Monday, February 24, 2014

Singing a song of Petrarch

Laura de Noves, believed to have been Petrarch's Laura
It's hard to exaggerate the contributions of Francesco Petrarca, known to the English speaking world as Petrarch, to the Renaissance, the birth of humanism, and what we still call (I suppose) civilization in general.

It's likewise hard to exaggerate the freshness of his poetry; indeed, I still recall (as if it were yesterday) the moment some thirty-five years ago when I first encountered the Rime sparse (literally "Scattered rhymes') that the poet-philosopher dedicated to his great love Laura (at right). His voice seemed as clear and eloquent to me then as it must have 700 years before, to his original readers, when his "songs" to his beloved (and then his laments over her death) were first put to parchment.

It's no surprise, therefore, that Petrarch's lyrics were eventually collected as "Il Canzoniere" - literally, "The Songbook" - and inspired an entire tradition of vocal music. It's likewise no surprise that early music aficionados should be drawn to this treasure trove of madrigals and what are known as frottole (an Italian vocal form that leaned heavily on homophony).

The shock to modern ears, however, comes - as it did during Blue Heron's "Un Petrarchino Cantato" last weekend - when one suddenly senses the gap between the means available to composers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the full range of emotion that Petrarch was able to convey. The madrigal is a wonderful thing, but immediacy is perhaps not its strong suit; thus even though director Scott Metcalfe considered the entire range of Il Canzioniere - from its first verse ("Voi ch'ascoltate in rime sparse") to the very last (No. 366, "Vergine bella"), there was little sense of arc to his program; it was generally  mournfully contemplative from start to finish, and there was little discernible difference in tone upon Laura's death (from plague) about two-thirds of the way through the sequence. Which isn't exactly wrong - Petrarch's ultimate theme is, indeed, the meditative integration of ever-more-frustrated love into spiritual experience.  It's just that Metcalfe and company - and perhaps the madrigal tradition, too - seemed to be peering at that development in the rear-view mirror; the eventual goal wasn't just pre-ordained, but explicit from the start.  Hence the spoken portions of the evening - by local actor Joel Colodner (in English) and Dennis Coda (in Italian) - were sensitive and scholarly, but came off as so many eulogies.

Blue Heron's high vocal standards were everywhere in evidence, though; so to a madrigal specialist the evening no doubt counted as a feast. To these ears, the simpler settings, such as the exquisite frottole "O bella man" and "Non pur quell'una" came closest to the candor of Petrarch's voice. But other, more highly wrought madrigals had their mournful charms too - particularly a remarkable setting of the desolate "Solo e pensoso," by Luca Marenzio, which featured a gorgeous climb up and back down the scale - an effect which would have been almost impossible to pull off without the perfect tuning of the Blue Heron ensemble. There was more from Marenzio in the second half of the program (although nothing quite as inspired), along with a dazzlingly seamless rendering of Giaches Wert's poignant "Mia benigna fortuna," Petrarch's blunt plea to Death to end his tormented life.

Finally the program reached Blue Heron's home territory, sacred music (or at least music that is secular only in its name), in Cipriano de Rore's long, luminous setting of the full "Vergine bella," the last statement of Il Canzoniere, in which Petrarch's vision of Laura is subsumed in a dying prayer to the Virgin. Needless to say, once more the Blue Heron ensemble was in superb form; indeed, it would have been impossible to imagine such an evening without their remarkable talent and commitment to a style which forbids star treatment (the full vocal ensemble was soprano Jolle Greenleaf, bass-baritone Paul Guttry, tenors Owen McIntosh, Aaron Sheehan, and Jason McStoots, and countertenor Martin Near, with lutenist Charles Weaver). I left longing to hear more from all of them, as well as Petrarch - although perhaps in another (perhaps even modern?) vocal mode.

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