Arts & Events

Berkeley Early Music Festival:
Part Two

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 13, 2014 - 10:13:00 AM

The second half of Berkeley’s Early Music Festival got off to a glorious start with the West Coast debut of internationally renowned keyboard artist Kristian Bezuidenhout. In the first of his two scheduled appearances here, the 35 year-old Bezuidenhout, a native of South Africa, played a recital at 5:00 pm on Thursday, June 5, at St. Mark’s Church. For this performance, Bezuidenhout played on a pianoforte built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf in 1990 on designs from around 1800 by Johann Schantz of Vienna. Opening the program was a Rondo in C minor by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach. featuring dynamic contrasts. 

The rest of this recital was devoted to Mozart, beginning with the Suite in C minor, K. 399, composed in 1782 when Mozart was 26 years old. This suite, “in Handelian style,” opens with a C major overture, then transitions via a fugue in A minor, marked Allegro, to an Allemande in C minor, followed here by a Sarabande left unfinished by Mozart but completed by Robert D. Levin. In Bezuidenhout’s capable hands, the rhythmic and dynamic alternations of this work stood out in clear detail. 

Next, Bezuidenhout performed two relatively minor pieces of Mozart, the Menuett in D major, K. 355, and the Gigue in G major, K. 574. The former may have belonged initially to another composition. The latter, composed in Leipzig in 1789, bears traces of Mozart’s late rediscovery of Bach’s greatness. However, the real meat of this recital came, first, with Bezuidenhout playing Mozart’s Rondo in 

A minor, K. 511, by turns dramatically urgent and plaintively elegant, yet solidly wrought on chromatic building-blocks. Next came Mozart’s remarkable Fantasie in C minor, K. 475, a work of which it has rightly been said that it contains a “Beethovenisme d’avant la lettre.” Here Mozart demonstrates his boldness of imagination and his mastery of extreme contrasts; and Kristian Bezuidenhout’s playing brought out the unique strengths of the pianoforte, its combination of surprising power and refined elegance, as well as the shorter decay time a note takes to fade away, which enables a somewhat faster overall tempo than obtainable by a modern piano in passages marked Adagio 

Last but by no means least on this recital’s program was Mozart’s famed Sonata in A major, a work that begins with a stark bass note, then proceeds with delicate right-hand themes alternating with more left-hand bass notes and chords, then requires crossed hands in certain melodic variations, only to move on to a Menuetto (with more hand-crossing), and, finally, culminating in the renowned “Rondo alla Turca.” Bezuidenhout played this Sonata in A major brilliantly, bringing out all its expressive powers. Then, as an encore, he played the elegantly intro-spective Andante movement from Mozart’s C-major Sonata, K. 331, capping off a superb fortepiano recital from this internationally acclaimed keyboard artist. 

On Thursday evening, June 5, the Belgian choral group Vox Luminis returned to the First Congregational Church for a concert dedicated to the Virgin Mary as represented in music from 17th century Italy. However, their opening number, an anonymous lai, sung in Old French on a 13th century text , nearly stole the show from all that came later. This a capella work, Lamentation de la Vierge au pied de la Croix, was sung in the wings by a soprano invisible to the audience; and this only heightened the majesty and mystery of this noble lamentation. Following this stunning opener, Vox Luminis performed the short but famous Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti, a work notable for its dissonances. Next came Claudio Monteverdi’s sublime motet Adoramus te Christe, written in 1620 for six voices on a text by Giulio Cesare Bianchi, a pupil of Monteverdi’s. The following work, a Salve Regina by Domenico Scarlatti, featured vocals by a female soprano and a male alto, with continuo by organ and viola da gamba.  

The last work performed prior to intermission was Lamentation Virginis in depositione Filii de Cruce, attributed to a learned amateur musician, Alessandro Della Ciaia (ca. 1605-1670). This astonishing work demonstrates great skill in polyphony as well as solo parts, creating a dialogue between a chorus of angels and a soprano representing the Virgin. Della Ciaia, (or whover wrote this piece), brings all nine voices together only in the finale. 

