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MUSIC REVIEW

Long ago and far away for young and old alike

The Boston Early Music Festival presented two more concerts on Saturday night, and it was rather like a family get-together that changes tone once the youngsters are packed off to bed.

The French ensemble Le Poème Harmonique, directed by Vincent Dumestre, set the kids' table with a program pursuing the origin of French children's songs. Traced to their source, the songs were threaded into a quasi-revue -- three singers, ringed by a quintet of players, moving with theatrical demeanor.

Though the instruments -- bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, theorbo, viol -- advertised the tunes' venerable provenance, the arrangements often sounded startlingly modern. For "Le Roi Renaud," a royal tale of death and devotion, the instruments layered rhythmically loose ornamentation over a steady drone to aleatoric effect. And percussionist Maël Guezel lent an unusually funky touch in uptempo numbers, culminating with a lead-in to the final song on the program, "La moliera qu'a nau escus," that channeled Gene Krupa's famous introduction to Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing."

There were occasional flashes of silly exuberance . Both "Le complainte de Mandrin," a criminal's lament from the gallows, and "Au trente et un du mois d'août," an inebriated sailors' boast, were delivered a cappella by the trio (Claire Lefilliâtre, Serge Goubioud, and Arnaud Marzorati) with the stylized bonhomie of a Hollywood musical. But the overall tone, enhanced by a number of ballads on the perennial topic of thwarted lovers dying in grief, was earnestness bordering on ritualized solemnity: perhaps a reminder that child's play is usually far more serious than adults ever realize.

As the hour grew late and the children retired, Festival co-director Stephen Stubbs and his group Tragicomedia, augmented by a host of guest singers and players, offered a selection of the sophisticated, grown-up music of the English Restoration, that heady time when Charles II retook the reins of power from the Puritan revolutionaries who had beheaded his father. The concert, like the era, was framed by the genius of Henry Purcell: it opened with "Welcome to all the pleasures," an ode to St. Cecilia, patron of music, and closed with a selection of numbers from his opera "The Fairy Queen," in which Night, Sleep, Secrecy, and the Mystery of love were all anthropomorphically represented.

The musicians (most of whom had dashed to Jordan Hall from the stage and pit of Lully's "Psyché," this year's Festival opera) had an easy rapport; the proceedings felt like a refined jam session. The program was designed to demonstrate the cultural cross-pollination that resulted from the king's return: the French and Italian influence he brought back with him, the subsequent English renaissance echoing across the Channel. But the music itself, its swinging dance rhythms and unrelenting, florid richness, evoked nothing so much as the pent-up extravagance of a sidelined leisure class once again handed the keys to the palace and the treasury. One reflexively envied those 17th-century aristocrats, who could afford to spend their days and nights in such elegant, allegorical unreality.

'Related'

Le Poème Harmonique

Vincent Dumestre, director

Tragicomedia and Friends

Stephen Stubbs, director

Boston Early Music Festival

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday

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