Yesterday we went with friends to the annual Christmas concert from Mistral, formerly Andover Chamber Music, featuring ensemble pieces from the baroque era. This year’s program included Vivaldi, Telemann, and JS Bach before intermission and CPE Bach’s flute concerto and Corelli’s Christmas Concerto after.
The JS Bach concerto for violin and strings let the three violinists really show off, but I enjoyed the Telemann Tafelmusic in D minor the most. It’s a beautiful piece for flute and recorder. We’ve been going to ACM concerts for several years now and it was fun to see founder Julie Scolnik’s son Sasha, who is a fine young cellist, take on a major role in the ensemble. The first time we saw him perform with the group, he was barely in high school.
After the concert, the pianists in our group wanted to take a look at the harpsichord, so we went up front to peek. Harsichordist Dylan Sauerwald gave us a delightful tour and explanation of how the harpsichord works, even pulling off the cover so we could see how the plectrum worked. They’re made of plastic now, not bird quills. Neil and Diana took turns playing brief passages on it, and I picked a few notes to feel what he was telling us about the touch. It wasn’t like pressing a piano key; it felt much more like using a pick to play a guitar string. Very cool. Thank you, Mr. Sauerwald!
We attended two more Boston Early Music Festival concerts this week: the Bach Organ mini-festival and Saturday night chamber opera, which combined two of Charpentier’s pieces, La Couronne de Fleurs and La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers.
The two pieces were written separately, but for this performance, the directors combined them. La Couronne de Fleurs depicts the goddess Flora holding a contest to see which shepherd can sing the most fulsome aria in praise of King Louis XIV. The winner gets the titular crown of flowers. The shepherds and shepherdesses sing until Pan interrupts to tell them mere shepherds aren’t up to the task of praising someone as wonderful as the king. Flora says that’s all right, at least they tried, and divides the flowers among the whole group.
The Orpheus play is two short acts and follows the usual plot: Orpheus and Euridice are about to get married. A snake bites her and she dies. Orpheus is going to kill himself but Apollo persuades him to talk to Pluto instead. In the second act, he arrives in hell, sings sweetly, and persuades Pluto in a lovely dramatic musical back-and-forth. When last seen, Orpheus is heading back to the light with Euridice behind him, hand on his shoulder.
The director and producer decided to combine the two by inserting the “incomplete” Orpheus and Euridice story as the last of the shepherds’ arias (and an inside joke when the performance is interrupted by Lully, not Pan). I thought it sounded hokey, but it had the effect of giving the tragedy of Orpheus and Euridice a happy-for-now ending. On the one hand, you know she’s going to stumble he’s going to look around and he loses her forever, but you don’t have to watch it and you can believe that this time maybe they make it out okay.
Every other year, the Boston Early Music Festival brings the world’s top performers to Boston for a nonstop week of concerts, lectures, demonstrations, recitals, even a vendor section. If you want to buy a clavichord or a viola da gamba, this is the place to do it.
This year Neil and I decided that we should take advantage of this musical richness and got tickets to several performances. Later this week it’s Bach and a Handel opera. Last night was Mozart with Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation playing on Mozart’s own violin and viola. They were quite similar in appearance to modern instruments, but the neck of the violin was shorter and thicker and the violinist played with the instrument resting on her shoulder, not tucked under her chin.
The performances featured the amazing Kristian Bezuidenhout on fortepiano, the predecessor to the instrument we know. It has hammers like a piano but light harpsichord-style strings and a much lighter, softer tone than a modern piano and sometimes it sounded like either instrument. The fourth instrument was an early clarinet — a beautiful instrument that appeared to be made of rosewood. It had several keys to shift registers but the main fingering was with finger holes, similar to a recorder.
The combination produced a much different, softer, more relaxed sound than modern instruments. You could hear Mozart pushing the limits of all the instruments, especially the lower registers of the fortepiano. It also gave me a new appreciation for how deeply he understood the subtleties and nuances of each instrument and how much attention he paid to how they would sound together. I rather suspect he was able to hear the combinations in his head without having to think about it — but the overall effect was stupendous.