Renaissance music -- with its crunchy textures and low-fat sonorities -- sometimes seems like the plate of raw vegetables at the classical music buffet. But in the right hands this music can reveal rich and meaty depths, as the multi-talented Folger Consort demonstrated over the weekend at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The Folger teamed up Friday night with vocalists of the Concord Ensemble for an intriguing launch to this year's Washington Early Music Festival. Alternating instrumental pieces from composers like Girolamo Frescobaldi and Salamone Rossi with 16th-century vocal works by Luca Marenzio ("the Schubert of the madrigal") and Thomas Morley, the players delivered precise, elegant performances -- but also pushed through the music's courtly facade to reveal the fires at its core.
And that's easier said than done. The hurdles to a satisfying, historically accurate performance can be huge -- lutenist Christopher Kendall got a round of applause just for tuning the approximately two dozen strings of his theorbo -- but so are the rewards. Robert Mealy, cradling his violin at chest level, turned in some profoundly moving playing (Tobias Hume's "Passion of Musicke" was a minor miracle), as did Brent Wissick on viol.
But the focus was really on the singing, and the Concord Ensemble delivered spectacularly, with exceptional control and feeling. And, while there was a certain amount of happy tra-la-la-ing in the bosky dell -- you can't get through a madrigal evening without it -- the music was more often hauntingly beautiful: delicate tapestries barely concealing a sea of dark and hungry passions.
-- Stephen Brookes
National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus
Incongruities abound in the history of Mozart's 17th and final Mass, the "Great" in C Minor, K427/417a. Composed in 1782-3, during one of the periodic pendulum swings toward solemnity rather than ornamentation in church music, it opens with a Kyrie that is one of Mozart's most beautiful works. The Gloria has Handelian power; the Sanctus and Benedictus, strength and solidity.
Mozart lived eight years after writing parts of the Mass. He incorporated some of it into a cantata, "Davidde Penitente." But he never finished the Mass itself, so audiences usually hear a respectful 60-minute "completion." At the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday night, however, the National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus used the Robert Levin version, which balloons to 75 minutes and adds inauthentic brass, a fancy fugue and Beethovenian harmonies.
Stan Engebretson, a far better conductor than raconteur, secularized and trivialized the work in opening remarks, especially praising what he called the "let's party" conclusion -- which is Levin's, not Mozart's.
Still, much of the performance soared. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop was excellent, reveling in the runs and trills of "Laudamus Te." Soprano Christina Major, replacing the ailing Mary Wilson, was uneven, her voice pinched and tight through much of the work, fully sonorous only in the "Agnus Dei." Tenor Alan Bennett and baritone Kurt Loft Willett had much less to do, but sang firmly and with intensity. The chorus, though too large, sang smoothly, and the orchestra's refined playing filled Strathmore with Mozart magic.