BEMF 2013: Review: Feeling the Elephant’s Ear

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The BEMF Orchestra.

The BEMF Orchestra.



1. Tufts and Brandeis Early Music Ensembles (6-10 at 11 am in First Church Boston): early 17th century instrumental works
2. The Historical Keyboard Society of North America (6-10 at 12:30 pm in First Church Lutheran): “Phantasmagoria: Tombeau to Tango”–harpsichord music ancient and modern
3. El Dorado Ensemble w/John Tyson (6-10 at 4 pm in Lindsey Chapel, Emmanuel Church): early 17th century Italian instrumental music
4. Mozart’s instruments concert: Amandine Beyer, Milos Valent, Erich Hoeprich, and Kristian Bezuidenhout (6-10 at 8 pm in Jordan Hall, preceded by 6:30 talk by Johannes Honsig-Erlenburg): chamber music for violin, viola, clarinet, and piano


5a & b. SoundScapeSeries, presented by the Historical Keyboard Society of North America {HKSNA) (6-11 at 11:00 am and 12:30 pm in First Church Lutheran): “Musical Flowers, Follies, and Fantasies” including Vivian Montgomery and Sylvia Berry; “Musical Parnassus: Man & Myths” including Sonia Lee and Takae Ohnishi
6. The Bach Project (6-11 at 2 pm in Church of the Covenant): all authentic Bach flute sonatas and trio sonata—musicians from Oberlin (Amary Guitry and Kathie Steward, flutes with David Ellis, vc and Jacob Street, hpschd)
7. Symphonie des Dragons: “Au Goût du Soldat” (6-11 at 5 pm in Jordan Hall): French military music for double reed band from a late 17th century collection
8. Dowland songs with Emma Kirkbye and Paul O’Dette (6-11 at 8 pm in Jordan Hall)


9. Beethoven and the Piano (6-12 at 9 am in Church of the Covenant): Randall Love, Stephen Porter, Yi-heng Yang, Daniel Lee, Ezra Seltzer, and Rod Regier’s 6-1/2 octave Viennese piano (Graf-Boesendörfer hybrid)
10. Viol and harpsichord: Philippe Pierlot and Lorenzo Ghielmi (6-12 at 2 pm in Emmanuel Church)
11. Almira, Handel’s first opera (6-12 at 7 pm in Cutler-Majestic Theater)


12a, b, c. Bach’s organ works—three concerts (6-13 at 9, 11:30, and 2 pm in First Church Lutheran): William Porter, Luca Ghielmi, and John Scott
13. Cantigas concert (6-13 at 5 pm in Jordan Hall): Newberry Consort
14. BEMF Orchestra (6-13 at 8 pm in Jordan Hall)


15. Sarasa Ensemble (6-14 at 12 pm in Boston Conservatory Theater): sonatas for recorder, vln, continuo
16. Bach Complete Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord (6-14 at 2:30 in First Church Lutheran): Rachel Barton Pine and Paul Cienniwa
17. Gli Incogniti: Stylus Phantasticus program (6-14 at 5 pm in Jordan Hall): Amandine Beyer and friends
18. Hilliard Ensemble (6-14 at 8 pm in Emmanuel Church)


19. Jordi Savall & Hesperion XXI (6-15 at 2 pm in Jordan Hall):
20. Charpentier Chamber Operas (6-15 at 8 pm in Jordan Hall)

Part I

No one can review the Boston Early Music Festival. Critics must select what time, physical energy and mental attention allow from the one hundred and forty plus musical events, exhibition offerings, lectures, etc, that are encompassed by the official festival and its very prolific offspring on the “fringe,” whose events are included in the official program book. (Schlepping the 300 + page book to events gets to be another physical challenge.) This assessment of the scope, size, and character of the event is based on random selection and personal bias. As a keyboard player, I favored keyboard events to the point of taking in a series of concerts rather than running from one venue another. In a few cases, I wanted to see performances by people I know. I also seem to have listened to a lot of Bach. From this random sampling, I hope to convey something of the range of performers’ skills, repertory, ideas, and innovations attached to the concept of “Early Music” in this year’s festival. But this report is only the elephant’s ear;1 others will have to deal with the rest of the creature’s anatomy.

