lute in G minor – which itself is a transcription of his Fifth Solo Cello Suite.

Fortepiano

 

Christoph Hammer’s topic was “Ciarlattani-Mozart in Competition.” Ciarlattani or “charlatans” is a strange word to use for Mozart’s competitors whether apocryphal or true. The performers Mozart competed with were composers in their own right; one can’t feign virtuosity or improvisational skills. Changing the order from the program listing, Hammer gave a charming performance of a sonata by the unknown composer Ignaz von Beecke. Mozart is thought to have competed with Beecke in 1771 playing a fortepiano – and actually lost that one, admitting in a letter of having become rusty on the fortepiano. In a subtle and powerful performance of Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K. 397, Hammer used the work to demonstrate what kind of improvisational skills Mozart might have presented during these contests.

The most famous competition was that between Mozart and Muzio Clementi in 1781. However, of the two Clementi pieces that Hammer played neither in fact was the one that Clementi used in his contest, his Sonata in B-flat, Op. 47, No. 2; Hammer began with another sonata in the same key, the Op. 24, No. 2. The opening movement starts with a theme that Mozart stole for his overture to The Magic Flute, 10 years after Clementi wrote this piece. The second Clementi work, meant to be a parody of Mozart’s keyboard writing, was thankfully brief. Hammer’s recital ended with Mozart’s Variations on a Theme by Paisiello, K. 378.The second performer/lecturer for the fortepiano segment was Kristian Bezuidenhout, who scheduled only a single work, the Mozart Sonata in G major, K. 283. This performance was meant to exemplify Bezuidenhout’s theories as to how one should approach Mozart’s less-annotated scores – those written for his personal use, as opposed to his public commissions necessarily annotated for publication. I must say that whatever theoretical framework Bezuidenhout applied to his performance resulted in one of the most beautiful interpretations I have ever heard of a Mozart sonata, subtle and alert to every nuance.

Clavichord  

For this segment the audience, initially spread about the room, was told to move as close to the stage as possible if they wanted to hear every note. We were also advised not to applaud to break the mood, but to wave our performance leaflets, all in respect to the soft-spoken clavichord. Michael Tsalka began with a variety of works from relatively unknown composers: starting with the Renaissance composer Antonio de Cabezón, Tsalka continued with the better known Froberger, a set of Bach variations entitled Aria Variata in A minor, BWV 989, and then a short piece from the Mexican Baroque composer Joseph de Torres. All were well-played and showed the keyboard’s wide range of tonal depth and its sensitivity to the lightest touch. Tsalka played with his fingers curved over the keyboard, almost like they were cramped, but it didn’t seem to hinder his ability to play, which he did with much sprightliness.Since I was to interview Miklós Spányi the next day and had never seen him play, I felt it was important to be as close as possible to the stage, both to observe his technique and to hear clearly the music emanating from this softest of instruments. In fact I was able to get a seat in the front row, the clavichord keyboard facing the audience. Unfortunately the page turner (Peter Skypes) stood next to Spányi right in my line of vision, completely blocking my view. The nice lady beside me saw how upset I was and kindly switched seats with me. Seeing him play was important, since his technique was quite different from Tsalka’s, his long fingers stretched out almost effortlessly across the keyboard, reaching each note with ease.

Spányi began with a transcription by C.P.E. Bach (J.S. Bach’s second oldest child) of his own Sinfonia in F major. Just as the father was able to transcribe for two hands fully orchestrated works, so too could the son. Spányi’s fingers sped across the keyboard, the original first movement difficult enough to play in its original manifestation, let alone in a transcription for two hands. The second movement, an Andante, was an exercise in key pressure control. Using precise fingering, Spányi was able to apply just enough pressure to give stress to the keys that require them. Two pieces from C.P.E. Bach’s published collection followed and were played immaculately. Four movements from The Art of Fugue brought this late J.S. Bach work down to a human level. A virtuosic set of variations by Beethoven ended the cycle. And so the long day’s mini-festival (9:00AM to 4:00PM) ended.Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) Niobe, Regina di Tebe

The festival centerpiece was the American premiere of Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, one of hundreds – if not thousands – of operas from the 17th and 18th centuries by composers such as Hasse, Graun, Jommelli, Popora, Destouches and Campra. Some of these operas (by Lully, Conradi and Blow) have seen the light of day due to the arduous efforts of the BEMF.

French baroque opera has been luckier than its German or Italian counterparts. France’s operatic revival has its roots in the early discoveries by William Christie, whose performances of Charpentier sacred and secular music led to productions not only of Charpentier but of Lully as well. Christie’s disciples, Christophe Rousset, Marc Minkowski and Hugo Reyne, have added to this revival, and Sir John Gardiner also contributed with his early productions and recordings of Rameau and Leclair operas.It is odd that aside from the revival of Monteverdi and Vivaldi, few Italian Baroque opera composers have generated any interest. Much, of course, has to do with the money needed to produce most of these elaborately costumed and staged works – and with large groups of singers talented enough to sing with the high tessituras that these operas required. France’s government-funded arts councils have been tremendously generous to organizations such as the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles attempting to restore their musical heritage. With over 1,000 editions printed and nearly 50 CDs published in the last twenty years, the French are well on their way to uncovering their musical history.

