Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Albany Concert Brings Monteverdi to Noontime Concerts

This afternoon the Albany Consort returned to the Noontime Concerts series hosted by Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown. In the past the Albany Consort founders, Jonathan Salzedo and his wife Marion Rubinstein, timed their visits to coincide with birthday celebrations for Johann Sebastian Bach. This time the focus was on the sacred and secular vocal music of Claudio Monteverdi.

This required adding vocalists to the Albany instrumentalists, and they were the section leaders in the choir for St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park. Furthermore, additional instrumentation was provided by The Whole Noyse, whose members are Stephen Escher on cornetto, Richard van Hessel and Michael Cushing on sackbuts, and Herb Meyers doubling between dulcian and viola. The full complement of instrumentalists also performed compositions by Giovanni Gabrieli, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Giovanni Picchi.

Taken as a whole, this made for a promising program. Even the secular vocal selections offered up their own unique take on symmetry. Both were taken from Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals, which is divided into two sections, one about war and the other about love. Each begins with the text of a “sonnet of opposition:” “Let others sing of Mars/Cupid; I sing of Love/War.” The music follows the conventional Italian coupling of an octave (eight lines) with a sestet (six lines). The octave, in turn, has two four-line sections with the same rhyme scheme: ABAB. The sestet is similarly divided into two three-line sections; but, in this case, the rhyme scheme seems to evoke Dante Alighieri’s terza rima (third rhyme) scheme: CDC DCD.

Monteverdi’s structure tends to respect the structure of these two texts. However, he embellishes that structure with a fair amount of richly embellished polyphony; and therein lies the difficulty with this afternoon’s performance. The acoustics of Old Saint Mary’s blurred that polyphony to such an extent that even the most attentive listener would have felt frustrated. Ultimately, this was a failure of judgement on Salzedo’s part. During the last Albany visit, the music of Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme drew upon elements of both homophony and polyphony; and Salzedo’s instrumental arrangement knew how to get the most out of both techniques.

To be fair, Monteverdi knew how to exercise the same balance. The Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) of 1610 can probably manage quite well in the cavernous space of St Mark's Basilica in Venice; but madrigals were never written to be sung in that space. The two sacred selections from Selva morale e spirituale (moral and spiritual forest), “Beatus Vir” (blessed is the man) and “Confiteor tibi” (thanks to thee), fared somewhat better; but even they had to count for more blurring in the church’s acoustics than one would have desired. Ultimately, the instrumental selections fared best, not only because of amplitude but also due to attack profiles that sharply defined the onset of each note.

Nevertheless, it was clear that every contributing performer was solidly committed to giving a clear account of his/her part; and it would be delightful to listen to the entire program a second time in a more acoustically conducive space.

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