Range: as was the case in 2011, there were few events focusing on medieval music; the most prominent was a wonderful program of “Cantigas de Santa Maria” (#13) offered by the Newberry Consort, and particularly its vocal soloist Ellen Hargis, in a very effective presentation. On the other end of the chronological spectrum, there were a number of contemporary harpsichord works performed as part of SoundScape, four concerts presented by the The Historical Keyboard Society of North America whose animating spirit, Elaine Furnaro, is a leading advocate for new harpsichord compositions (##2 & 5). The style of these works was about as remote from anyone’s idea of “early music” as can be imagined. Between the extremes, the repertory seems to center around the late 17th-early 18th century, with the two opera performances providing the strongest weight in that area. Ten of the twenty concerts I attended did so as well, while the remainder were equally divided between earlier and later repertory. The latter included programs utilizing 19th century piano copies, whose quality of manufacture has been steadily improving since the inception of BEMF about 30 years ago. In particular, the solo and chamber music of Beethoven received significant attention. The notion of music from after 1825 as “early music” remains controversial; two years ago Schumann was admitted, but this year the only incursion into the mid-nineteenth century was choral, in a program I regretfully missed: Convivium Musicum’s “Brahms and Early Music.” I am certain that such an offering must have shed new and fascinating light on the role that Brahms played in preparing the way for BEMF 150 years ago.

Emma Kirkbye

Emma Kirkbye

Skills: BEMF can command the best performers of the world and bring them to Boston. A stark contrast was offered by two of the concerts featuring veterans. Emma Kirkbye virtually defined “early music” solo vocal style about 30 years ago, while the Hilliard Ensemble did the same for one-on-a-part ensemble singing starting seven years earlier (although with a different membership). Each had a program, but the technical and artistic results were far removed from each other. Kirkbye’s artistry has deepened over the years and her voice and performance skills show no losses with the years. Her evening of Dowland was a highlight of the festival (#8). The Hilliard’s performance (#18) began with the voices distressingly out of focus. Their fans were left to wonder whether age had gotten to their ability to achieve the perfect vertical resonances for which they are famous, or whether it was jet-lag, unfamiliar acoustics, etc. There was improvement in the second half, but by then, the experience had become one of rooting for the performers rather than being elevated by them.

Amandine Beyer.

Amandine Beyer.

Young and less familiar but no less sterling was violinist Amandine Beyer who participated in the Mozart concert (#4) playing the composer’s own instrument, whose journey from Salzburg constituted the festival’s biggest headline. But Beyer’s intensely flexible, responsive and nuanced playing, not to speak of Mozart’s music, trumped (for me) interest in the instrument, which sounded very good, but not particularly different from other baroque-style violins heard elsewhere, including in Beyer’s performance of earlier baroque violin music later in the week (#17). Along with her colleagues, she moved directly to the expressive core of Mozart’s gestures and forms in this well-chosen program. No effort was made to “project” the music; it was all an intimate exchange of impassioned declarations among musical colleagues, which the audience had the privilege to overhear. The dimensions of Jordan Hall seemed to shrink to those of a salon. Another young light of the festival was Amanda Forsythe who stole the show in Handel’s opera Almira (#11). As Edilia, her stage presence and voice equally elevated the material, some of which was not necessarily the composer’s most dramatically gripping. She was aided by a staging that did not take itself too seriously and by very able colleagues. But when it was her turn, the routine of baroque opera fell away and we were treated to moments of authentic musico-theatrical charisma. 2

Lorenzo Ghielmi

Lorenzo Ghielmi

Another splendid player who is neither young nor locally familiar belongs in this same company. Lorenzo Ghielmi first appeared as Philippe Pierlot’s harpsichord accompanist in the latter’s program of music for bass viol. I had heard Pierlot in 2011 and my impression was confirmed of a musician in complete control of his instrument and repertory who was, nevertheless, a notch short of commanding full attention. His style is fully frontal to the music, taking on a strong gesture and large sonority at every turn. These, however, are not the most characteristic attributes of the viol repertory, especially the core French material; there, subtlety, nuance, flexible tone, a gestural range from tangible to ethereal is needed to bring out the richness and elegance of this remarkable music. Without in any way trying to steal the show, Ghielmi proved the more impressive performer. This was some of the cleanest, most honest and straightforward harpsichord playing I have heard, replete with nuance and subtlety. The innate modesty said “here is the music and only the music.” Every detail was etched and energized in a way that should have made every keyboard player in the house envious or inspired (or both). This impression of Ghielmi’s artistic personality was confirmed the following day when he played the second of three concerts of Bach’s organ music at First Lutheran (#12). He was preceded by veteran New Englander William Porter and followed by John Scott of Great Britain via New York. Each of those concerts was so distinct that it almost could have been three different instruments we were hearing, and perhaps three composers as well. Excellent as the other performers were (more about that below), Ghielmi for me stood out for the same virtues described above in his harpsichord playing. His sonorities were light and silvery, his textures crystal-clear; there was no ponderousness in the name of rhetoric or organ expressiveness; rather, there was a springiness and crispness of articulation that one does not expect to hear in this repertory, and the results were (to reuse the favorite early music metaphor) as if the varnish had been stripped off, revealing how radiant the music can be.

