That Baroque music should dance rather than plod is no longer a novel idea, but the dance forms in that music are alien to many listeners. Unless we seek them out, our only encounters with folk dancing are typically in gym class, with reluctance.
The Boston Early Music Festival has begun, and near the end of a suite of Hungarian music early Monday evening, percussionist Baykal Dogan of the Slovakian ensemble Solamente Naturali bounded to the front of Jordan Hall’s stage. He clapped his hands, held his arms out, and leaped into the air, gesturing to a man in the audience to join him onstage and leap opposite him before he went back to his drums, leaving the other man snapping his fingers and spinning alone as the music speeded up, pulsing and throbbing. There was no doubt that Solamente Naturali knew how to dance.
A repeat BEMF guest, the ensemble performed a program of European folk music and German composer Georg Telemann’s more formalized interpretations of folk styles, including the improbably titled “L’Esperance de Mississippi.” The music was presented in seamless suites by region, the folk music having been arranged for the ensemble by artistic leader Miloš Valent from manuscripts. A glorious wildness and foot-stomping vigor shot through the folk music, even in slower selections. Playing Telemann, the musicians were more reined in and genteel, though no less vibrant.
Multi-instrumentalist Jan Rokyta was engrossing in a suite of Jewish music, whether playing sinuous lines on the recorder or mischievous melodies on the cimbalom (a Central European member of the dulcimer family), his mallets blurring. At the end of another suite, he engaged in a freewheeling back and forth with Valent’s violin, a sort of “anything you can do . . . ” game. Violinist Dagmar Valentová made jaws drop when, at one point, she turned to the audience and belted out a song, her mighty voice carrying above the full force of the ensemble. The whoops and hollers that followed were of a caliber not often heard in Jordan Hall.
Solamente Naturali performed this sweaty music in presentable but casual dress, with Valent in short sleeves and a vest and the men unbuttoned at the collar. On the same stage at 8 p.m., the six King’s Singers emerged in identical blue suits and red ties, their appearance as immaculate as their sound. Singing one to a part for a program of “Renaissance heavyweights,” their blend was smooth and dulcet, like butter toffee with the occasional crunch.
The British ensemble’s performance was buffed to a shine, gliding over the passing dissonances and channeling much that was beautiful but less that was sublime. In the Psalm-centered first half, tempos were mostly brisk, with a few exceptions such as a lovely and languid rendition of Palestrina’s “Sicut lilium inter spinas” and a frisson-inducing slow build in Lassus’s “Ad te levavi.” With such uniformity of blend and style, pieces tended to blur. It was a nice surprise to see music by the little-known Italian Salomone Rossi, a Jewish composer who wrote expressive polyphonic motets set to Hebrew texts. At points, one singer or another shared well-rehearsed historical notes and anecdotes about the composers.
Their metaphorical cassocks and ruffs slightly loosened in the secular second half. Lassus’s “Chi chilichi” saw them singing in amusing antiphonal cuckoo calls and crisp rapid-fire Italian, pinching their noses for mocking nonsense syllables. Other standouts included “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” by the harmonically and reportedly mentally unstable composer Carlo Gesualdo, and a zippy “Revecy venir du Printans” by the obscure Frenchman Claude le Jeune. Even their banter relaxed; one singer said that “we think we know” what Lassus’s bawdy madrigal “Dessus le marché d’Arras” was about, smirking, “but we’re British so we’d rather not say.” A touch of that earthiness could be a welcome addition to their more celestial repertoire.
SOLAMENTE NATURALI and THE KING’S SINGERS
Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival. At Jordan Hall, Monday.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.