When we want to compliment the way an instrumentalist plays, we are apt to declare that his/her tone positively sang. Such praise is appropriate for music written during or after the classical period.
But in the 17th century, and especially in Germany, music aspired not to sing but to speak. And it was the intensity and variety of the rhetoric generated by Thursday’s performances — the clarity of their speech — that lifted this Pacific MusicWorks concert far above and beyond the ordinary.
Stephen Stubbs and London-born Monica Huggett, artistic directors of Seattle’s Pacific MusicWorks and the Portland Baroque Orchestra, respectively, gave us with this exploration of “The Vocal Concerto,” another memorable installment in what has been a notable season for fans of old-style string instruments. Three months ago, with our own Seattle Baroque Orchestra in Town Hall, Rachel Barton Pine offered a virtual master class in the capacities of the viola d’amore. Now, in the lustrous acoustics of First Baptist Church on Harvard Avenue, it was the turn of the viola da gamba, the viol family’s forerunner of the cello. No fewer than three examples were gathered together for this concert, and they even had a sonata for all three of them to play.
The most celebrated composer on the program was Dieterich Buxtehude. The peculiar sweetness of his music, the extravagant brilliance of Heinrich Biber’s string writing, and the quirky dramatic thrusts of the lament “Wie bist du denn, o Gott,” by Johann Sebastian’s older relative Johann Christoph Bach, were only three examples of the creative riches of the period. We also heard a jolly “Canzon super intradam aethiopicam” by Samuel Scheidt, and attractive instrumental pieces by Johann Michael Nicolai and Romanus Weichlein.
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The program’s most remarkable instrumental virtuosity came from Huggett. Her recordings, while spectacular enough, proved to be an inadequate foretaste of the dazzling impact she makes on stage. Using the merest modicum of vibrato, she produces a resonant, amply brilliant tone that yet avoids the abrasiveness of some period-instrument playing. There were fine contributions, too, from colleagues including Carla Moore on violin, Erin Headley, Josh Lee, and Elizabeth Reed on violas da gamba, Curtis Daily on violone, Jillon Stoppels Dupree on organ, and Stubbs himself on the lute’s long-necked cousin, the chitarrone.
The last word, however, after an evening of such combined compositional strength and performing brilliance, must be devoted to the Dutch bass Harry van der Kamp. Where has this phenomenal artist been all my life? The voice is thrilling — bloodcurdling almost — in its solidity and power, and it is used with a richness of musical understanding and an emotional intensity as rare as they are compelling.
So vivid and evocative were the results that it felt as if we had escaped from the 21st century, and were experiencing the works on the program not as old music, but as a direct expression of 17th-century sensibility. It was as if we were ourselves living in that far-off time.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org