A holy night: Folger Consort performs ‘Palestrina’s Perfect Art’ at the National Cathedral

What would it have felt like, I’ve sometimes wondered, to listen, in sublime surroundings, to sounds conveying the deepest devotions of Christian belief, long before the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Matthew Arnold’s “sea of faith?” Recreating through imagination what listeners may have felt and heard 600 years ago in Italian churches and convents seems a nearly impossible task of spiritual archeology. But the Folger Consort’s annual program at the National Cathedral last weekend is likely as close as 21st-century Washingtonians can come.

Folger Consort performs at the Washington National Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Folger Consort.
Folger Consort performs at the Washington National Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Folger Consort.

The Consort – Robert Eisenstein, Christopher Kendall, and a changing cast of top-notch visiting artists – has, since 1977, been at the center of the area’s robust early music scene. In last weekend’s performance, the instrumental group Tessarae Baroque and British vocal ensemble Stile Antico participated, as well as frequent and welcome guest Webb Wiggins on the baroque organ, in a program headlining works of Palestrina.

The longest work on the program, concluding the first half, was a Palestrina “Stabat mater,” a tender prayer both venerating Mary and empathizing with her pain as she stands at the foot of the Cross. Using the full forces available, the Consort brought out, with clarity, the complex subtleties of Palestrina’s composition as well as a sense of the well-articulated text. (The Folger Consort’s programs always provide translations of the vocal works.) If one knew nothing of the cultural or religious background, one would nevertheless be touched by the sheer beauty of the performance.

There were other Palestrina pieces on the program, but the evening’s real revelation was the presentation of a number of pieces by 16th-century female composers. Not household words, even in many musical circles, women like Rafaella Aleotti, Maddalena Casulana, Leonora d’Este–a daughter of Lucrezia Borgia(!), and Suplitia Cesis produced music that easily stands comparison with that of their male contemporaries. As explained in Dr. Barbara Eichner’s program notes, these composers were often nuns, of upper-class background, in the most prestigious convents of their day.

Because convent discipline prohibited nuns from being seen by outsiders, the performers sang behind screens, while the audience – and they did draw large audiences – listened in a public space. In recognition of this tradition, the women of Stile Antico gathered well back in the Cathedral’s choir, singing three a capella pieces by d’Este, “Veni sponsa Christi” (welcoming new members of the order), “Sicut lilum inter spinas” (a piece for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, based on a verse from the Song of Songs), and “O salutaris hostia,” (a piece for Corpus Christi). In each case, they produced a pure, ethereal sound, justifying Eichner’s comment that audiences readily compared the nuns’ voices to those of angels.

Stile Antico performed 'Palestrina's Perfect Art' with the Folger Consort and Tessarae Baroque at the Washington National Cathedral. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
Stile Antico performed ‘Palestrina’s Perfect Art’ with the Folger Consort and Tessarae Baroque at the Washington National Cathedral. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

Folger Consort programs are frequently structured to alternate among vocal, instrumental, and mixed numbers. So Saturday night, after the opening Palestrina “Regina coeli” and a capella songs by Aleotti and Casulana, Tessarae Baroque performed two instrumental pieces, one by Giovanni Gabrieli being particularly noteworthy.

This ensemble emphasizes wind instruments, featuring excellent playing of sackbut (a relative of the modern trombone, with a somewhat higher tone) and cornetto (a curved, wooden instrument played with a small, trumpet-like mouthpiece, fingered like a recorder, and able to produce clear, human-voice like sound; for a quick introduction, watch here). Kiri Tollaksen, one of the cornetto players, had a virtuosic turn in Grossi di Viadana’s “Canzon Francese in riposta,” and showed equal skill on the soprano recorder in “Diminutions on Vestiva I colli” by Bartolome de Selma y Salverde, in both cases joined by the estimable Wiggins on the organ.  Eisenstein joined many of the instrumental numbers on viola da gamba or violin.

In 2010, the Consort’s Cathedral appearance featured Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, as gorgeous a work of the early Baroque as I have ever heard.  This weekend’s concert closed with an excerpt, “Ave maris stella” (“Hail, O Star of the Ocean,” another Marian devotion). Alternating the entire company, small vocal groups, baritone, bass, and mezzo solos, with instrumental interludes between verses, it was a glorious conclusion to the proceedings.

It was gratifying to see a nearly full house in the large Cathedral space, itself an inspiration, for an evening of mostly 16th-century music. There’s no need to wax nostalgic about the context in which the music arose. Politics, egos, and quick resort to war were no less vicious in Renaissance Italy then than in our own time. The plague, and fear of it, were a constant. But an event like this concert is at least a reminder that even difficult times can produce something beautiful and lasting. I hope we can be as fortunate.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.

Palestrina’s Perfect Art, presented by Folger Consort with Tesserae Baroque and Stile Antico, performed February 7 and 8, 2020, at Washington National Cathedral, 3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC. For tickets to future Folger Consort performances, go online.


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