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Going for Baroque: Toronto Consort fine tunes Frescobaldi
Photo credit: Toronto Consort
Photo credit: Toronto Consort
Review by Paul Merkley FRSC
Toronto ON October 20th 2018
The Toronto Consort is an expert early music group that performs very well together; tonight was no exception.
The early seventeenth century was the time in which music developed the harmonic bass and chordal accompaniment that freed the melodic lines to become more elaborate in contour and expression. It was the period of idiomatic writing for instruments, and of broken consorts, (i.e. ensembles of contrasting instruments) unlike the homogenous groups of the Renaissance.
The task of conveying the harmony in this period was assigned to the instruments of the basso continuo. In this case it was the organ and harpsichord, played by Paul Jenkins, to good effect, as well as the cello, played by Margaret Gay, and the theorbo and Baroque guitar, played expertly by Esteban la Rotta. The theorbo, a kind of long-necked lute with a wide range, is a quiet instrument. It was heard to best advantage in Frescobaldi’s Toccata VII, which began the second half of the evening.
The seventeenth century was the time in which Monteverdi, the composer, coined the term 'second practice’ in which the expression of the text was the most important goal, even or especially when that entailed the use of dissonance, or breaking the rules of counterpoint. The need to express a point of text, usually through dissonance, was considered a compelling enough reason to override the rules.
The concert’s a capella performances were the strongest of the evening. Frescobaldi's madrigal Lasso io languisco was the most dissonant, and therefore the most expressive. It was sensitively and accurately sung, no easy feat, given the shifting harmonies and strong dissonances required.
Notable were the performances of John Pepper (noble bass) with broad range and clear diction, Laura Pudwell (alto) with sure pitch and strong musical communication, Katherine Hill (soprano) with sharp rhythm, good ornamentation, and animated expression, Cory Knight (tenor) with idiomatic singing and clarity, and Michele DeBoer (soprano), who navigated soaring lines gracefully and with beautiful tone.
Alison Melville (recorder) played well throughout the evening. In the dance music, the upper instruments improvised over the bass pattern, which was the performance practice of the day. These numbers, especially the playing of Ben Grossman on the hurdy gurdy, were very enjoyable and charmed the audience. We heard a chaconne, a genre that seems as if it may have come from the New World to Europe, since a song with that bass pattern is known to have come from Peru.
The performance was accompanied by historical and contemporary photos and short videos of Rome projected onto a large screen. Because the text painting and text expression are a significant part of the experience of this music, this listener wished that the texts had also been projected; with the house lights down, it was a challenge to read the texts provided in the program.
Melville was the artistic director for this event. As my friend put it, where else would it be possible to hear a concert built around the music of Frescobaldi? All in all, it was a fine performance and a rare night to be treasured.
The program will be repeated tonight, Saturday October 20th 2018 at 8pm at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Toronto Consort’s next program entitled Praetorius Christmas Vespers will be presented in Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre at 8pm on December 14th and 15th and at 3:30pm on December 16th 2018.