Review: Ending the Year With a Pair of Early-Music Ensembles

Posted December 31, 2017 4:41 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Two of New York’s established early-music ensembles plied specialties over the weekend, a study in contrasts despite basic similarities.

On Friday night, Artek presented Christmas Vespers music by the 17th-century German master Johann Rosenmueller at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in SoHo. And on Saturday evening, Tenet, as it has been doing since 2010, offered music of Monteverdi in its Green Mountain Project at St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village.

Artek — spurred by its countertenor, Ryland Angel — has been assiduously exploring music of the little-known Rosenmueller, stirring interest among other American performers. It released a CD of his solo cantatas, “Soli Deo Gloria,” and has performed several programs of his music. The crack early-music group Acronym and the fine baritone Jesse Blumberg recently released another CD of the composer’s works, “Johann Rosenmueller in Exile.”

And speaking of exile, Rosenmueller’s biography may also gain wider scrutiny in this era of “me too” sexual revelations. In 1655, while employed at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig and seemingly destined to become its cantor (a position later held by Bach), Rosenmueller and several schoolboys were arrested on suspicion of sodomy.

Rosenmueller somehow escaped and fled, eventually setting up shop in the more liberal Venice, starting as a trombonist at St. Mark’s Cathedral. After a thriving career in Italy, he returned to Germany, spending his last two years in Wolfenbuettel.

Artek’s program, titled “Rosenmueller: Christmas Vespers,” was not quite that. It was “a collection of music that was almost certainly performed at Venetian vespers services,” Gwendolyn Toth, the group’s director, explained in program notes. Brevity was evidently not a Rosenmueller hallmark, and “doing a complete vespers,” Toth wrote, “would be a very full evening.” As it was, the densely packed program ran almost 2 1/2 hours.

It would be nice to report that the performances, conducted by Toth, made the time fly. They did not. In some ways they recalled the early days of the modern early-music movement, a half century ago, when point-making in performance practice was sometimes allowed to eclipse accomplished and attractive music-making.

Toth spent much space discussing niceties of pitch and tuning undoubtedly lost on most listeners, advocating “1/4-comma mean-tone,” which required the player of the positive organ, Dongsok Shin, to retune his instrument between several numbers. But the real problems were much more fundamental and immediate.

Apart from fine work by those playing strings and especially the trombonelike sackbuts, the performances had serious flaws, mainly stemming from the work of a few singers well past their prime. This is probably a minority report, to judge by the ovations from a sizable audience.

At any rate, the point was driven home the next night by the fresh, strong singing of Tenet. The Green Mountain Project, named for Monteverdi, has made a calling card of his great 1610 Vespers, one performance better than the last. Here it turned to his “Selva Morale e Spirituale” (“Spiritual and Moral Forest”), a large collection of sacred music published late in his life.

The first half presented six singers, led by the soprano Jolle Greenleaf, in works of moderate scale. The second separated the vocalists into duets and soloists before reassembling them for a big, magnificent finale, “Beatus Vir.” Especially notable in the smaller works were Greenleaf and her usual partner, the soprano Molly Quinn, in “Iste Confessor”; and the lone bass, John Taylor Ward, in “Ab Aeterno Ordinata Sum,” a showpiece that took him to the very bottom of his range.

Tenet’s instrumentalists broke up the program with substantial works by Nicolò Corradini, Giovanni Gabrieli and Giovanni Battista Fontana, allowing the two superb violinists, Aisslinn Nosky and Beth Wenstrom, to do some duetting of their own. In Gabrieli’s “Sonata XXI con Tre Violini,” the two excellent cornetto players, Alexandra Opsahl and Kiri Tollaksen, were joined by a third, Bruce Dickey, a renowned American virtuoso said to be visiting from his home in Italy.

But Monteverdi was clearly the star, exceedingly well served. Thus ended his 450th-anniversary year in New York.


Event Information:

‘Michael Praetorius’ Vespers’

Tenet, joined by the Sebastians, will perform Michael Praetorius’ Vespers on Wednesday evening at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 3 W. 65th St., Manhattan; 212-222-4066, tenet.nyc.