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Parallel musical universes? More lost continents? The early-music movement in New York explores an endless past.

Before the COVID lockdown, concert life in New York was such a breathless series of discoveries that you barely had time to digest what you were hearing. Now, one stands back and marvels how horizons have kept expanding in the music before J.S. Bach, with modern premieres of 400-year-old works by names you’ve barely heard of — and leave you wanting more.

This look-how-far-we’ve-come realization came with the recent arrival of two recording releases: Monteverdi’s Vespro Della Beata Vergine of 1610 by the Green Mountain Project, which has championed this masterpiece with annual performances for a decade (often right after New Year’s), and “Cantica Obsoleta” by Acronym, an ensemble whose mandate is to explore little-known musical collections. In this disc on the New Focus Recordings label. the group takes on the Duben Collection, containing music that spans from the early 17th century to mid-18th century.

In many ways, the Monteverdi Vespers was the gateway into a world of music that insists on being performed on its own alternative terms rather than being shoehorned into mental models based on works that came later.

Church of St. Jean Baptiste where the 2020 Monteverdi Vespers took place.

The initial Monteverdi Vespers champions in the U.S. often came from the modern music community. The pioneering Columbia-label 1971 recording conducted by Robert Craft (yes, Stravinsky’s right-hand man) with Michael Tilson Thomas on continuo, was made with what must’ve been an ad hoc ensemble at Veterans Memorial Hall near Hollywood Bowl. The singing is often loud, lusty and valiant. Instrumentalists come off a bit twee, as if playing Christmas carols. But the piece is there — that’s the important thing — with the music unfolding in short, explosive cells that feel like a fierce rebellion against the incessantly flowing Brahms and Wagner that was inevitably lurking at the core of the classical music culture at that time.

Even when deeply familiar with this piece now, you know it comes from another world. This is still a time where the dominant institutions in town — Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic — traffic in music with fairly standardized instrumentation, in contrast to the extremely heterogeneous Monteverdi Vespers, where nearly every movement has different perimeters, from tightly-written choral passages to solo voices singing to each other across the expanse of a church.

The performance evolution of the piece has (more or less) been a journey toward a leaner, more essential sound — most obviously, with strings and voices with far less vibrato, air-tight blends when needed and dramatic contrasts when not. In other words, the Monteverdi Vespers has become itself. No stretch is needed for this music to correspond with 21st-century consciousness. Instead, it draws modern ears toward its crazily abundant self, partly due to its descriptive, emotionally aware word settings. This is a style of rhetoric that was continued over the centuries, up through Verdi, stopping only at the doorstep of 20th-century modernism. In some ways, this is why even the earliest recordings of the Monteverdi Vespers still deliver the piece. There are Monteverdi listeners who say that some of the piece’s most distinguished champions (such as John Eliot Gardiner) still use a too-large choir, and approach it with an almost Handelian sensibility. Such accusations are not made of the Green Mountain Project.

In its decade-plus odyssey with the piece, The Green Mountain Project — which in 2020 brought together the vocalists of TENET and the instrumentalists of the Dark Horse Consort — has made recordings along the way, but the newest one on New Focus Recordings has a sense of ease and comprehension with what used to be heard as musical quirks but are now recognized as part of Monteverdi’s astoundingly broad musical syntax. Rhythms that once evoked puzzlement now bounce and lilt. (And the vocal blend of Jolie Greenleaf and Molly Quinn is among the wonders of the New York music world.) The Monteverdi Vespers is no longer strange —especially when bathed in the beatific acoustic of the Church of St. Jean Baptiste, where this set was recorded.

In the case of the Duben Collection — whose 2,300 pieces assembled at the Royal Swedish Court in Stockholm haven’t been explored until recent years — one has to appreciate the formality that held sway in the generations that followed to enjoy the more freewheeling sense of dramatization that goes on in, say, Giocomo Carissimi’s Doleo et poenitet, a packed, tour-de-force encounter between God the Father, sinners, and Christ.

Carissimi (1605-1674) and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1620-1680) are two of the more familiar post-Monteverdi-era names in a generation of composers whose work shows a high degree of compositional ingenuity juxtaposed against the emotional directness that one associates with more street-level music. Time and again, one encounters a different kind of musical rhetoric. Dance-like rhythms are frequent, even in the characterization of rather serious texts. Salvum me fac Deus by Samuel Capricornus uses dark storm imagery to characterize a soul that is drowning in sin. The music sounds almost casual — until a series of rising sequences suggest the hand of God raising the protagonist from a very deep mire. What sort of inner life could music like this come from?

The disc closes with Ich kann nicht mehr ertragen by one Daniel Eberlin (1647-1715), who seems to have had a picaresque array of professions that included secretary of the mint in Eisenach and captain of a militia in Hamburg. The piece itself is what the album notes describe as “a dialogue between the soprano human soul and the bass spiritual guide” — and is a long way from the sermonizing texts of J.S. Bach cantatas a generation later. Everything about this package, from the music to the biography behind it, is so incongruous that we can’t help be reminded again what a different place music occupied in this world.

Of course, my 21st-century mind can help wondering if Eberlin was a first-rate composer. That may never be clear, since so few of his pieces survive (assuming he actually had time to write much more than what’s in the Duben Collection). The question may not even be relevant; I’d bet that none of his contemporaries thought of music in that way. Often, pieces were written to be heard once.

The curatorial sensibility in this album places Eberlin’s piece as part of a fascinating array of music that’s sung with great comprehension (thanks to Hélène Brunet, Brian Giebler, Reginald Mobley and Jonathan Woody), no matter how divergent the manner of the music. I don’t need to rate Eberlin or anyone else on this disc. I just need to be open to the distant world that it represents, and try to forget any notions from later eras as to what constitutes a major work, a major creative personality, or, God forbid, what makes a masterpiece.

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Comments

  1. Michael Redmond says

    What a pleasure to read a music review written by a keen informed intelligence for a sophisticated readership. This kind of music journalism is vanishing … Thank you!

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