Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hargis and O'Dette

What would Shakespeare have had on his iPod? Probably the 16th century's equivalent of today's Top 40, to judge by a fascinating recital on Sunday night by early music soprano Ellen Hargis and lutenist Paul O'Dette, presented by the National Gallery of Art in conjunction with the Shakespeare in Washington Festival.

Shakespeare was deeply familiar with the music of his day, and references to popular songs -- sometimes just a title or the words to a refrain -- run throughout his works. And as Hargis explained, finding those original songs and bringing them to life again evokes the unique flavor of the times -- from the dark lament "Complain, My Lute" (a kind of Elizabethan precursor to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") to the funny, upbeat "My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home."

Hargis has made a specialty of 17th- and 18th-century song, and has a light, clear voice that suits this music extremely well. These are intimate, rather than opulent, songs; their power comes from their quiet, human grace. And Hargis sang them with an effortless beauty, with just a hint of vibrato here and there, minimal ornamentation, and a natural, unforced sense of drama.

Paul O'Dette is one of the finest lutenists in a world rather pleasantly crowded with them, and with his English-sheepdog-on-a-windy-day persona, even looks like an Elizabethan musician. Despite the merciless acoustics of the West Garden Court -- which tend to swallow delicate instruments -- O'Dette accompanied Hargis with precision and wit, and soloed with instrumental music from several of Shakespeare's plays, including "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Romeo and Juliet."

-- Stephen Brookes

Amadeus Trio

It was probably a good idea for the Amadeus Trio to dispense with historical chronology and play Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 before Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 2 at Sunday's Phillips Collection recital. Shostakovich's trio may have been written a century after Mendelssohn's, but the Russian work's prickly, despairing, wartime mood was best dealt with upfront, leaving the earlier piece as an ear-caressing finale.

The Amadeus players were fully in touch with Shostakovich's turbulent mindset throughout their reading, making something slithery and desolate out of the first movement intro, and stamping with lumbering gusto through the sardonic peasant dance in the last movement. If cellist David Teie missed some notes in the cruelly exposed sequence of harmonics that opens the piece, and violinist Timothy Baker's intonation slipped during the most punishingly fast passages, they can certainly be excused given the challenges of the writing. And after all, this piece has more troubling things on its mind than the niceties of string phrasing.

Pianist Hiroko Sasaki played with galvanic power in the Shostakovich, then turned around to treat the cascading runs in Mendelssohn's music like so many strings of shimmering pearls. In its own way, this Trio is no less trenchant than the Shostakovich. But its restless heart is bathed in such warm, naturally sprung melodies that the effect is ravishing. The strings -- sweeter and throatier-sounding here -- sang those melodies eloquently, weaving effectively around Sasaki's radiant playing.

-- Joe Banno

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