Another splendid veteran performer at BEMF shared in the sense of renewal. Two years ago 3 I took Jordi Savall to task for entering the territory of Irish music with a visa issued only by himself, in a journey that should have remained private. Now I can exhale with relief as this musical adventurer returns to a region (of geography and of music) to which he owns a legitimate passport. His program (#19) entitled “Istanbul” offered music from sources and traditions that are mostly familiar from earlier programs, working with collaborators who are active practitioners of those traditions: Ottoman, Sephardic, Greek, and Armenian. Savall’s performing contributions on the vielle were modest and the musical spotlight continually played across the other six members of his group. Though the pieces were well paced and well-selected, the whole had a feeling of a joyous reunion jam-session, with each player clearly relishing the work of his colleagues (it was an all-male group).

Jordi Savall

Jordi Savall

A “star” performer who offered an enticing-sounding double program of Bach’s obligato violin sonatas was Rachel Barton Pine, whom I had not previously encountered in concert. Her bona fides encompass the full history of the violin, and I was curious as to how someone who plays Sibelius’s concerto could be flexible enough to fulfill the demands of this absolutely opposite assignment, not merely in terms of the technical command of quite a different fiddle, but even more in terms of the need to mold an intimate and eqalitarian dialogue between the disparate sonorities of violin and harpsichord. While there was no question of Pine’s authority over technique and tone, the latter set of demands went unfulfilled, with one interesting exception.

Bach’s six obligato sonatas are among his greatest works, but are quite tricky to perform successfully owing to the composer’s treatment of the upper line of the harpsichord as absolutely equal to the violin in most of its movements. There are a minority of movements in which the violin is supposed to solo, in which cases the harpsichord plays an ideally conceived, motivically intricate continuo realization. In one case (Sonata 6, third movement), the violin disappears altogether; in another (Sonata 5, first movement), the harpsichord has a total of three parts into which the violin must fit a fourth. Pine played with a strong, often opaque sonority that almost always masked or subordinated Paul Ciennwa’s harpsichord. His unfortunate choice of instrument, a Dowd French double, contributed: it was plummy, mellow, and lacked the sharp attack and bright sonority needed to bring the lines forward despite the harpsichord’s natural lack of sustain; and the diffuse acoustics of First Lutheran, ideal for organ music, helped undermine the notion of equal voices. More puzzling in performers claiming special skill in baroque music was the lack of rhetorical presentation. 4 What Pine offered was closer to the realm of nineteenth-century lyrical expressiveness, despite her total control of the baroque bow (in the sense that she could obviously do whatever she wanted with it). It was precisely the employment of this range of accents and their associated bowing techniques that gave Amandine Beyer’s performances such eloquence. Pine’s choice of very fast tempi in the lively movements further undermined the presentation of the musical organization according to phrases and exchanges of voice. The purpose seemed to demonstrate impressively fast playing, but the blur of notes coming from the harpsichord failed to supply any meaningful foil for the on-rushing stream of notes from the violin. The exception was that first movement of Sonata 5 (in F minor) where Bach uniquely sets out a complete four-voiced texture. Here there can be no question of the need for the violin to subdue itself so as to permit all voices equal status. For once, Pine ratcheted down the intensity of her sound and achieved the delicate transparency that could have served so well the rest of the time. So there is no question that she can do it if she wishes. It would be interesting to hear her return to this repertory with a stronger-voiced harpsichord, a more assertive accompanist, and a more intimate acoustic.

The presence of stars and veteran performers did not dominate the festival; at the other end of the spectrum were the students and up-and-coming young professionals. In between were highly skilled musical artists of distinction who happen (for whatever reasons) to be less well-known. It was startling to realize how many there are in this category and how good they can be.

I chose to begin my BEMF experience with the Tufts and Brandeis Early Music Ensembles (#1) who offered a very pleasant helping of mixed instrumental 5 repertory including vocal works performed instrumentally, fantasies, dances, canzonas and sonatas from roughly 1575 to 1650, by French, English, Italian, Spanish, and German composers. The instrumentation mixed recorders, “brasses” (cornetto and sackbut) and viols, with a guest violinist, Nicholas Lindley, offering a satisfying and stylish “Sonata Quarta” of Dario Castello, a composer who always seems to have something interesting to say. The majority of players were from the Tufts group, and the forces sometimes included the directors, Jane Hershey and Sarah Mead, both viol players. Another outstanding solo performance was Julia Bolsinger’s rendition on soprano recorder of Bartolomeo Selma y Salaverde’s “Canzon Terza.” The remainder of the program relied on group cohesion, and it is a tribute to the directors that this was so consistently present as to make this a very pleasant way to start the festival.

