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On Tuesday evening, March 21, in the gorgeous new sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Durham, we had our first opportunity to meet the Egidius Kwartet from Amsterdam on their first excursion to the United States. These four men – Peter de Groot, countertenor, Marco van de Klundert, tenor, Hans Wijers, baritone, and Donald Bentvelsen, bass – met in Ton Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Choir. They came together with the aim of performing Renaissance and contemporary music from the Low Countries (in the broadest possible sense). Their repertoire includes Schubert, Kurt Weill, Lully, Purcell and others.
The Durham program was designed to entertain and put a smile on the face of all in the audience. Music from the Court of Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain in the first half of the 16th century) was composed by some of the finest of the Low Country composers. With a style that was relaxed and casual they sang in a manner that was disciplined, varied, and masterful. The program opened with a chanson designed to seduce the king to the singer's favor – "A bien gran tort" by Nicolas Gombert, who lived from sometime before 1500 to sometime after 1556. The song says in part, "I who have always gone through great pains / To serve you and please you...." It was presented as a grand introit and processional, the baritone and the bass singing and processing from the back of the sanctuary to be joined by the tenor and counter-tenor from the side entrances. With the nicely attuned acoustics of the worship room, the two sounded like much more, especially when singing from the back. As all four joined together in sweet harmony, weaving lines and phrases into a tapestry of rich sonority, I knew we were in for a special treat. If I were the king, I would have said, "Gentleman, I am convinced, here are extra florins you justly deserve."
There is something quite mystical and ethereal about the blend of four well matched a cappella voices, especially in the reverberant acoustics of the church. The next couple of selections were songs of love's longing and regrets: "Mille Regretz" by Josquin des Prez (1440-1521) and "Avecque vous" by Nicolas Payen (1512-59). The Egidius Kwartet filled the room with sound, not brazenly but subtly expressing emotion that melts the heart. As voices moved in harmony or in intricate weaving, the phrases were shaped dynamically and harmonically with precision and purpose. The effect was magical.
They quickly moved on to the – shall we say? – more tangible pleasures of 16th-century courtly life: "Fringotes jeusnes fillettes" ("Shake a leg you lovely lasses.") and other dance tunes and entertaining – almost bawdy – ditties. I very soon found myself feeling as though I were in the true earthy spirit of Renaissance life. This was a time of discovery and new freedom, excitement and new pleasures. It was the time of the birth of humanism and science and industry. It was a time of real people, both high-minded and ordinary. It was a time of fun, especially in courtly circles.
One song told of "a jolly reveler who once rode to Ghent on a skinny horse hardly worth the hire." The singers added vocally produced sound effects, very possibly authentic – or not... – which added to the picturesque performance. At the conclusion of the concert, after sustained applause, they sang Josquin's "Scaramella" – a song about a soldier who loved the uniform, the boots, and other accoutrements of a soldier but would have nothing to do with the requirements of soldiering. Here again, vocalized sound effects and charming interplay among the artists brought smiles and laughter. The Egidius Kwartet gave us a taste of the beauty, pleasures, and joys of the Renaissance and left a smile on the faces of all.