Chaconne: Gotham Early Music Scene Does the Devil’s Dance

United StatesUnited States The Art and Ecstasy of the Chaconne: The Sinfonia Players, Christine Gummere (artistic director), Society for Ethical Culture, New York, 4.10.2012 (SSM)

Heinrich Biber: (1641-1704) Passacaglia for solo violin
Virgilio Mazzocchi: (1597 1646) Sdegno campion
Antonio Bertali: (1605-1669) Chiacona for violin and continuo
Claudio Monteverdi: (1567-1643) Quel sguardo sdegnosetto
Henry Purcell: (1659-1695) Chacony in G minor
Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas
3 Parts on a Ground in D major
Francois Couperin: (1668-1733) Le Rossignol-en-amour
Jean-Baptiste Lully: (1632-1687) Passacaille d’Armide from Armide
Jean-Marie Leclair: (1709-1784) Chaconne from Le Deuxième Récréation
de Musique
Lully: Chaconne de Galatée from Acis et Galatée
G. H. Stölzel: (1690-1749) Bist du bei mir
J. S. Bach (1685-1750) Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for unaccompanied violin
After Arañés: Gran Chacona

The Chacona, Chaconne, Ciacona, Chacony, Ciaccona, Chiacona all refer to a dance form so captivating that it was banned at one time for being music of the devil. It usually begins with an accented second beat, but not always. The ground that the music dances above and around, repeats continually the same notes, but not always. It is mostly in triple time, but also in common time. It is claimed to have its roots in places as disparate as Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Spain. There is something inherent in its beat that makes improvisation and variation a natural. Regardless of what is played above the bass ground, the repeating motifs will drive the piece forward to an appealing musical end. As Alex Ross states in an essay on the chaconne, it is “perfectly engineered to bewitch the senses,” resulting in its most intense form as “a little sonic tornado that spins in circles while hurtling forward.” If one wants to understand the appeal of Philip Glass’s music, they need look no further than to the history of the chaconne.

The chaconne has an opposite effect when played slowly: it can be soothing and limpid. The prime example here was the performance of Couperin’s Rossignol-en-Amour. Originally written as one of several hundred miniatures for solo keyboard, Couperin himself suggested the upper line could be taken by a flute and the ground played on the keyboard. Susan Miller took to heart his tempo request to play this piece “slowly and very tenderly.” She successfully kept a fluid and cohesive hold on the music even when it was approaching silence.

Heinrich Biber’s passacaglia for solo violin is the final piece in his set of violin sonatas entitled The Rosary Sonatas. (It is also the only sonata in the set with normal tuning.) Because of the allure of the chaconne form (indistinguishable from the passacaglia) it was not uncommon to end a major musical set or work with a chaconne. Both Rameau and Purcell end operas with this dance and hearing it almost charms the audience into wanting to get up and dance. Unlike Bach’s chaconne, Biber’s passacaglia strictly enforces the playing of the repeating ground throughout the entire piece, even opening with it before the upper voice comes in. Judson Griffin gave the work a glowing reading, clearly articulating the four bass notes while doing dancing variations above them.

A playful badinage was acted out between Grant Herreid, with his long threatening therobo fretboard and the mezzo-soprano Maria Todaro before and after she sings Virgilio Mazzocchi’s Sdegno campion. I would question though the disparity between the words and her vocal interpretation. The text is a call to arms in praise of the anger required to summon up the fury needed to destroy the enemy. Ms. Todaro’s sweet voice gave rich expression to Mazzocchi’s song: admirably done yet seemingly at odds with the words.

The Bertali chiacona for violin and continuo starts with a five note ground repeated continually, changing tempi and dynamics, but never the notes themselves. The violin score is a true test of one’s virtuosity which when passed results in the piece sounding as if it were improvised. Theresa Soloman’s playing was exemplary. The only disappointment was that it ended so quickly, breaking the hypnotic spell it cast upon the audience.

Monteverdi’s Quel sguardo sdegnosettofrom his Scherzi musicali is another work requiring virtuosic skills and a wide ranging voice. This performance revealed the less serious side of Monteverdi (Scherzi musicali being musical jokes) with Ms. Todaro leaping through the higher ranges of her tessitura with ease. A “whiter” voice might have better complemented this song but Ms. Todaro gave a spirited and energetic rendition.

By the time the chaconne reached Henry Purcell, the rules governing it were beginning to break down. In the Chacony in G minor Purcell allows the bass ground to be picked up by other instruments and bounced back and forth between the string players. In the 3 Parts on a ground, Purcell starts off in 6/8 time but midway goes to the “normal” 3/4 time. In both pieces there are variations demanding awesome technical skills which the instrumentalists clearly possessed. The penultimate aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the most pathetic lines ever sung “Remember me, but ah! forget my Fate,” received an earnest and fervid reading by Ms. Todaro.

The dancers in the second part of the program worked their charm in two chaconnes by Lully. It was good to see again Baroque dancing choreographed in the manner of Catherine Turocy and the relocated New York Baroque Dance Company; and to know it is still represented in New York in the persons of Patrica Beaman and Carlos Fittante. The dancers, in traditional period garb and masks danced with their outstretched arms in sensitive synchronization to the music.

The under-appreciated Jean Marie Leclair is represented here by a chaconne from his Deuxième Récréation de Musique. We are in a new world with the bass line starting off as in a traditional ostinato style but then joining in with the other instruments, following the spirit of the form but hardly any of its rules. The movement ends quietly with the original bass line back where it belongs. The instrumentation here was the flute and violin, but could have been played by two violins as well.

Bist du bei mir originally ascribed to Bach but now attributed to G.H. Stölzel was lovingly sung by Ms. Beaman.

Claire Jolivet started out a little hesitantly but quickly took control of the monumental chaconne from Bach’s D minor partita for unaccompanied violin. Her flawless technique rendered a reading that was both majestic and deeply personal. It should come as no surprise that although composers of the eighteenth-century, such as Leclair, Rameau and Boismortier continued to write chaconnes, it wasn’t until the twentieth-century with Bartók’s sonata for solo violin (which includes a chaconne) that any composer felt he had anything additional to say that had not already been said before by Bach.

The entire group, led by the dancers in Spanish attire, joined in Grant Herreid’s arrangement of Juan Arañés’s Gran Chacona. This vivid recreation of music and dancing on a Spanish street brought out the wild nature of the form. The clacking of castanets ended the evening, while delightfully opening the Gotham Early Music Scene’s sixth year.

Stan Metzger