Another program that brought together teachers and students (present or former) was “The Bach Project” (#6) in which Kathie Stewart (faculty, Oberlin Conservatory) presented Bach’s four “authentic” flute sonatas and trio sonata for flutes in collaboration with Oberlin alums Amara Guitry (who soloed in the E minor sonata with continuo), and Jacob Street (harpsichord) along with David Ellis, apparently still an Oberlin undergraduate. The venue was the Church of the Covenant. It was probably necessary, for practical purposes, to restrict the program to five works, but I must confess to irritation at the exclusion of the three presumably “inauthentic” sonatas, which are as fascinating and engaging as the accepted canon. 6

The performances were satisfying if not brilliant; but this is intimate music and the baroque flute is subtle and understated. Stewart and Guitry each played their own instrument. This, along with their differing personal approaches, provided clear contrast. I somewhat preferred Guitry’s grainier, more characterfully throaty sound, and her playing was able to achieve more bite and variety of articulation. Her sonata was the one in E minor with continuo, for me one of the two most powerfully expressive works in this group (the other being the B minor well-performed by Stewart and Street). Its opening is a somber and extended meditation in the manner of the St. Matthew Passion; marked “Adagio ma non tanto,” the moderate tempo taken here could have leaned more toward the “Adagio” side for greater intensity, but was nevertheless effective. The “Andante,” an elegant French-style piece, was played on the slowish side; faster, it would have felt more dance-like, but this tempo gave Jacob Street the room to offer an elaborate and imaginative realization of the continuo. Decades ago I heard a program of Bach flute sonatas rendered on modern flute by big name performers in Tully Hall.  The present performances offered more opportunity to appreciate Bach’s eloquent uses of the instrument.

Performing baroque music as part of a program of social outreach may seem a bit exotic, but that is part of the mission of the Sarasa Ensemble, which offered a modest but enjoyable program (#15) at the Boston Conservatory. A concert setting is not the usual one for this combination of recorder (Sarah Cantor), violin (Jesse Irons), cello (Timothy Merton), and harpsichord (Matthew Hall); that would be, rather, “correctional facilities, homes for the elderly, mental hospitals, and institutions for the disabled” according to their self-description. Directed by cellist Merton, Sarasa’s membership varies with their programs, which cover a wide range of repertory; the group won an Early Music America award for outreach in 2007.  I thought it took a while for the sound of this particular combination to gel; Merton’s cello tended to be energetic and forward, not always supportive to the upper parts, especially recorder. Sarah Cantor’s solo rendition of Corelli’s “La Folia” was impressively nimble but it was in the Andante of the Vivaldi Trio Sonata RV 84 that her playing rose to true eloquence in front of an imaginative realization of the texture with pizzicato violin and cello. The final movement of that same sonata was a striking tarantella, complete with bagpipes (piva) and surprising caesuras. It would be a hit for any audience, and its power to communicate clearly transcends genre.

Part II

Repertory: Keyboard Music

My choices in the festival were skewed toward keyboard music, which was in abundant supply (more than I could get to hear). The program “Phantasmagoria: Tombeau to Tango” (#2) presented three harpsichordists with strongly contrasting personalities and programming ideas. First came Christopher Lewis, whose most interesting offering was “L’art de Toucher Moderne” of 2012 by Danny Clay, who chose three of Couperin’s didactic preludes (nos. 1, 4, and 5 which were also performed) and based new works on the scaffolding of their harmonic structure. While the theoretical process was not aurally apparent to me (they were not even in the same keys as the source-pieces), the translation process from Couperin’s spontaneous tonal logic to a looser diatonic but dissonant modern vocabulary was clear and absorbing. The originals and the new versions were performed in alternation. Also on that program were new works by Thomas Foster and Maurice Ohana; the latter’s “So Tango” proved to be so conventional that I couldn’t avoid the reaction: “So what?” Mr. Lewis’s performances were committed but not always technically impeccable.

"Moderne" harpsichord by Richard Kingston.

“Moderne” harpsichord by Richard Kingston.

The second segment of this event was a performance of a suite in D minor by D’Anglebert, whose final “Tombeau de M. Chambonnières” was dedicated here to Gustav Leonhardt. This great work was performed with a supple flow and expressiveness by the impressive harpsichord player JungHae Kim, who had studied with Leonhardt in Amsterdam. Apparently active mostly on the West Coast, this important artist was one whom I was very happy to get to hear. The final segment presented a player/composer whose musical personality was diametrically opposite to Ms Kim’s. James Dorsa at the harpsichord is a bit like the bull in a china shop; fortunately he did not break anything on the Richard Kingston splendid “moderne” style instrument that he was using. Dorsa did an all-contemporary program of works in maximalist style, which mean prolonged wild dissonances in clusters that ranged all over the keyboard in works by Chan Ka Nin, Naji Hakim, Gyorgy Ligeti, and the performer himself. Influences of rock and roll were felt in several works (Ligeti’s was “Hungarian Rock”); there were rumbling arpeggios, massive clusters in the lower register (the instrument stood up to these manfully), cymbalum-like tremolo effects, pounding ostinato—you get the idea. In remarks from the stage, the performer spoke of the music reproducing the sound of the modern era. If you were willing to accept the legitimacy of doing so in an early music festival, it constituted a jolting digression, but one about whose artistic value the jury must still be out.

