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Dutch Sampler


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at the Newberry Library, November 5

Early-music ensembles such as the Newberry Consort must breathe life into pieces that have gathered dust for centuries. Their task is made tougher by a shortage of precedents, a dearth of notated materials, and scanty knowledge of old performing techniques. What's more, these musicians have to be up on the people and the milieus that produced music of all sorts from the Middle Ages to the late Renaissance. They're pioneers and historians rolled into one.

The maturing of a first-rate early-music practitioner takes decades, which probably explains why there are so few of them even though pre-Baroque music is growing in popularity. The Newberry Consort claims at least three: violinist David Douglass, violist da gamba Mary Springfels, and countertenor Drew Minter. Ever since its founding about a decade ago the consort has figured prominently in the pre-Baroque boom, offering keen scholarship and assured playing on period instruments. But the secret of its success is the charming way it involves the audience in the re-creation of a musical experience from a long bygone era, with Springfels and company giving the audience delightful bits of background information before most of the pieces.

Recently the Newberry bunch, joined by guests Paul O'Dette and Marion Verbruggen, took its loyal following on a long tour of terrain far less traveled than Italy, France, and England, namely the 17th-century Netherlands. (The Newberry put medieval Spain on the map through its recordings on Harmonia Mundi.) In her program notes Springfels offers a helpful sketch of the religious differences and political allegiances that had split the region toward the end of the 16th century into the Catholic south (roughly two-thirds of present-day Belgium), ruled by the Spanish Hapsburgs, and the Protestant north, which united into a republic. By the early 1600s the south was well into its decline both in commerce and in the arts, though Antwerp had become the center of instrument making. By contrast, the north was prospering as a maritime power and global trader, its good fortunes fueling the emergence of a humanist movement modeled after the Italian academies. The south, perhaps understandably, produced no great composers or virtuosos; its Francophile court preferred to import established talent and popular melodies from France and Italy. But why did the north fail to nurture a crop of noteworthy professionals?

Springfels puts the blame solely on the Calvinist orthodoxy that banned opera production and thwarted the formation of a musical establishment outside the church. So we can infer from the serene portrayals of domestic bliss by Vermeer and other Dutch painters that music making was the province of gifted amateurs. Members of merchant families sang and performed for their own edification, improvising on favorite tunes from other lands. During the 17th century at least 1,000 Dutch songbooks were printed, and Amsterdam and Antwerp became centers of printing and instrument making. (The Newberry Library, by the way, owns a fine collection of old Dutch music books.)

The Netherlanders of both the north and south favored gentle music that embodied the "feminine" virtues of harmony and tranquillity, as the Newberry Consort's program, titled "Harmonia Parnassia," demonstrated. The two three-part sinfonias for recorder, lute, and violin by Nicolaus a Kempis (1600-'76) were nicely executed, but they sounded almost phlegmatic. Livelier were the three-part fantasies for recorder and strings by Thomas Lupo (fl. 1610) and Giovanni Coperario (c. 1575-1626). The Lupo work is from a best-selling 1648 anthology compiled by Paulus Matthysz, an Amsterdam publisher who avidly promoted English music in the Netherlands--rightly so, judging from one of the English works from the anthology, Orlando Gibbons's three-part fantasy for recorder, lute, and viola da gamba, a piquant, rhythmically sharp contrast to the two Dutch works.

Verbruggen, a world-class recorder player from Amsterdam, was brilliant in her showy solo turns. She nicely partnered O'Dette, an Eastman School professor, in Daniel Norcombe's stately Division on a Ground, though O'Dette's lute playing was marred by ungainly sounds here and there. Earlier O'Dette strutted his stuff in the Fantasia "Resonansi d'ecco" by Joachim Van den Hove (1567-1620), which has plenty of passages that require the lute to jump an octave higher to create an "echo," but the soothing music is still better suited to the cocktail lounge. Another solo piece for O'Dette was the polyphonic Onse Yader in Hemelryck by Nicholas Vallet (1583-1626), a noted lutenist of his day. O'Dette deftly handled this stretch of mellowness, showing why it foreshadowed early German Baroque organ music. About the most buoyant instrumental work on the program was the ciaccona for recorder, lute, and viola da gamba by Merula, who, not surprisingly, was Italian.

The vocal numbers in this recital, all sung limpidly by Minter, also conveyed the Dutch preference for harmony and order, for music as therapy and not catharsis. "Quare tristis es" ("Why art thou cast down"), one of more than 800 works by the polymath Constantijn Huygens, is typical in its pious somberness. In the same plaintive, devotional vein is "Wanneer het hert" ("When the heart") by Dirk Camphuysen (1586-1627), a religious nonconformist who adapted well-known melodies to his own verse. The two pieces that tried to appeal to the emotions were by Daniel Petersen (fl. 1660). In "Schreit niet meer" ("Cry no more") Minter, backed up by O'Dette on lute, evoked melancholy and even fieriness, and his delivery of "O Heere!" ("O Lord!") was quite affecting. The instrumental accompaniment for the songs was for the most part precise and smooth. I look forward to the Newberry's recording of this Dutch sampler, due out next fall.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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