Versatile Les Voix Baroques gives voice to ‘Song of Songs’
The concert offerings of this year’s Boston Early Music Festival got off to a strong start last night with a performance by Les Voix Baroques, a protean Montreal-based ensemble here under the direction of Stephen Stubbs, with some instrumental support by members of the BEMF Orchestra. The program focused on 16th- and 17th-century settings of the Biblical “Song of Songs,’’ by composers as diverse and varied as Lassus, Schütz, Monteverdi, Buxtehude, Charpentier, and Purcell.
The notion of a program thematically arranged around settings of “Song of Songs’’ is not exactly original — the 2009 BEMF featured a similarly conceived a cappella program performed by Stile Antico — but the musical riches to be harvested from this repertoire are so abundant that it hardly matters. Composers through the centuries clearly found the erotically charged language of this poetry irresistible, either on its own terms or as a challenge to conceive music that mirrored its intertwining of religious fervor with worldly sensuality.
The performances last night captured that intertwining, with stylish and refined singing from Yulia Van Doren, Catherine Webster, Matthew White, Colin Balzer, Sumner Thompson, and Douglas Williams. A trio of intimately scaled selections by Monteverdi was a first half highlight, including “Nigra sum’’ with Balzer’s elegant tenor and “Ego flos campi’’ with White, a countertenor, in fine voice. Stubbs, on lute and Baroque guitar, anchored the continuo group, but in this Monteverdi set he took a moment in the spotlight with harpist Maxine Eilander, performing a gorgeous instrumental version of “Pur ti Miro’’ from “The Coronation of Poppea.’’
On the second half another instrumental selection by Marin Marais (here spotlighting violinists Milos Valent and Peter Spissky) proved a hidden gem smuggled onto this vocal program. Domenico Mazzocchi’s “Dialogo della Cantica’’ and Charpentier’s “Dilecti Mi’’ were two of the more sumptuous settings on offer. The latter work lingers on the line “My heart, mouth, tongue, senses express the languor of love,’’ well, languorously. And Van Doren’s pure-toned soprano, echoed by Webster, made the Mazzocchi a particular pleasure.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.