I got to both parts of HKSNA’s Tuesday offerings, but had to leave before the final performer appeared. Sonia Lee introduced the theme of musical mythology with pieces evoking birds, muses, the home of the gods, a mermaid, and a devil of four forms. Pasquini’s cuckoo sounded a bit too hesitant and French in this performance; I think of this as a pretty straight-ahead bird who pops off without reticence. J. C. F. Fischer’s evocation of astronomy was a passacaglia that turned to Pachelbelian sweetness when it migrated from minor to major. F. W. Marpurg’s mermaid proved to be quite wild and his devil gave the performer much to be occupied with in the way of repeated notes, bariolage effects and drippy ornaments. Apparently, violinists are not the only musicians who can be diabolically possessed.

More contemporary works were offered by Takae Ohnishi, who performed a meditative piece showing eastern influences called “Some Empty Thoughts of a Person from Edo” composed in 2001 by Lei Liang. Beginning in a spare, delicate manner utilizing lute and 4-foot sounds, it moved to some dramatic juxtapositions in the middle with its sweeping runs and clusters. But the music never reached the level of maximalism (or abuse) heard the day before. It seemed a thoughtful recasting of the harpsichord as a relative of the qu’in and koto, in a modern spirit. In this sense it resembled Takemitsu’s harpsichord piece “Rain Dreaming” but it had a character quite different from that classic work. Ohnishi’s other offering was more derivative and less interesting: the “Prelude, Caprice and Rio” by Makiko Asaoka, a Japanese composer who spent significant time in Brazil. The opening brought to harpsichord music lush octotonic-based harmonies mid-way between Scriabin and the cocktail lounge. The Caprice alternated widespread dissonant arpeggios with clusters and thumps (I couldn’t see exactly how these were produced) and the Rio evoked samba with its 5/8 meter and pop-music references. It was an ingenious form of entertainment, but it did not match Lei Liang’s piece for haunting originality. Early music notwithstanding, these new approaches to the harpsichord are welcome and allow us to stop thinking of the instrument as belonging in a musical museum. Kingston’s futuristically-designed instrument was ideal, both musically and visually.

The three programs of Bach’s organ music (#12a, b, and c) were a study of contrast-within-similarity. All featured the same composer performed on the same instrument; that is where the resemblances ended. William Porter (#12a) focused on the earlier works: preludes and fugues in C major, G minor and E major; individual works such as the Fantasias in C major and minor, the Pièce d’Orgue (which I know under the title “Fantasia in G”), three chorales from the Neumeister Collection, and the very early partita on “O Gott, du frommer Gott” whose performance by Peter Sykes in the Berkshires I reported on in a review earlier this year. 7 Porter’s interpretations are impressive: he loves color and weight of sound, and deploys both wherever appropriate. In these early works this preference often points up Bach’s own infatuation with the sounds of which his instrument is capable, but it can also cause the loosely held-together improvisatory structures to come apart. There was a tendency to move toward the grandiose and rhetorically excessive; the question might be posed as to whether the performer should go with Bach or try to counterbalance this tendency. My personal preference is for the latter. But Porter’s presentation delighted in piling one richness on top of another, as if one were making a meal out of hot fudge sundaes.

The second leg of this triptych (#12b), Bach’s “middle period” from Weimar to Leipzig, offered the dietary corrective and imposed some restrictions on calories and colors, along with much rhythmic discipline. The performance by Lorenzo Ghielmi has already been discussed. It must be mentioned that his repertory choices, however, had a bit of a nationalistic agenda. They included Bach’s reworking of two Italian works, a fugue after Corelli and a concerto after Vivaldi (the famous one in D minor), but also the very popular Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major. In a remark from the organ loft, Ghielmi claimed that the Adagio contains a true Italian cantilena, demonstrating one of the benefits of Bach’s deep study of Italian style. (I should also mention here that as one of his harpsichord solos in the Pierlot viol program, Ghielmi performed Bach’s “Variations in the Italian Manner,” one of the least characteristic works by Bach that I have encountered. 8 Clearly the maestro wants to share his strong sense of Bach’s debts to the Italian masters.) (Christoph Wolff has much more to say on this subject in his essay on Bach and Vivaldi. 9) It may be that the transparency and rhythmic buoyancy of Ghielmi’s interpretations are motivated by this insight into the source of Bach’s inspiration and technique.

The Richards, Fowkes organ at First Lutheran Church, Boston.

The Richards, Fowkes organ at First Lutheran Church, Boston.

