Soloists are instrumental in BEMF Ensemble program
With a night off from opera, a host of Boston Early Music Festival stalwarts took to Jordan Hall on Thursday night in the form of the BEMF Chamber Ensemble, and a large audience followed them there. Led by festival codirector Paul O'Dette and violinist Robert Mealy, the group offered a status report on the ever-advancing level of period-instrument prowess.
The concert was framed by overture suites featuring an extravagant complement of three oboes (Gonzalo Ruiz, Kathryn Montoya, and Debra Nagy). Johann Friedrich Fasch's Overture in G minor reveled in antiphonal winds-vs.-strings competition, its varied pieces operatic in their drama. Georg Philipp Telemann's Ouverture in B-flat major was more balletic, the music focused on rhythmic energy, instrumental battles giving way to bright, solid dances. In between was the intrepid Jan Dismas Zelenka's beguiling "Hipochondrie," a more compact overture, woozy shifts between major and minor leading into vigorous, sparkling contrapuntal layers.
Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - with Mealy, flutist Sandra Miller, and harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout as soloists - was almost excessively refined, the players determined to weave musical fabric with a high thread count. The virtuosity was impressive throughout, especially Bezuidenhout's grand, garrulous torrents in the first movement's famous extended cadenza, but a fleet pace and priority on fine-detail phrasing subsumed the architectural drama under a polished surface. Vivaldi's C-major Mandolin Concerto (RV 425) was simpler and more successful. As O'Dette manned a diminutive mandolino with delicate authority, the sparser sound still coursed with a boisterous, rustic energy.
The 11 p.m. hour brought longtime friends and fellow viola da gamba players Erin Headley and Anne-Marie Lasla to the stage for a duo recital, with Bezuidenhout offering harpsichord and organ accompaniment (ending a long day that started with a fortepiano recital at 9 a.m.). Mood lighting and the warm hush of the violas made for a fine late-night playlist.
Bezuidenhout contributed solos to help delineate the program - a delicately embroidered Froberger "Lamento" and some rich, stately Louis Couperin dances - but the differing takes on the viola's versatility made its own pattern.
Duets by Henry Du Mont, a musical standby at the court of Louis XIV, presented the instrument with fashionable, slightly austere elegance; Italian composers around the turn of the 17th century like Francesco Maria Bassani and Rognoni (a pair of solos for Headley) seized on the possibility for vocal imitation.
But works by the virtuoso Saint-Colombe and his most famous student, Marin Marais, brought to the fore the instrument's timbral essence and the dramatic tension of higher passagework. Closing with Marais's dazzling variations "Folies d'Espagne," Lasla and Headley gave a lively account of an encyclopedia of moods - each, paradoxically, uniquely suited to the viola da gamba's sound.