After intermission, Vox Luminis performed Domenico Scarlatti’s most famous sacred work, the Stabat Mater. In this work, probably written in Rome for the Cappella Giulia, Scarlatti not only splits the chorus in halves, he also recombines them in various permutations throughout. Set to a moving, almost harrowing, text, this Stabat Mater captures the extreme pathos of the Virgin Mother of Christ, who voices her grief at the foot of the Cross and is lamented by onlookers who are witness to her tragic drama. As performed by Vox Luminis, this work was indeed luminous. 

On Thursday night, June 5, there was yet another concert – this one at 10:00 pm at First Congregational Church by The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Trinity Baroque Orchestra. On the program were four Motets for Double Choir by Johann Sebastian Bach. However, super-saturated as I was after taking in so many events in such a short time, I confess that I passed on this one, preferring instead to listen at home to a CD of these same Bach motets performed by Bach Collegium San Diego given to me on Thursday afternoon at the Festival Exhibition, where various instrument builders, publishers, and Early Music groups display their wares. 

Day six of the Berkeley Early Music Festival began with an 11:00 am fully staged production of Adriano Banchieri’s 1598 madrigal comedy La pazzia senile/Senile Madness performed by the University of Southern California’s Thornton Baroque Sinfonia. This presentation was under the aegis of Early Music America’s Young Performers Festival, as part of the Berkeley Early Music Festival. La pazzia senile utilizes some of the stock characters of Commedia Dell’ Arte; and the youthful troupe, under the direction of Adam Gilbert, performed various popular dances of the Italian Baroque. The music of this madrigal comedy is in three-part polyphony. Among the many excellent performers, one stood out – Vincente Chavarria, who had all the comic moves down pat, sang beautifully, and even wrote the informative program notes. 

On Thursday evening, June 6, The Choir of Trinity Wall Street & Trinity Baroque Orchestra performed a program of sacred music dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The program, spanning the transition from the late Middle Ages to the early Renaissance, was dominated by works of the Franco-Flemish composers – Gilles Binchois, Josquin des Prez, Jacob Obrecht, Nicolas Gombert, Johannes Ockeghem, and Guillaume Dufay -- who spread the art of polyphony throughout Europe.  

To my taste, there was too little diversity in the music chosen for this program. Moreover, the flamboyant but ungainly conducting style of Trinity Wall Street’s artistic director, Julian Wachner, was downright obtrusive, calling too much attention to the conductor and away from the singers and their music. There could be no greater contrast than that between this New York-based choral group and the Brussels-based choral ensemble Vox Luminis. Julian Wachner positions his Trinity Wall Street singers in a semi-circle around him, as he conducts downstage front and center. In contrast to this hierarchical grouping, the Vox Luminis singers are placed in an egalitarian straight-line horizontally across the stage; and they perform without a conductor. Only at the end of a Vox Luminis concert, when Lionel Meunier steps forward to thank the organizers for inviting them, and thank the audience for coming, do we know which singer is this group’s Artistic Director. Whereas the New York group under Julian Wachner is brashly self-assertive, the Brussels ensemble is humbly self-effacing, making the music itself, not any individual, the focus of our attention. 

Lest you dismiss these remarks as random extra-musical observations, let me hasten to say that in performance of the music itself, Vox Luminis achieved a vocal clarity of focus and emotional intensity I found lacking in Trinity Wall Street. Could it be that the Trinity Wall Street singers, like the audience, found themselves somewhat distracted at times by the looming presence and extravagant gestures of their conductor? Or were they too, again like the audience, simply bored by this all too homogenous program of polyphonic music? 

As for the music performed in this concert by Trinity Wall Street, only Guillaume Dufay’s Nuper rosarum flores, composed for the consecration in 1436 of the cathedral of Florence, with its marvelous, just-completed dome by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, stood out in this all too homogeneous program. The lengths of Dufay’s four sections stand in an exact proportion of 6:4:2:3 to one another; and many scholars have surmised that this is a tribute to Brunelleschi’s classical emphasis on proportion. Recently, others maintain that while it may be an indirect tribute to Brunelleschi, it also represents the Old Testament’s testimony regarding the proportions of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. 

On Saturday evening, June 7, Nicholas McGegan, director of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra led the select group of Philharmonia Chamber Players with the addition of Kristian Bezuidenhout, who performed this time on harpsichord. The program for this concert at First Congregational Church included one piece by Johann Sebastian Bach, one by his distant cousin Johann Ludwig Bach, and one each by two of his sons, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach.  