Part III of the concert (#12c) was also part III of “Clavierübung,” sometimes referred to as the German Organ Mass. John Scott introduced the work with very helpful comments, noting that this was his fourth time traversing the twenty-three part work (he omitted the four duets which have nothing to do with the rest of the piece), and he laid out his registrations in considerable detail. This was a great idea, allowing us to know rather than guess at which stops we were hearing, and enjoying the kaleidoscopic color scheme as it shifted from piece to piece. By this time, Scott has a comprehensive view of this late, theologically complex mega-piece, and rather than review it all here, it suffices to say that his understanding of the underlying musico-theological complex came through in his magisterial traversal of the work, as gripping and commanding of attention as any I’ve heard. Scott’s use of the organ combined the virtues of his two predecessors at the keyboard: it had Porter’s variety and impressiveness of color along with Ghielmi’s rhythmic discipline and inevitability of structure. If you can imagine going into the fourth hour of organ music without any flagging of attention or interest, you will sense the magnitude of this achievement.

The third large-scale keyboard event that must be reported on was a Wednesday morning of Beethoven (#9) on Rod Regier’s Viennese hybrid fortepiano, ca. 1830, in the Church of the Covenant. The bulk of the morning was devoted to three late piano sonatas, the last violin sonata, a late set of Bagatelles, and two short trio movements. Randall Love offered sonatas op. 90 (no. 27) and 109 (no. 30), Stephen Porter the early/late op. 119 Bagatelles and sonata op. 111 (no. 32), and Yi-heng Yang, with Daniel Lee, the Violin Sonata op 96 (no. 10). Two Triosätze (1792 and 1812) offered interim relief from the more intense material; Ezra Seltzer was the cellist. Hearing such familiar fare as these sonatas on a pre-modern piano can be either very good or very bad. Bad: because we’ve heard these pieces a million times played by every super-great pianist of the past century—that’s a lot of competition to go up against if you have no special insight into how the proper instrument opens up new vistas of meaning. Good: because we rarely get to hear them thoroughly re-imagined in terms of Beethoven’s own instrument, a process which may bring us closer to what Beethoven might have imagined  himself. A brutal condensation of my experience is that it was Stephen Porter who made his performances very good indeed, especially of the extraordinary final piano sonata. Porter’s effortless execution of the score, including beautifully conceived pedal work 10 and poetic understanding of the dynamic and color possibilities that vary from one register to another made this a transcendent experience. Late Beethoven at its best is indescribable, as was this performance. Everything else on the program was worth hearing; this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Repertory: Orchestral Music

Two programs cast valuable light on the evolution of the orchestra, whose origins lie in the seventeenth century. The program “Au Goût du Soldat” (#7) performed by oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz’s Symphonie des Dragons was a wonderfully refreshing trip backwards in time to the origins of European military music, without which the orchestra would have become a very different animal. Consisting of ten oboes, one “haute contre” (~oboe d’amour), two “tailles” (~english horn), three bassoons, three recorders (two alternating with oboes), one flute, theorbo or guitar, and a variety of percussion, the band contained no brasses. Its repertory was drawn from the “Philidor Collection,” culled and copied out by André Philidor at the Louis XIV’s command in 1692, which included works dating as far back as 1610. Thus the first two suites on the program included such 16th century dances as pavanes, gaillards, and bransles, (composers unknown), the third was a set of marches by diverse somewhat later composers, and individual marches by Paisible and Lully rounded out the first half. While there were no strong stylistic contrasts to this material, each piece had individual character. The performers offered spirited performances inspired by their physically mobile leader, who marched the group on and off the stage. They exhibited real delight in sharing music so intimately associated with their instruments. One highlight was “La Pacifique” of 1636 scored for low instruments and here played by the magic combination of two “tailes” and three bassoons. It is not every day you get to hear such sounds, which remind us that the opposite of war is very beautiful indeed.

Two years ago, BEMF’s own orchestra under the dynamic leadership of Robert Mealy offered a program of mostly chestnuts: a Bach suite, concerti grossi by Corelli and Handel, etc. This year they adopted an opposite approach, offering works that would be unfamiliar to most of us. Except for another Corelli concerto (and you can’t ever have too many of those) the program consisted of unfamiliar works by either famous composers such as Handel and Lully; or composers whose works are less often heard such as Georg Muffat, John Blow, or Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. The twenty players gave amazingly polished performances, considering that in this same week they were also functioning as the orchestra for the four Boston performances of Almira and individually involved in many additional projects. It was particularly impressive to observe the visible communication taking place between Mealy and his stand partner Julie Andrijeski, as well as his give and take with principal second violin Cynthia Roberts. Equally impressive was the rapport shown between the two virtuoso oboists/recorder players Gonzalo Ruiz and Kathryn Montoya. With twenty players and no conductor, the visible paths of communication across the orchestral space offered the audience a clear diagram of the way such a group shapes and balances its performances. It seems that this kind of relaxed body language is more commonly encountered in players of early instruments than in their modern-instrument counterparts, and offers an accurate visual analogy for the different musical results. (A lovely example of this in a chamber context was offered by Amandine Beyer.) Another bonus was the elegant contributions of four dancers to the Lully selections.