Steffani’s opera, Niobe, Regina di Tebe, is very much in the French style. This is not unexpected, Steffani having met Lully and attended his operas five years before he himself wrote his first opera. Niobe, Regina di Tebe is filled with the elements of French opera beginning with a typical Lully-style overture. The stylized dancing, with its exaggerated hand and arm gestures and mime-like overly-emoted facial expressions, was wonderfully choreographed by Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittane. The music, filled with dotted rhythms, had an instrumental timbre that seemed at times like only oboes and bassoons were being played. Costumes and stage settings, accurately designed from records and drawings of the period, were brilliantly rendered. The plot, too convoluted to discuss here, is both tragic and comic. Humorous episodes include the trapping and taming of a bear, and the comic presence of a philosophizing feminist, played and sung farcically by the countertenor José Lemos who brought an element of modernity and relevance to the text.

Phillipe Jaroussky and Cast-Credit: André Costantini
As for the singing: what a treat! The entire cast sang like the music was in their blood. There was no drifting into classical or romantic vocal mode. Purely sung with little difficulty in the upper ranges, this was a model of Baroque technique. To be singled out for their exceptional brilliance are Amanda Forsythe as Niobe and the nonpareil countertenor Philippe Jaroussky.Mention should be made about the venue: the Cutler Majestic Theater, an ornate masterpiece of the American Beaux-Arts period with its Rococo influence just an era away from the Baroque period music being played onstage. Acoustics were excellent as well.

This was such a captivating opera. The fact that it ran over four hours was of no consequence: it totally beguiled from beginning to end.

Mozart String Quartets

Kristian Bezuidenhout was back onstage to play the two Mozart Piano Quartets, K. 478 and K. 491 with members of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra: Petra Müllejans (violin), Gottfried von der Goltz (viola), and Kristin von der Goltz (cello). These works come from two different worlds. Only a small percentage of Mozart’s oeuvre are written in a minor key and those in the key of G minor are tragically intense. Out of 40-plus symphonies that Mozart composed, only the 25th (the “Little” G minor) and the 40th are in a minor key. Mozart, who was fairly strict in following classical period music forms, particularly in the opening movement of his instrumental works, surprises us here not by any deviation from the rules, but in our expectation. Just as we hear the lead-in to what should be the exposition’s second theme, Mozart gives us the same theme as the opening – only this time in the major key of B flat. Then, as if we are not getting our money’s worth with only one theme, Mozart opens the development section with a brand new one. The poignant second movement follows a traditional “A-B-A” formula, with each section rife with heartfelt melodies. As if to correct the seriousness of the previous movements, the concluding Rondo opens with a bouncy theme and ends brightly, although the mood of the first movement returns briefly in the middle.

The second Piano Quartet in E flat major is all cheer and luster, but without the interesting complexity of the G minor Quartet. As in the previous quartet, the instrumentalists performed impeccably. Bezuidenhout made the fleeting runs up and down the fortepiano with ease and helped put these performances near the top of my experiences of listening to chamber music.

Teresa Wakim and Douglas Williams in
Acis and Galatea
Credit: André Costantini


The chamber opera Acis and Galatea was performed at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall to what appeared a full house. The staging was unusual in that instead of characters playing their roles as Arcadian shepherds, nymphs or rustic country folk, the director framed the work as a play-within-a-play: 18th-century characters rehearsing Acis and Galatea in their 18th-century costumes. It’s an interesting conceit that probably added more confusion to an already confused plot. With most Baroque operas, it’s always better to sit back, suspend your disbelief and enjoy the singing and the music. This relatively youthful work of Handel, age 33, is filled with so many catchy tunes, that one wonders whether a 1718 Hit Parade would have its top ten songs straight from this opera. Even the overture, a whirlwind of sound with the strings alternating with the woodwinds, is memorable. The diction was so clear that I couldn’t mistake what I thought I had heard in earlier performances. In the first line of the opening aria, instead of hearing “Oh, the pleasure of the plains,” I heard, “Oh, the pleasure of the pain.”Every aria was sung to perfection. The surprise character who stole the show was the bass Douglas Williams, wearing an eye patch to denote his role as Polythemus, a Cyclops. Galatea, played by Teresa Wakim, sang on the level of Amanda Forsythe in Niobe and that is no small accomplishment.

What more can be said about a nearly perfect production except to thank everyone involved for their tireless devotion to making every aspect of this opera succeed. In addition to the brilliant contribution both musically and operationally by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, I would thank many of the teaching staff at Juilliard Historical Performance: Robert Mealy, Cynthia Roberts, Phoebe Carrai, Robert Nairn and Gonzalo X. Ruiz.

Stan Metzger  

For my interview with Miklós Spányi, see: Miklós Spányi Interview  

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