Restoration London isn’t known for its high art. When it comes to mid-17th-century England, people usually think of political unrest and religious in-fighting. But perhaps that association should change.
That, at least, seemed to be the point of Music City Baroque’s concert on Sunday at the Woodmont Christian Church in Nashville. The program of Elizabethan and Restoration music, titled “Fairest Isle,” included compositions by Henry Purcell, the great English composer of chamber music and song; Jean-Baptist Loeillet and Christopher Simpson, among others. The ensemble chose fabulous music and displayed excellent teamwork and musicianship in setting forth a picture of this era in England’s music. The ensemble played on period instruments and made use of the latest musical insights into early-music performance practice.
The concert began with Christopher Simpson’s Divisions on “John, Come Kiss Me Now” for lute and viola da gamba. In this setting, Christopher Stenstrom took the principal part on baroque cello. The piece boasts a wide range, both technically and emotionally. Stenstrom’s playing was warm and fluid and it moved admirably between introspective and virtuosic passages. Francis Perry, an accomplished lute player, demonstrated equal skill in his interaction with the musical setting and with his duo partner, ensuring a smooth and interesting realization of the chords structured under Stenstrom’s melody.
Next came two upbeat songs. Both were sung by local baroque soprano Terri Richter accompanied by Perry on lute. The first, “While Thirsis, wrapp’d in downy sleep,” is a Restoration piece composed by Henry Purcell. Richter sang with a bell-like voice free of excessive vibrato. The passion of this piece is evident in the music itself, and Richter used subtle ornamentation and dynamic coloring to further accentuate that. The second song comes from the Elizabethan period, closer to William Shakespeare’s time. “Faire if you expect admiring” by Thomas Campion would likely not seem out of place in a London tavern at that time. It is rough, rapid and rhythmic. Richter once again displayed her musicianship. Her style was bright and effervescent, appropriate for the lyrics and the music. Perry’s accompaniment was likewise excellent, and complemented Richter’s Baroque style well in both pieces.
After the vocal section of the concert came two sonatas. The first was Purcell’s Sonata in G Minor for two violins, cello and harpsichord. The four movements of this sonata were unified by common melodic phrases. Even in the fast movements (Nos. 2 and 4), the ensemble took their time interpretively. This restraint gave the entire sonata a stately and somber sound, accentuated by Stenstrom’s low playing on the cello. The violinists (Karen Clarke and Rebecca Cole) played lightly and sweetly. Their interaction was thoughtful and interesting. Lillian Pearson (harpsichord) and Stenstrom both provided admirable continuo accompaniment for the two violins.
The Trio Sonata No. 2, in F Major was composed by Jean-Baptiste Loeillet, a Flemish composer known as John of London. This sonata was for violin, recorder and continuo. Jessica Dunnavant made much out of the recorder part. The recorder is an instrument with limited range and dynamic flexibility, but Dunnavant interpreted her part with energy and grace. The same can be said for the other players, whose interactions in this piece were particularly striking. Both in the fast and slow movements their interpretations called to mind elegant choreography. This was especially evident in the passing of melodic subject between Dunnavant and Laura Ross (violin), who weaved in and out of each other’s space with great liquidity.
The large piece for the evening was a set of eight dances for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, composed by Matthew Locke. Each piece was very short. In modern terms they might be considered fragments, but melodically and rhythmically they fit together. The nine-player ensemble played each dance with intention; each piece felt eminently danceable. Aside from the players previously mentioned, two more deserve note. Violist Tammy Rogers King displayed range and flexibility in her performance. George Riordan played Baroque oboe in the dances. He shined in each movement, playing with a rich, variegated tone that was near trumpet-like in its intensity. Each piece allowed the ensemble and the individuals within it to demonstrate their knowledge of Baroque-era performance practice and interpretive capability.
Under Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate, secular musicians were, to put it mildly, not highly influential. Both before and after this period their status was different. Music City Baroque offered a tantalizing taste of Restoration and Elizabethan London. Technically and interpretively impressive, the ensemble gave a glimpse into that time, and made believable the claim that England just might be the “Fairest Isle.”