I was particularly interested to hear Georg Muffat’s suite “Dulce Somnium” (Sweet Dreams) supplemented by his colossal “Passacaglia” from “Propitia Sydera.” Although published in 1701, this music dates back as much as twenty years. Muffat very consciously synthesized the best properties of French (Lully) and Italian (Corelli) orchestral practice and aesthetics, which he had experienced first-hand. He claimed that these works “contain ‘not only the liveliness and wit drawn from the French wellspring, but also certain profound and unusual affects of the Italian style.’” (as quoted in the program notes). Such claims were well-illustrated by these performances, particularly the dramatic dynamic contrasts of the passacaglia. It was instructive, hearing this extensive work along with the more concise “Passacaille” from Lully’s Armide, to trace the rapid expansion of this form in its orchestral guise. Equally instructive was the opportunity to hear Handel making the most of the Franco-Italo synthesis in two early overtures from 1707 and 1709, 11 both wildly imaginative pieces full of uninhibitedly dramatic coups de theâtres.

Repertory: Single Performers, Single Composers, and Single Sources

This report, whose over-extension is only justified by the overwhelming magnitude of the festival itself, concludes with more intimate programs that focused on individuals either as performers or composers. It is perhaps not surprising that these four programs crowned the festival with breath-taking musical experiences, given that despite the spectacular growth of opera and orchestra, the most eloquent experiences of early music are still in the hands (or voices) of individual performers who have devoted their lives to developing historically likely practices into profoundly personal forms of expression. It is also not surprising that two of these featured violinist Amandine Beyer who has been mentioned already several times. In the Mozart program (#4), she benefitted from having stellar colleagues and a very interesting choice of repertory, resulting in an evening characterized by compositional understatement, formal unpredictability, and intimate interchange among equals. None of the program choices were routine. The two violin sonatas (K. 303 in C, K. 306 in D) both have unusual formal features. Both “experiment” (with complete assurance and success) with the use of tempo contrasts and formal unorthodoxy. In the first movement K. 303, Mozart feigns a slow introduction, Adagio, which is actually the first theme and bridge of a sonata form. When the second theme arrives, Allegro, it does so out of key and backs its way into the dominant which then requires a long stabilization period. There is no development; instead, the first theme and Adagio tempo return in ornamented form, but they move harmonically into a false bridge and the Allegro backs its way into the tonic. Technically, it is overture form. Dramatically, it is one surprise after another leading to a satisfying “ah-ha!” at the final cadence.  Similar surprises await in the last movement of K. 306, including a cadenza for piano and violin: and how, you may ask, can you have a cadenza without a concerto? Stay tuned to Mozart to find out. 12

Other works on this program contained their own surprises: the Prelude and Fugue for piano, K. 394, were part of Mozart’s conscious attempt to assimilate Bach’s counterpoint. In the process, he either failed or immediately explored new ways to use this technique; in any case, the fugue here sounded not so much like Bach or even Mozart, but called to mind the “Prelude” to Die Meistersinger with its delight in long sequential chains of diatonic dissonances. The trio with clarinet features not only a unique combination of instruments, but another unusual form, opening in a moderate tempo that seems to fulfill the functions of both first and slow movements. The program notes and tempo taken by the performers pointed to the origin of the piece in a game of bowling, with the first chord as the strike and the subsequent figure as the pins flying. But the beautifully flowing lyricism, especially in the clarinet, would indicate that this was a very romantic game indeed. Hoeprich’s loving performance inspired a very high level of response from his colleagues.

Beyer’s other performance with her group “Gli Incogniti” (“Austrian Music in the Stylus Phatasticus…”) (#17) displayed her powerful affinity with spontaneous music making; her extravagant ornamentation and dazzling technique convincingly recreated the earliest layers of modern instrumental virtuosity with a freedom and power that shows why this music has remained so remote from modern experience: it absolutely requires a performance that literally galvanizes the music into action. It was akin to watching lightning striking again and again.

The magic of intimate communication in a hall holding close to a thousand people was extended when Emma Kirkbye and Paul O’Dette offered profound insights into the spirit of John Dowland and the lute-song (#8). Solo song is surely the most intimate of genres, lute-song the most within the genre, and Kirkbye/O’Dette the most qualified practitioners to pull an audience into the intensely concentrated quiet space between them, between the words and the notes, between the phonemes and the vowels, between the sweetness and melancholy of these masterpieces. One emerged as if from a long journey to a wondrous, far-away place; Kirkbye conveyed her deeply personal connection to the music (all performed from memory) effortlessly but with no gap in her total identification with each poetic image and underlying emotional message. Even her posture as a listener to the four lute solos included on the program displayed no let-down in her immersion in Dowland’s milieu. My favorite moment occurred at the start of her performance of “Time stands still;” she had been sitting next to O’Dette as an equal partner, but at this moment she suddenly bounced to her feet, striking a pose, unavoidably calling attention to the line to come: “All other things shall change, but she remains the same…” Witty, slightly vain, and absolutely appropriate, without any violation of the spirit of the performance—may she ever remain so.

