A pensive mood pervaded the Waalse Kerk on Friday evening. In one of Amsterdam's rather interesting and versatile sacred venues, the audience was configured on three sides of the small performance area, suggesting an intimate feel very apt for this sacred chamber music. There is something a bit special for me about sacred music performances in the Netherlands; audiences seem to approach them with an extra hint of seriousness, a consciousness of weighty content, not just an anticipation of musical pleasure. Los Músicos de su Alteza offered a programme that harmonised well with that underlying seriousness of outlook, with sacred solo cantatas and instrumental works from the early to mid-17th century, by Italian and Spanish composers.
Monteverdi's Laudate Dominum opened the concert with a comparatively light-hearted mood. This was soon to change, as the primary theme of the death of Christ and the mystery of the cross was established. The programme was thoughtful, and sensitively planned, although changes of emotional tone were achieved through subtle variations in affect, rather than by any powerful contrasts in either the music or the delivery. While Laudate Dominum is a song of joyful praise, and O quam pulchra es deals with the mystical union of the soul with God, all the other vocal works in the programme had a uniformly serious character, and Laudate Dominum itself was performed by the ensemble with restrained, rather than ecstatic joy.
Musical director Luis Antonio González's elegantly accomplished harpsichord solos were among the most enjoyable parts of the evening. Tiento y discurso de segundo tono by Spanish composer Francisco Correa de Arauxo had lovely passages of rippling, descending scales in one hand, under chords in the other, which González played with delicacy and feeling. The Tiento de falsas de segundo tono of Pablo Bruna was more melancholy, almost sombre in character, which fitted the rest of the programme well.
In Alessandro Grandi's O quam tu pulchra es, soprano Olalla Alemán, who has a sweet, pure sound, brought out the sensual character of the text with a sighing turn of voice, and very soft dynamics. The last piece in the concert, the “Pianto della Madonna” from Giovanni Felice Sances' Stabat Mater, showed Alemán's vocal and expressive powers, as well as the quality of this comparatively little known composer. After some nicely judged liquid scalic passages, the ending, with its tender, ecstatic repetitions of the word "paradisi", was magical.
The cantata Oh santisima Cruz by Juan Borges saw some lovely, thoughtful playing from Josep Maria Martí on chitarrone, and from Pedro Reula on viola da gamba. In a long extended instrumental section, the viol had an extremely beautiful and plaintive solo. The viol also took a key role in Benedetto Ferrari's Queste pungenti spine, with a soloistic, elaborated version of the bassline. The cantata was built on a simple repeating bassline, a “ground bass”, in this case the classic descending tetrachord – a descending line of four notes, beloved of seventeenth-century composers, especially for lamenting music. Martí showed delicacy and a fine sense of drama and timing in Kapsberger's Toccata seconda della arpeggiata for solo chitarrone, really making the audience wait for the satisfaction of the final chord.
For an encore, Alemán stepped away from the sacred altogether, with an interpretation of Monteverdi's sparkling Quel sguardo sdegnosetto, a secular love song about a scornful glance. In terms of content, it could not be said to chime well with the preceding programme at all, but it came as a joyful release after the rapt intensity of the final lament, probably for the performers as much as the audience, who left, after a thoughtful and serious evening, on a satisfied high.
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