Early Music Review Print



Touring 16th-17th-century Italian City States and Poland via Viol Consort, Baroque Ensemble, and Voices

December 11, 2005 - Chapel Hill, NC:


Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was the only familiar name on a diverse and wide-ranging program presented under the direction of Brent Wissick in Person Hall on December 11. In addition to the usual UNC Consort of Viols, the concert featured the large UNC Baroque Ensemble, consisting of strings both bowed and plucked, keyboards, and early brass, plus nine singers.

The savage westward rampages of the Tatar invasions are recalled in the famous Polish Heynal, the trumpet fanfare that opened the concert. In the 13th century, a trumpeter sentinel standing watch in a tower of the Mary Church in Krakow sounded the alarm when he spotted the approach of the Tatar army. According to Wissick's program notes, "legend has it that an arrow struck him part way through the tune, and to this day, the town trumpeters in Krakow stop at that very spot in their daily re-creation of the event from the church tower." This is the way Bryan Proksch performed it on a natural trumpet. It is a stark contrast to the modern valved trumpet! He held the long thin brass instrument with one hand and with his embouchure controlled the sound very well up to the "fatal" break.

Much of the first half of the concert involved small combinations or all of the UNC Viol Consort, with ten student musicians plus Wissick playing two treble, two tenor, and seven bass violas da gamba. Throughout the program, the level of playing was very good – there was reliable control of intonation, close ensemble work, and expressive phrasing.

The balleto "L'acceso" of Giovanni Gastoldi (1555-1622) features a "fa la la" type of refrain, a clear and engaging melodic line, and lively rhythms. Opposite in mood is the austere "Ricercar" by Julius de Modena (c.1592). Treading at measured tempo, it has complex voicing as different players take up the refrain in turn. Sometimes the overall blend of the strings suggested the sound of an organ.

The "Ancor che col partir" of Cipriano de Rore (1516-65) was a hit tune of the Renaissance, surviving in numerous copies and arrangements; it is often held up as a model of its kind. Mezzo-soprano Rachel Wender is multi-talented: she left her bass viola da gamba to sing the Cipriano, and after intermission, she played the baroque cello. With clear enunciation and focused intonation, she phrased the love-sick text with ideal simplicity.

Instrumentalists took up well-known madrigals in pieces called "diminutions," improvising rapid passages and ornaments such as those in the "Diminutions on 'Anchor'" by Richardo Rogniono (c.1592). Fred Thomsen played the showy viola da gamba part cleanly, with superb bow control, supported by a bass line provided by harpsichordist Will Gibbons.

The next four selections were in a style that involved the viol players' ornamenting all four voices; this was "called 'bastarda,' because it resulted in numerous musical "'children' without being faithful to one part." Wissick's notes draw a parallel between this approach and modern jazz traditions.

Two Psalmi by Mikolaj Gomulka (c.1575), instrumental settings of Polish domestic vocal works, were strongly contrasted. The first was slow and solemn with a clear melodic line in which the leading voices are taken up in turn. A dance-like rhythm dominated the more lively second arrangement. There were a few sour notes at the start of the "Vestiva i colli" of Giovanni Palestrina (1525-1594). Wissick apologized, saying he had forgotten to switch from his treble viol to his bass viola da gamba. All went well with the correct instrument in place.

Two works by Polish composer Adam Jarzebski (1590-1649) ended the viol portion of the concert. The "Cantate Domino" Concerto has a lively give-and-take between solo violin and viola da gamba above a low bass line sketched by a chamber organ. Violinist Leah Peroutka played with minimal vibrato and very few scratchy passages while Wissick seemed to conjure the maze of gamba notes effortlessly. Will Gibbons was the discreet continuo player. Speaking about the canzona "Konigsberga," one of a series about various cities (in this case the port city of Kaliningrad, now in Russia), Wissick quipped that the composer must have wanted to portray a thick fog! With three bass violas da gamba bowing in their lower ranges at a deliberate and lugubrious pace, it was in no way enlivened by the tortoise-like plodding of the even lower bass-line of the organ. The gambists were Liam Byrne, Fred Thomsen, and Wissick, with Gibbons again at the keyboard.

With one exception, well-known works of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) dominated the second half of the program, which combined baroque instruments with vocalists. The "stage area" of Person Hall was cramped as Wissick led the large forces in a stirring performance of the brilliant opening "Toccata" from Monteverdi's opera Orfeo. What a sight it was, with five valveless trumpets bravely blaring away in tune! It whetted music lovers' appetites for the whole opera. Recent in-depth study of the composer by the graduate students was evident in the polished style of the performances and succinct program notes by Will Gibbons and Laurie McMannus. Full Italian and English texts were provided.

The bare minimum of four voices was used for "Lamento della ninfa," clearly a "love" madrigal from the Eighth Book (1638), entitled Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi. The singers were Abbey Thompson, soprano, Patrick Massey, tenor, Jonathan Nussman, baritone, and Nicholas Nyugen, bass, accompanied by theorbo, bass viola da gamba, harpsichord, and organ. Expressive and dynamic nuances were well chosen, and the diction was crystal clear. Most impressive was the remarkable Nyugen's well-supported low register, reflecting quality seldom heard west of Bulgaria. He was perfectly balanced within the ensemble. Soprano Abbey Thompson, who sang the lament itself, has a finished traditional voice, seamless from its lower range to its ringing top.

In "O come sei gentile," from Monteverdi's Seventh Book of Madrigals (1619), sopranos Lisa Chensvold and Abbey Thompson wove lines freely above a simple continuo.

Again from Book VIII, "Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda" received an outstanding performance. This sprawling madrigal is in effect a mini-opera. The role of Testo was taken by Kevin Campbell, Tancredi, by baritone Jay Dolan, Clorinda, by Abbey Thompson, and some of the narrative, by tenor Steven Lumpkin. The large baroque orchestra provided heightened images of combat.

Carlo Farina (1600-40) would have been pleased by the chuckles produced by the performance of his "Capriccio Stravagante." Among the effects were cats' meows, dogs' barks, etc. This piece is more diffuse than a similar work by Biber that I twice reviewed last summer.

The audience was sent away smiling by the infectious rhythms of "O Rosetta" from Monteverdi's Scherzi Musicali (1607). Wissick wondered if Leonard Bernstein had known of this piece. It fits closely the line of "I Want to Live In America" in his musical West Side Story.