Finally (and congratulations if you are still with me) the program of Cantigas offered by the Newberry Consort and Exsultemus achieved the alchemy of taking a group of pilgrimage songs based on folk tales, music intended to be sung and played on the road or in court, and presenting eleven of them, one after another, as a concert performance. The pitfalls of this attempt are so numerous that it is hard to imagine avoiding all of them; yet that is just what David Douglass and Ellen Hargis managed to achieve. Through subtle use of the instruments (vielle, rebec, harp, lute, citole, flute, recorder, bagpipe, hammer dulcimer and percussion) each song gained a clearly etched character. Absent was the impression that one used to get of medieval music performances trying to load as much extra instrumental material as possible onto the slender thread of monophonic song; in fact, the color shifts were subtle and sometimes not immediately noticed, but rendered with enormous skill. The use of projected images from the Cantigas codex along with translations kept the eye refreshed and delighted, but the greatest skill was that of Ellen Hargis herself who brought the narratives to life in such a lively way that one felt one was comprehending the words she sang directly, rather than via translation. The contributions of Exsultemus, acting as an occasional chorus in refrains, etc, fit seamlessly into the whole. As with Boston Camerata’s presentation of Roman de Fauvel two years ago, the creativity involved in putting such material on stage for a delightful evening was concealed by the grace and apparent naturalness of the presentation. Congratulations are in order to all concerned.

1 If you are unfamiliar with that parable, contact me and I’ll fill you in.

2 More about the opera in Michael Miller’s forthcoming review.


4 This music depends on a clear and consistent presentation of meter in the form of “good” and “bad” notes along with extra accents indicated contextually in the score by off-beats, syncopations, long expressive dissonances, etc. All such accents are to be indicated by a variety of rhythmic subtleties (known as “agogics”) that are the basis for expressiveness.

5 The opening and closing works were vocal music instrumentally performed

6 The distinction was made by the editors of the Neue Bach Ausgabe on the basis of the existence of manuscripts in Bach’s hand. The excluded works are the Sonata in C major for flute and continuo, and the sonatas in E-flat and G minor for flute and obligato harpsichord. There certainly are questions about the authorship of these three works, but they are plausibly by Bach or written under his supervision by one of his sons. There is also a clear pairing of the E-flat and G minor sonatas which share many structural, textural and harmonic characteristics. These three works are in a more progressive style than the “authentic” canon and would have provided valuable context for such a project.


8 I asked Ghielmi if there was any chance the work had been wrongly attributed; his reply was negative, that Bach was once again mimicking a style he wished to absorb and learn from.

9 “Vivaldi’s Compositonal Art, Bach, and the Process of ‘Musical Thinking’,” in Bach: essays on his life and music. (Harvard U. P. 1993)

10 The four pedals on this instrument are a keyboard shift (una corda), bassoon, moderator, and damper. Porter did not use the bassoon (a stick of wood that rests on the bass strings).

11 Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and Agrippina (1709)

12 This can be found elsewhere, including in the last movement of K.452, the Quintet for Piano and Winds.

About the author

Larry Wallach

Larry Wallach is a pianist, musicologist, and composer who lives in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and heads the Music Program at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. He has also taught composition at Bard College. He studied piano privately with Henry Danielowitz and Kenneth Cooper, and was trained at Columbia University where he studied music history with Paul Henry Lang, performance practices with Denis Stevens, and composition with Otto Luening, Jack Beeson, and Charles Wuorinen. He earned a doctorate in musicology in 1973 with a dissertation about Charles Ives. In 1977, he was awarded a grant to become part of a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of North Carolina directed by William S. Newman, focussing on performance practices in earlier piano music. He went on to participate in the Aston Magna Summer Academy in 1980, where he studied fortepiano with Malcolm Bilson, both privately and in master classes.

Larry Wallach has been an active performer of chamber music with harpsichord and piano, and of twentieth century music. He has collaborated with harpsichordist Kenneth Cooper, with recorder virtuoso Bernard Krainis, with violinist Nancy Bracken of the Boston Symphony, with violinist/violist Ronald Gorevic, with gambist Lucy Bardo, and with his wife, cellist Anne Legêne, performing on both modern and baroque instruments. He has appeared with the Avanti Quintet, the New York Consort of Viols, and is a regular performer on the “Octoberzest” series in Great Barrington. He has been on the staffs of summer early music workshops at World Fellowship and Pinewoods Camp.
In 1996, he presented a program at the Bard Music Festival devoted to Charles Ives designed around a performance the composer’s Second Violin Sonata along with all the source tunes that are quoted in it. Part of this program was repeated at Lincoln Center in NY. He has also appeared on programs in Washington DC, and at St. Croix VI. As a composer, his works have been heard in New York, Boston, Amherst, the Berkshires, and at Bard College.

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