Renaissance music with lasting joy
Friday night the Boston Early Music Festival presented music from both ends of the vast terrain it covers. The evening began with a recital showcasing period approaches to Beethoven, only to be followed by two nicely contrasting programs in Emmanuel Church that plunged backward several centuries, focusing on both sacred and profane aspects of Renaissance music.
First up was Stile Antico, a British vocal ensemble making its keenly anticipated US debut with a program devoted to settings of the biblical Song of Songs. Historically the lovers' yearning in this highly sensual text was often seen as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people, or between Christ and his church, and apparently the entire book was like catnip for the polyphonists of the 16th century. This program included settings or adaptations by Palestrina, Lassus, Gombert, and Victoria as well as selections by less familiar composers such as Sebastian de Vivanco and Jean Lheritier.
The group's impeccably blended sound, the lightness and transparency of its ensemble work, and its warmly expressive approach to this repertoire were all notable from the outset. The 13 singers perform without a conductor but nonetheless manage to shape their lines with exceeding suppleness and grace. Polychoral settings by Vivanco and Francisco Guerrero were a particular pleasure, as was Victoria's elaborate motet "Vadam, et circuibo."
And yet for all of the regal beauty of Stile Antico's performance, and the sensuality of the texts at hand, there was a certain austerity and formality inherent in this program. It was therefore a welcome contrast when the remarkable Italian ensemble Micrologus picked up the baton at 11 p.m. with a program of comparatively diverse and freewheeling 14th-century ballads and madrigals as well as exuberant rustic dances known as salterellos.
You had to admire the freedom and whimsy in Micrologus's playing. Most of the selections were anonymous and appeared in the program with manuscript numbers from the British Library, and yet this performance dared you to forget the archival source work and simply imagine a medieval band cutting loose in the village square on a festival day. Patrizia Bovi and Mauro Borgioni sang labyrinthine madrigals with impressive virtuosity but also with a certain casual warmth as if they were ditties worth a listen from the street corner. At one point, two medieval trumpets were pulled out, stretching at least five feet in length. Bagpipes pierced the air. The dances whirred well past midnight. I don't recall an ancient music event with comparable quantities of contemporary joy.