The Folger Consort opened its season at the Folger Theater on Friday with a program of the music of the early Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez and his contemporary Heinrich Isaac -- a lesser, but quite endearing, light -- that explored each broadly if not deeply. Artistic Directors Robert Eisenstein (who plays viols and recorders) and Christopher Kendall (who played just the lute for this concert) were joined by Daniel Stillman on a variety of wind instruments, Margaret Tindemans on viols and recorders, and mezzo-soprano Barbara Hollinshead, countertenor Jay White, tenor Philip Cave and baritone William Sharp.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Josquin to the music of the early Renaissance. Pivotal in incorporating the text and its inflection as central to the music's shape and flow, his music stands as a dividing line between the theory-driven structures of earlier composers and the text-centered high-Renaissance compositions of composers who followed, such as Lassus and Victoria. And there could be no better example of the power of this genius than the "Ave Maria" setting that opened the program. Its open textures and the natural stress of each line, so characteristic of Josquin, give the music a gentle lyricism. Sung from the back of the hall, it made its statement with leisurely grace.
There were other Josquin motets and love songs, instrumental dances, and the Gloria from "Missa Ave Maris Stella," preceded by the Ave Maris Stella plainchant the Mass was based on. Isaac was represented by the lovely homophonic "Canto della Dee," a paean to the city of Florence, Mass movements, instrumental dances and a gently touching performance, by Sharp and the strings, of "Innsbruch, Ich Muss Dich Lassen."
But not all of the music that Josquin or Isaac wrote was sublime. Some was ridiculous, and there was a little of that on the program, too, in the bombast of Josquin's "Scaramella" and the cricket chirping of his "El Grillo" and in Isaac's "Greiner, Zancker" in which the singer threatens to kiss his host's wife on the "snout."
The performances were intelligent, gracefully ornamented and enormously appealing.
-- Joan Reinthaler