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The way to provide an outstanding concert is to combine a skilled ensemble with some unique and special music ideally suited to their style and present it in an ambiance that enhances their performance potential. This is exactly what happened on this occasion. The ensemble was Isabella, comprised of sopranos Lesley Curtis and Susan Klebanow, mezzo-sopranos Tamsin Simmill and Elizabeth Laughton (new to the group for this performance), and alto Linda Everhart. They are directed (though not conducted) by Mary Lycan, with Simmill as assisting director. Their blend is rich and varied, each voice of trained solo quality. Their sound can be likened to such groups as Anonymous 4 or Sequentia. The rich acoustic qualities of First Presbyterian Church in Durham provided a perfect setting.
For this program they chose the stunning and transcendent Messe à Trois Voix (Mass in Three Voices, for female choir) by the seriously under-appreciated early 20th century Frenchman André Caplet. A colleague and friend of Debussy, Caplet orchestrated and conducted the first performance of The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian and several other significant works. He died at the age of 46 from the effects of the German toxic gas warfare he was exposed to in World War I. His music is unabashedly impressionistic, but he is no impersonator of Debussy or Ravel. He was partial to music of a sacred nature, and his compositions are made more delicate and elegant under the influence of neo-archaism from late medieval and early Renaissance influences.
The Mass in Three Voices was written in 1922 and evokes a very fragile and rather ascetic sound evocative of medieval polyphony. The concert began with the Kyrie and Gloria of Caplet's work. The rich harmonies and melismatic melodic lines at the beginning of the Kyrie were mesmerizing. The Credo, which usually comes after the Gloria, was omitted by Caplet, perhaps because it was the last addition to the Ordinary of the Mass.
Taking their cue from Caplet's style, Isabella interspersed examples of 13th-century polyphony after the mass. "O Maria, virgo Davitica," from the Montpellier Codex, and Guillaume de Machaut's "Le lay de la fonteinne" were both phenomenal displays of the complex modes of polyphony composers of that era were experimenting with. Using surprisingly modern techniques, they took cues from the text and shaped their music to illustrate or enhance the meaning of the words. I found myself sitting with my jaw dropped in amazement at the skill of these extraordinary singers and the exquisitely painted musical canvases of these early music masters, not to mention the group's mastery of long, through-composed texts in medieval French.
After intermission we heard "Alleluia, Nativitas" by Pérotin from around 1200, then the Sanctus of the Caplet mass setting. After a spirited opening, it moves through lyrical episodes, then a lament-like section on the words "Qui tollis peccata mundi," ending with the full ensemble. Another Marian motet by Machaut, "Felix virgo/Inviolata genetrix," illustrated yet another approach to text painting and polyphony. This was followed by the beautiful and other worldly Agnus Dei from Caplet's Mass.
"Recordare, virgo mater," possibly but not certainly composed by Josquin des Pres, definitely displayed silken polyphonic mastery and the more developed harmonic concepts of the 15th century. "Ave, beatissima/Ave Maria" took us back to the Montpellier Codex of the 13th century.
The program closed with Caplet's calm, solemn communion hymn "O salutaris hostia," beautifully sung. For an encore, after extended and enthusiastic applause, the ensemble sang a lively rondeau by 13th-century Trouvère Adam de le Halle with Mary Lycan joining the group with a Sunday school drum (tambour). It had everyone swaying or tapping his or her feet.
Altogether this was truly an outstanding concert. I have an LP dating from the 1970s of the Caplet Messe à Trois Voix. I have waited for 30 years to hear it in live performance. This rendition was an event to be treasured. Perhaps Isabella could have done more with the subtleties of the dynamics of the Caplet, but that small complaint detracted nothing of the pleasure that gratified my spirit..