About 125 people were in attendance as noted British harpist Andrew Lawrence-King, reputedly the greatest living Baroque harpist, joined the Ensemble Chanterelle on December 3 in the University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill for a delightful recital of Italian Baroque music, primarily by the Bononcini brothers - Giovanni (1670-1747) and Antonio Maria (1677-1726). We are accustomed to hearing the harp in orchestral, chamber or recital settings, often in a showy, virtuoso mode, but with the exception of one piece (discussed below), it was here used primarily as a continuo instrument, as was apparently often the case during the composers' lifetimes.
Ensemble Chanterelle is composed of musicians from various locales. The local connection, Brent Wissick (cello, bass violin and viola da gamba), is on the faculty of UNC-CH. Catherine Liddell (lute and theorbo) is Boston-area based and a freelance performer with several groups and other solo musicians. Soprano Sally Sanford is on the faculty of Wellesley College and teaches privately in Concord, MA, and Charlottesville, VA. They were joined by guest Tina Chancey, who played viola da gamba on this occasion but is in fact a multi-instrumentalist, specializing in early bowed strings, and an independent recording producer as well.
Lawrence-King (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/Harp/bio.htm [inactive 10/06]) divides his time between solo recitals, world-wide tours with the Harp Consort, of which he is the founder and director, and appearances as guest director for orchestras, choirs and baroque operas. He has numerous CDs to his credit, many of them award-winning. His US tour nearly had to be canceled because the Department of State lost his visa papers, and because arrangements were consequently so last-minute, he was unable to bring his own harp, forcing him to borrow a different one for each of his appearances. For this performance, he played an early 19th-century single-action harp built in Dublin and belonging to Emily Laurance.
The program included two Sonatas (Nos. 2 and 4), a Sinfonia per Camera, a Sonatta a violoncello solo (played on violas da gamba by Wissick and Chancey), and "Laudate pueri" (Ps. 113) by Antonio Maria Bononcini; and the cantata "Impara a non dar fede" and two arias--"E pur le mie rovine," from Il ritorno di Giulio Cesare , and "Amante ozioso," from Il fiore della eroine --by Giovanni Bononcini. In addition, there were two arias by Barbara Strozzi ("Bel desio" and "Respira"); a "Ciacona a basso solo" by Giuseppe Colombi and a Giga by Domenico Galli performed on the violone (bass violin) by Wissick; and a Fantasie by Francesco Corbetta, followed by an Improvisation, performed on the harp by Lawrence-King. The works and instrumentations, and hence the players, alternated throughout the evening, providing a pleasing variety.
The program seemed to be designed to demonstrate that the viola da gamba was far from being the only continuo instrument used in works of this period and that the choice of the continuo instrument greatly affected the sound of the work and the impression it made. For example, the opening work, Antonio Maria's Sonata No. 4, began with a movement marked "largo"--a tempo often associated with solo gamba music--but used the harp for continuo with the baroque cello; the Cantata that followed added the voice to this combination. The Sonata No. 2 used the organ, played by Lawrence-King, and the aria "Respira" employed the theorbo, played by Liddell. All forces joined together in the concluding Psalm, which contained two largo movements and again featured Lawrence-King playing the organ. This mostly obscure and unfamiliar music often contained lovely melodies and had good variety in tempi to sustain the listener's interest, and the performances were without exception outstanding. A recording is being made.
The highlight of the evening was a harp solo by Lawrence-King, alluded to above. After the short Fantasie Chaconne, the Improvisation, inspired by the techniques described and taught in the book Luz y Norte , published in Madrid in 1677 by Ruiz de Ribayaz, a Spanish musician and composer who also traveled to Latin America, positively sparkled. Using a Spanish dance rhythm, Lawrence-King played the harp as if it were a guitar, at times strumming, plucking the strings at various points along their lengths to produce different sounds, and tapping the soundboard on the front and the back with fingers and fingernails, all with amazing effects. Applause burst forth at the conclusion, undoubtedly inspired both by the spectacular performance and the demonstration of this totally unexpected use and versatility of the harp. A recording of music of this type exists; "Spanish Dances" (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472-77340-2) features selections from Ribayaz's book performed by the Harp Consort with Lawrence-King and other players on other instruments, including lutist Paul O'Dette.
Acoustics in the church are good except that the bowed strings often covered the plucked ones, a problem being dealt with for the recording using the same location, I'm told. Otherwise balance was excellent. Sanford's diction is impeccable and her voice, particularly well suited to these works; indeed it is hard to imagine one more ideally so. Her performance of the "Laudate pueri," which followed the harp solo and brought this exciting evening to a close, held the audience so enraptured that you could have heard a pin drop.
The program notes, by Brent Wissick, while very interesting, were more an essay on Baroque bowed instrument design and playing practices than traditional work-specific commentaries. Although significant known biographical information concerning the Bononcini brothers was given, nothing was said of the other composers represented on the program. The same was the case for the works themselves, with details scant or non-existent for most of them. Texts and translations were provided for the Cantata and the Psalm but not for the arias, but Sanford gave spoken translations prior to their execution.