CAMBRIDGE — The Boston Early Music Festival opened its 27th concert season on Friday at First Church in Cambridge with the British viol consort Fretwork, Canadian soprano Suzie LeBlanc, and, as always, the unspoken question behind all early music performance: why this repertoire, inserted into the contemporary world at such far historical remove? The concert seemed to hold two answers in contradictory counterbalance — early music as both an anticipation of the modern and a diversion from it.
The program returned Fretwork (marking its 30th anniversary) to its roots, 16th- and 17th-century English viol music, from Elizabeth’s reign through the Restoration: William Byrd, John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons, Henry Purcell. Decorously adventurous instrumentals — Byrd’s variations on the folksong “Browning,” elaborations on the “In Nomine” plainchant tune by Byrd and Gibbons, Dowland’s pavan “Lachrimae Tristes,” Purcell’s exploratory four-part Fantazias — processed off orthodox paths into dense harmonic thickets.
That striking, early-emancipated dissonance collapsed historical distance. The playing, in a way, reintroduced it. Fretwork’s polish is effortless, ingrained; Asako Morikawa, Reiko Ichise, Emily Ashton, Sam Stadlen, and the sole remaining founding member, Richard Boothby produced implacably exquisite sound, the musical equivalent of opulent, rustling fabric. It tempered the drama, cushioning insistence with elegance. (The only moment of shock was accidental, the final cadence of one of the Purcell Fantazias serendipitously punctuated with a snapped string on Stadlen’s instrument.)
LeBlanc, too, took lapidary care, every nonvibrato note given meticulous attention. Sometimes it came at the expense of textual presence or a sustained line, though when style and song were in sync, the restraint paid moving dividends. Dowland’s despairing “In darkness let me dwell” was especially affecting, as was Purcell’s “O solitude,” by which point warmer and larger aspects of LeBlanc’s voice had favorably emerged.
But the overall impression of both programming and interpretation was a well-appointed melancholy. Texts expressed life’s transient disappointment — Gibbons’s setting of Sir Walter Raleigh’s valedictory “What is our life?,” Byrd’s “O that most rare breast,” lamenting the death of Sir Philip Sidney — or counseled retreat, as in Byrd’s “My mind to me a kingdom is.” The composers had reason for pessimism, living through times of political upheaval, religious division, and widespread anxiety best expressed by Byrd: “Who is he upon the earth that lives content?” The performance’s understated finesse, though, emphasized escape — as Purcell’s song prescribed, “Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.” Better that illusion, perhaps, than a reminder that, five centuries on, the same troubles intractably persist.
Fretwork; with Suzie LeBlanc , soprano
Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival At First Church Congregational, Cambridge, Friday
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.