Scholarship is not generally considered a spectator sport, but in their 30 years as artistic directors of the Folger Consort, Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall have gone a long way toward making it so. The English medieval music they offered at the Folger Theatre on Friday was unearthed and crafted into performable shape by careful research, sung and played by musicians with profound knowledge of period performance practices and organized into a program whose structure provided coherence and a dramatic context.
For the listener, this meant a chance to enjoy an immersion into the mystery and awe of Chaucerian England. Most of the music, anonymous in authorship, had to do with Thomas of Canterbury (aka Saint Thomas à Becket). The opening plainsong sequence, sung powerfully from the theater's lobby, was composed for Thomas's canonization.
There were songs extolling his goodness and music that the Canterbury pilgrims, on their way to pay homage to Thomas, must have known (the singing of "Risum Fecit Sare" and of the motet "Sancta Mater Graciae/Dou Way Robin" was particularly lovely). There were more earthly instrumental dances of the period (13th and 14th centuries) and one spectacular extended "Song of the Flood" in 14 delightful verses, very much in the style of the didactic liturgical dramas written to instruct the masses in important biblical events.
For this program, instrumentalists Eisenstein and Kendall were joined by a nicely balanced trio of singers -- soprano Jolle Greenleaf and mezzos Barbara Hollinshead and Kirsten Sollek -- and by instrumentalists Karen Hansen and Tom Zajac, who played assorted stringed, blown and thumped instruments with both delicacy and enthusiasm.
-- Joan Reinthaler
Aima Maria Labra-Makk
Philippine-born Aima Maria Labra-Makk seems to be able to command a piano to speak in a thousand tongues. Friday night she probed every sonic resource -- and more -- of the Austrian Embassy's Boesendorfer.
She did so with explosive energy, charging through a very demanding program by four composers musically tied to multiethnic areas of Austria and Hungary. And Labra-Makk conveyed every ounce of that diversity.
She centered her attention on works by Jeno Takacs, who died last year at 103, interspersing them with music by Joseph Haydn, Bela Bartok and the rarely heard Joseph Marx. (Born near Haydn's birthplace, Takacs studied with both Marx and Bartok.) She has recently released a CD of all Takacs's solo piano works -- a challenging feat if one judges by the sheer physical exertion and kaleidoscopic array of colors that he calls for.
Opening with his Suite of Old Hungarian Dances, Labra-Makk also explored Takacs's gentler side; the piece is delicately embroidered in neoclassical grace threaded with ancient Hungarian melodiousness.
For his Sonatine, Op. 2, she heightened misty impressionistic textures with sensitive pedaling.
In Takacs's "Sounds and Colors," she ventured inside the piano's machinery, playfully manipulating its hammers and felts, keys and pedals for extremes of dampened, plucked and pounded keyboard effects.
But it was Bartok's Piano Sonata, Sz. 80, that shone the brightest. Labra-Makk plunged through its percussive jazz-insistent rhythms and fragmented repetitions in a performance not easily forgotten.
-- Cecelia Porter