Le Poeme Harmonique brings baroque to life at La Maison Francaise

Sunday, February 20, 2011; 6:17 PM

Has classical music become too literal because of performers' reliance on the written score? This was one of the questions posed by the improvisatory playing of the French baroque ensemble Le Poeme Harmonique on Friday night. In the auditorium of La Maison Francaise, Vincent Dumestre, playing the baroque-era lute called a theorbo, led his colleagues in a free-spirited rendition of Spanish and Italian music from the 17th century, rooted in historical research but animated by a more extemporaneous approach.

Through improvisation, pieces melted into one another, dissolving boundaries between works and even in between tunings and starts. Played without an intermission or other distractions, the selection of rather diverse works - dramatic recitatives, solo madrigals, canzonettes and instrumental dances and toccatas - created a sense of timelessness, extended by three lovely encores. Dumestre played the theorbo and baroque guitar with finesse, creating a sound at times so subtle that it almost disappeared, as in the rushing arpeggiation of a toccata by Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger. He was ably seconded by Joel Grare, who enlivened dance pieces by Gaspar Sanz with spiky rhythms on castanets, drums and a bell bumped by his foot.

Subtle instrumental work, including Kaori Uemura's reserved viola da gamba, was crowned by the impassioned sound of soprano Claire Lefilliatre, beefy at the bottom and pure at the top in a way reminiscent of the young Montserrat Figueras. She gave dramatic verve to the lament of the Queen of Sweden at the news of her husband's murder, a lengthy recitative by Luigi Rossi, and suave refinement to more metrical pieces by Monteverdi, Etienne Moulinie, Merula and Juan Hidalgo, still treated with pleasing rhythmic freedom.

- Charles T. Downey

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