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With Armonia Nova, Love Takes Beguiling Wing

Monday, June 26, 2006

Something about much of medieval and Renaissance music is intimate, almost seductive. The polyphony is subtle and beguiling, and the delicate instruments whisper; you'll never hear a lute snarl, or a harp annoy. And as the Armonia Nova ensemble showed Friday night, 14th-century love songs can burn with as much passion as anything from later, louder eras.

The concert at St. Mark's Church, titled "Amor l'ali m'impenna" ("Love Feathers My Wings"), featured five of the area's most gifted early-music virtuosos, playing works from more than a dozen Italian composers. There were poignant madrigals, tender love songs, delicate trios and duets -- pieces that, although small, contained whole worlds. And all were alive with the pungent harmonies and shifting, ephemeral textures that make early music so captivating.

Captivating, but also difficult -- this music demands an extremely light, almost improvisatory touch or its elusive beauties vanish. The Armonia Nova players were more than equal to the task; harpist (and ensemble founder) Constance Whiteside is a musician of uncommon depth, and her rendition of the anonymous "Lamento di Tristano" was both moving and profound. Countertenor Jay White and mezzo Barbara Hollinshead provided especially memorable duets, playing their similar voices off each other to create rare and unforgettable colors. Douglas Wolters provided witty playing on the viol and vielle (getting to show off a bit in a canzone by Girolamo Frescobaldi), and the remarkable lutenist Howard Bass brought superb musicianship to everything he played.

-- Stephen Brookes

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