First on this program came Johann Ludwig Bach’s Suite in G major, a sprightly piece which Nicholas McGegan conducted from the keyboard of his modern harpsichord. Next came Johann Sebastian Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1 in D minor, with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing a harpsichord built by John Phillips in 2014 after designs by J.H. Gräbner Jr., ca. 1750. In this piece, as in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, J.S. Bach effectively liberates the harpsichord from being merely an accompaniment. The opening Allegro, as well as the closing movement, also marked Allegro, offer vigorous passage-work, while the middle movement, an Adagio, features florid ornamentation. Kristian Bezuidenhout brought his awesome technique and unerring sensitivity to the harpsichord, just as he had brought these qualities earlier in the Festival to the fortepiano.  

However, from where I sat in the fifth row, the harpsichord sonority lacked the expected treble quality, sounding a somewhat muffled bass timbre. Puzzled by this, at intermission I asked the harpsichord’s builder, John Phillips, why the treble seemed diminished. His answer was simple. “If you move to the back of the hall, you’ll hear the treble.” When I discussed this same issue with Kristian Bezuidenhout himself at intermission, the keyboard artist replied that, “Bach composed this piece for Zimmermann coffee house in Leipzig, a room perhaps one-fifth the size of this hall. The size of the hall always constitutes a problem.” In any case, I took the advice of John Phillips, (who, in addition to building harpsichords, doubles as President of San Francisco Early Music Society), and seated myself much farther back for the second half of the program; and, voilà, the treble quality was miraculously present. 

After intermission, Nicholas McGegan conducted from his modern harp-sichord in Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s Sinfonia in F major, “Dissonant.” Friedemann was in some ways the “black sheep” of J.S. Bach’s sons. Though a gifted musician, he had a difficult, quarrelsome personality, especially when drunk. In any case, Friedemann’s Sinfonia in F major is full of musical surprises, setting up expectations in a conventional galant style, then dashing them with an abrupt plunge to a remote key, sudden changes of dynamics, or even silence when it’s least expected!  

Only the two Menuettos at the end of this work adhere to the conventions set forth by Friedemann’s father, J.S. Bach. 

For the final work on this program, Kristian Bezuidenhout returned to play harpsichord in Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in C major. This work, in three movements, begins with an Allegretto in which the harpsichord plays in the galant style while the orchestra indulges in tempestuous outbursts. This collision is soon pacified, however, in the work’s second movement, a dreamy Adagio ma non troppo, beautifully rendered by Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Philharmonia Chamber Players. The work concludes with an Allegro assai that banishes all conflict in what seems a “happy ending” reconciliation. Once again, Kristian Bezuidenhout’s exquisite keyboard mastery proved the highlight of this Early Music Festival. 

Coming in the wake of such a momentous concert, I feared that the Festival’s final program at 4:00 pm on Sunday, June 9, might be anti-climactic. Though it featured music by one of my favorite composers, Claudio Monteverdi, the program put together by Warren Stewart, conductor of the group Magnificat, was made up of sacred music published in 1641 in Monteverdi’s collection, Selva morale e spirituale /Sacred and spiritual forest. Though this collection contains secular as well as sacred pieces, and includes two secular works set to texts by Petrarch and a sacred transcription of Monteverdi’s famous opera arietta Lamento d’Arianna; for this program Warren Stewart omitted all secular works and cobbled together various sacred works by Monteverdi, interspersed with instrumental sonatas by Monteverdi’s colleague in Venice, Pier Francesco Cavalli.  

The resulting concert, much to my pleasant surprise, was anything but anti-climactic. Conducted by Warren Stewart, Magnificat, augmented by the instrumental group The Whole Noyse, majestically performed a set of vespers for the feast of the Evangelist Mark, patron saint of Venice. Monteverdi’s music is here distinguished by ever-inventive contrasts, as different vocal pairings are set with-and-against different instrumental groupings. The variety of vocal and instrumental textures is incredibly rich, especially in the large-scale sections written in Monteverdi’s concertato style, which emphasizes dramatic contrasts. Performed without an intermission, this program of sacred music by Monteverdi (and his colleague Cavalli) brought the 2014 Berkeley Early Music Festival to a fittingly splendid climax.