Last night’s concert by Voices of Music at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church took in a greater span of both time and space than is usually encountered in an early music recital. The music covered the period between the sixteenth century of William Shakespeare’s England to the results of colonization in the eighteenth century. Place took in not only England, Germany, Austria, and Italy but also the impact of the Spanish colonial presence in Guatemala and Peru.
The music itself featured primarily accompanied solos and duets for both voice (sopranos Jennifer Ellis Kampani and Catherine Webster) and violins (Elizabeth Blumenstock and Lisa Grodin). Continuo was provided by William Skeen on cello and David Tayler on archlute. Hanneke van Proosdij alternated between harpsichord and recorder.
Regardless of how the music itself was situated in space and time, there tended to be a distinctive difference between instrumental and vocal solos. The selections for one or two violins generally seemed to be written with some form of virtuoso display in mind. This was most evident in the E minor sonata by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber that was performed by Blumenstock. However, even in a Shakespearean setting of a characteristic dance for witches, the composer (probably Robert Johnson) required that the violinist (Grodin) produce a few spooky sound effects to reinforce the dramatic effect on stage.
The composers of the vocal music, on the other hand, seemed to offer more attention to clear and compelling delivery of the text than to technical display on the part of the vocalist. Certain composers, of course, were capable of achieving both goals, particularly when writing for duet. Claudio Monteverdi remains to this day one of the most outstanding examples of that dual talent, creating some of the most gracious interleaving of voices even when the underlying semantics of the text are at their most vile.
That talent is most evident at the conclusion of his opera L’incoronazione di Poppea (the coronation of Poppaea). A celebration of the triumph of vice over virtue, the opera tracks the machinations through which Emperor Nero’s mistress (Poppaea) leads him to banish his wife Octavia from Rome, thus allowing Poppaea to rule as Empress. At the conclusion of the opera, Nero and Poppaea sing “Pur ti miro” (I gaze at you), vocal writing that is so seductive that the audience can easily be deceived into believing that love, rather than ambition, conquers all. In a recital setting Kampani and Webster could sing this strictly as a celebration of love, but those who know the full context could appreciate the ironies behind their performance.
The most surprising work on the program featured both the vocalists and the violinists. This was the secular cantata Ah del Gozo (ah, the joy) by the Peruvian composer José de Orejón y Aparicio. According to the Grove Music Online entry by Robert Stevenson, Orejón was so talented that when, in 1715, one of the adult singers in Lima Cathedral died, Orejón successfully replaced him even though he was nine years old at the time. By 1760 he was maestro de capella at the cathedral, serving also as the principal organist. Stevenson does not discuss his secular music; but Ah del Gozo is a skillful setting of an allegorical celebration of love, which definitely does not deserve to come and go with a single performance.
The title of last night’s program was La bella più bella (a most beautiful woman). This was also the title of a madrigal by Luigi Rossi (sung by Webster). The text by an unknown poet is about how “a most beautiful woman” steals the heart of the poet and then quickly vanishes. By its very nature, of course, music vanishes as quickly as it sounds; but last night’s “vanishing” left the listener with many pleasant memories, rather than heartbreak.