DELIGHTFUL VOCAL CONCERTS ENSHRINE THE EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL’S FIRST WEEK

Jenny Högström (soprano), Terry Wey (countertenor), Cinquecento, Alexander Weimann (harpsichord), Byron Schenkman (fortepiano), Lucas Harris (lute), Beiliang Zhu (cello), Michael Unterman (cello): Music of Tallis, Tye, Handel, Pasquini, Lanzetti, Steffani, A. Scarlatti, Moscheles, and Mendelssohn, Christ Church Cathedral, August 2 and 4, 2017.

 All photos by Jan Gates

All photos by Jan Gates

As with last summer’s event, this year’s 15-concert Vancouver Early Music Summer Festival was presented as a Bach festival but it actually ventures to a richer variety of composers and ‘historical performance’ genres, both instrumental and vocal. Following Matt Haimovitz’s opening foray into the Cello Suites, outstanding vocal concerts of the first week included an appearance by the outstanding Vienna-based ensemble Cinquecento, exploring the offerings of Thomas Tallis and Christopher Tye, followed by a concert of Italian cantatas featuring Cinquecento’s countertenor Terry Wey and inspiring young Swedish soprano Jenny Högström. Both concerts were magnetic experiences. Down another byway, the festival christened a newly-restored Broadwood fortepiano in early 19th century repertoire, putting it into action in both in lieder and cello recitals.

Having now released nine strongly-praised CD’s for Hyperion, one expected something special from the six-member vocal ensemble Cinquecento, though only five singers appeared in their debut concert here. Few would have predicted just how rich, beautiful and sensual their sound actually is – like a full-bodied red wine. Their vocal blend is magnificent, their articulation and judgement estimable, and there is an immediacy and human spirit in everything they touch. The top of their sound is remarkably free and the bottom is anchored in stone.

Pieces by Thomas Tallis dominated the proceedings, and right from the opening ‘Salvator mundi I à 5’ and ‘In ieiunio et fletu à 5’, one noticed just how full and seamless their legato lines were and what a fine awareness of harmony and counterpoint they displayed. This was not only singing of commitment but wonder too. Their ‘Lamentations of Jeremiah I’ was most successful in catching the gravity of the mourning, moving out with an engulfing dramatic intensity; on the other hand, life seemed to literally pulsate through ‘Honor, virtus et potestas (alternim) à 5’.  (Perhaps I was made more fully aware of what Vaughan Williams was responding to when he wrote his Tallis Fantasia.)  ‘Te lucis ante terminum II (alternatim) à 5’ brought a stunning example of the ensemble’s clean articulation and vocal control, creating a wonderful sense of musical space at its opening. Their selections from Christopher Tye’s distinguished Mean Mass had similar virtues: the rich, detailed characterization, the sensual fragrance, and the unerring ability to move out the music with both architectural strength and  riveting internal synergy. The latter was especially apparent in the Credo.

The immediacy of these performances clearly illustrated the virtues of a ‘one voice per part’ approach: here was unique clarity and balance, contrasting with the relative reticence and diffusion that one often finds when larger choirs perform the same pieces. While some might actually prefer a more otherworldly ‘mist’ placed over the quieter parts of this music, Cinquecento was still magnificent at pianissimo – beautifully etched in feeling, lines suspended with gravity. I was certainly intrigued to find out the group’s secret formula, but perhaps there isn’t one. In a brief conversation with contertenor Terry Wey, the ensemble’s founder, he simply commented: ‘Cinquecento is just a group of singers who all want to be soloists… we’re really very down-to-earth in our approach.’ 

Wey joined soprano Jenny Högström and Alexander Weimann’s small consort for a concert of Italian cantatas (principally Handel) two evenings later, and this offered another exalted experience. Högström has such a rich, firm vocal palate and can seemingly bring shape and musicality to whatever she sings. One never doubts her virtuoso command but she hides it so well and always puts it at the service of the music and text. Furthermore, she exudes both strong emotional involvement and a beguiling flow in mining a wealth of vocal variety. This served particularly well in Handel’s ‘La Lucretia’, which was an absolute delight throughout, finding countless different vocal postures and, often. a powerful emotional depth. Wey’s crisp, exact, and lyrically-inspired characterization of the composer’s ‘Nel dolce tempo’ was equally redeeming as a companion piece.  The two soloists charmed in their duets, showing a sensitive, cooperative ethic in both Steffani’s ‘Begl’occhi, oh Dio, non piu’ and Handel’s ‘Tanti Strali’, managing the echo effects in the latter to great effect. Alexander Weimann’s consort accompanied to perfection, adding a ‘courtly dance’ charm to the start of each half with a  Pasquini sonata for harpsichord and lute (Weimann and Lucas Harris), while cellist Beiliang Zhu offered a fluid and engaging performance of a Lanzetti Cello Sonata.  Weimann’s solo harpsichord contributed a fetching virtuoso reading of a Toccata and Fugue by Alessandro Scarlatti, a piece which surely must have inspired his son Domenico. There was a compelling balance to everything presented here.

An element of intrigue also came in the lunchtime concert on the same day, marshalling a rare combination of cello works by Ignaz Moscheles, Fanny Mendelssohn and her illustrious brother Felix. Of great interest was the second debut of a Broadwood fortepiano c.1870 (lovingly restored with its original hammers by local builder Craig Tomlinson), which sounded beautifully smooth on top even if it might have had a touch more resonance at the bottom. Byron Schenkman played the instrument with great assurance, while Michael Unterman, familiar from the Boston Early Music Festival and the Portland Baroque Orchestra, was the cellist.

The three Moscheles Etudes were thoroughly enjoyable as J. S. Bach adaptations, even if some of their harmonic modulations seemed a little predictable. Fanny’s Fantasy in G minor held real interest but here the playing seemed slightly on the cautious side. Perhaps I felt the same about the reading of the great Mendelssohn D major Cello Sonata: it aimed at definite structural depth yet exhibited less natural charm and romantic flow than it might. Schenkman’s playing displayed many features of his esteemed harpsichord playing: always effervescent and well-set, though the evenness of his articulation sometimes seemed to underplay the sparkle and innocent delight in the keyboard part. While Unterman’s cello had many beautiful yearning moments, the cellist often slowed down the music’s development by employing too short a lyrical line and failing to push out dramatic episodes with full emotional ardour. Doubtlessly, one might attribute some of this reticence to the constraints of authentic performance, but the lovely playing of the encore – Felix Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, Op. 109 – did realize the implied grace and romantic feeling more conspicuously.

Overall, three concerts of great interest, with the first two vocal concerts absolutely memorable. I am slightly in awe of the high standards Early Music Vancouver achieves in choosing their performers for this festival.

 

© Geoffrey Newman 2017

THE CINQUECENTO EXPERIENCE