Quite by accident, early music groups and chamber ensembles have turned out to have a natural advantage during the current pandemic. Their compact size can more easily accommodate distancing requirements as presenters gingerly proceed to reintroduce public performances. Even more, Il Suonar Parlante pointedly homed in on the theme of plague itself for their choice of programme at the Ravenna Festival. Titled The Plague of Hamburg (1663): Laments and Texts on the Passion in Pre-Bachian Germany, their concert brought together music by predecessors and contemporaries of J.S. Bach, culminating in the lamentation Wie liegt die Stadt so wüste (How the City Lies Barren) by the 17th-century composer Matthias Weckmann.

Graciela Gibelli, Vittorio Ghielmi and Il Suonar Parlante
© Luca Concas

Yet the uncanny relatability of the programme’s dramaturgy for audiences in 2020 is also something of a coincidence. Gambist Vittorio Ghielmi, who founded the ensemble initially as a viol quartet in 2002, points out that he and his colleagues had devised a related programme focusing on this source material for the Ravenna Festival more than a decade ago. Much as we’d like to imagine our predicament to be unique and unprecedented, the very existence of this wealth of musical literature addressing the pain and terror of such devastation underscores our connection to history’s endlessly repeating patterns.

Ghielmi and his colleagues performed the late-evening, 75-minute programme without intermission on the stage of the open-air theatre in Ravenna’s Rocca Brancaleone – shrouded in ochre shadows reflected from the fortress walls. The ensemble takes its name from a phrase used by Niccolò Paganini about an instrument’s ability to mimic the sound of the human voice. Deftly intertwined, the sequence of instrumental and vocal pieces further enhanced such illusionism. 

For example, the opening Sonata no. 7 by Johannes Rosenmüller (1617-1684), featuring a consort of strings with organ and lute continuo, radiated an almost feverish expressivity with its straining chromaticism and restless harmonies. The piece seemed tailor-made as a prelude for the bereavement vented in “Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte,” an aria by J.S.’s cousin Johann Christoph Bach (attributed by some to Johann Christoph’s father, Heinrich Bach).

Fulvio Bettini Gibelli, Vittorio Ghielmi and Il Suonar Parlante
© Luca Concas

The concert’s amplification added unwelcome distortions that distracted – at least in the online streaming format – from the heartfelt delivery by Argentinian soprano Graciela Gibelli. The balance was somewhat better in her other solo, funeral music that Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) composed on the death of his father in 1674. Known as Klaglied (Lamentation) – possibly to a poem the composer himself penned – the ensemble’s version of this somber piece gently contrasted the soprano voice against an aura of viols and organ.

Still another instrumental thread was woven by the one non-Northern piece: an ornately virtuosic violin sonata by the Brescian Giovani Battista Fontana, who died in the plague that hit Padua in 1630. Ghielmi also wanted to recall Italy as the source, via Monteverdi & Co., for the musical rhetoric of the Renaissance lamento that Baroque composers to the north of the Alps transformed from a plaint for abandoned lovers to sacred music associated with the Passion of Jesus and composition especially for Holy Week. Violinist (and Ravenna native) Alessandro Tampieri outlined an island of graceful, intricately garlanded melody that stood out from the prevailing mood of lingering melancholy. The accompaniments by lutenist Luca Pianca and organist Lorenzo Ghielmi were especially lively.

Two short pieces from J.S. Bach himself gained an interesting resonance in this context of roots and trends out of which he emerged. The ensemble played viol arrangements of two of the chorale preludes for organ from the Orgelbüchlein – instrumental music that is inherently connected with the singing voice because of the Lutheran hymn tunes that are their source. The tune of one of these, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten (BWV 641), Bach famously revisited decades later in the so-called “Deathbed Chorale” that was posthumously published with the Art of Fugue. The sonority of the viol, as Ghielmi explains, carried particular associations with the moment of transition to death (as in its appearance as the obbligato instrument in the aria Es ist vollbracht from the St John Passion). 

The lamentation motif dominated the two works in which baritone Fulvio Bettini sang. He was the dramatically imposing soloist in the Latin setting of Jeremiah’s lamentation by the Bohemian Baroque composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745): Quomodo sedet sola Civitas (ZWV 53:1). 

For the final and longest piece that followed, Gibelli returned to join Bettini in Wie liegt die Stadt so wüste, the sacred concerto Matthias Weckmann (1619-1674) wrote in reaction to the plague’s horrific aftermath in his beloved Hamburg (where he would later die and be buried). Drawing, like Zelenka, on the Book of Jeremiah, Weckmann specifies in his score that “the soprano must not be placed right next to the bass but a little away from him” – social distance intended for theatrical effect to highlight two different perspectives. 

As an encore, both singers and the ensemble headed south of the Alps for a second time and returned to the erotic origins of the lamento as they gave an impassioned account of the duet “Mio foco fatale / Beata mi sento” from Cavalli’s La Calisto – a classical pagan vision of art rendering beauty from suffering. 

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.

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