Rarely does one have the opportunity to hear a program devoted solely to seventeenth century music, much less one that includes little-known women composers. The versatile artists of Carolina Pro Musica, soprano Rebecca Miller Saunders, Karen Hite Jacob (harpsichord, organs), Edward Ferrell (alto recorder, flauto traverso, guitar), and Holly Wright Maurer (treble and bass viola da gamba and recorder) brought them to life in a delightful performance using period instruments. The vast and sonorous basilica of Belmont Abbey, where the ensemble has been honored with Abbey Artists status since 2001-02, was an acoustically sympathetic venue for their eclectic program of secular and liturgical works.
Formed in 1977, the ensemble has performed in Europe and the United Kingdom and throughout the southeast, especially around Charlotte, where they’ve maintained a concert series now in its 32nd season. Jacob, the ensemble’s director and a co-founder of the Southeast Historical Keyboard Society, performs on a single-manual harpsichord, a modified replica of a 17th century Mersenne, by Willard Martin, and a small chamber “continuo” organ by John Bennett and Glenn Giuttari. The recorders and one keyed-flute are 18th century replicas made of English boxwood. The two beautiful gambas and guitar added their own historic timbres.
The program began with a Suite in D for flauto traverso and gamba/harpsichord continuo by Dietrich Becker (1623-79), a German violinist, organist and composer. The traditional four movements — Allmandt, Courant, Sarabande, and Gigue — were in small-scale binary form where Ferrell executed beautifully delicate embellishments on the repeats. The soft dynamics in the flute’s lower range required some careful listening. Other instrumental works were by more well-known composers. From Frescobaldi’s Fiori Musicali, a collection of liturgical organ music from 1635, we heard Jacob on the basilica’s organ perform the "Toccata avanti la Messa della Dominica" (Orbis factor), followed by the nine-fold Kyrie, with Ferrell intoning the chant in between the improvisatory-like chant-based organ interludes. Jacob performed in an array of articulations and tempi the “Balletto del Granduca” by the great keyboard composer Sweelinck, a variation set that began innocently enough with a simple, march-like theme and morphed quickly into sweeping technical displays.
There were two chaconnes — the first from The Prophetess (1690) by Henry Purcell that featured Mauer and Ferrell on two alto recorders with Jacob providing the work’s recurring harmonic and bassline foundation. The second was one of the program’s highlights, the "Chaconne en Trio" by Jacques Morel (c.1690-1740). The bass gamba joined the flute in presentation of the melodic material, in a work of elegant “French” dotted rhythms in triple meter. The instrumental parts were challenging and well executed — the flute’s music climbed all over its range, especially the high register, and the gamba was kept busy executing difficult passages of sixteenth notes. In several places, the harpsichord was tacet, showcasing the two featured instrumentalists à deux.
Saunders was featured in works by two nuns — “O magnum mysterium” by Lucretia Vizzana (1590-1662), a woman who joined a Camaldolese convent in Bologna at the age of 8, and “Cari musici” by Bianca Maria Meda (c.1665-c.1700), a Benedictine nun at the convent of San Martino del Leano in Pavia. The latter work begins ironically with an injunction delivered in recitative to “dear musicians, [to] with pleasing silence withhold your voices” (all the while delivering the music, of course) so as to “lovingly contemplate the love of Jesus.” The two short arias that ensued are rapturous reflections on the divine love of Christ. Saunders’s voice is ideal for this repertoire — crystal clear with a judicious use of vibrato as an ornament and appropriate Italianate glottal cadential embellishments. Two works by a semi-cloistered composer, Antonia Bembo, “Ha, que l’absense est un cruel martire” and the sensuous “Total pulcra es” from the Song of Solomon, had arrestingly dramatic texts but suffered, unfortunately, for want of a wider emotional expressive range. “Folías,” a charming piece for singer and guitar by the obscure Luis de Brinceño, afforded a treasure trove of descriptive vignettes, yet this, too, suffered from a sameness of affekt throughout.
The program ended with “Pur ti miro,” the rapturous final duet from Monteverdi’s last opera L’Incoronazione di Poppea (1651), with viol and singer trading the melodic material and chamber organ/guitar as the continuo anchor. This timeless love duet unfolds in a sequence of breathless, short phrases of panting adoration heightened by exquisite dissonance, a beautiful conclusion to a most interesting concert.