BEMF festival concerts, from ‘Beowulf’ to bedlam
As early music goes, you can’t get much earlier than Sequentia, a Paris-based ensemble specializing in Western European music from before the year 1300. Wednesday evening at Jordan Hall, Sequentia showed the Boston Early Music Festival audience its vision of the wild medieval northlands, where Christ and Odin may be invoked in the same breath to heal a wound, and poetic elegies spin spare, affecting tales of love and loss.
Only a few scraps of actual melody survive from the time period Wednesday’s concert covered, the eighth through 11th centuries, so what the audience actually heard was Sequentia’s best efforts to reproduce something similar, guided by available resources on ancient languages, early instruments, and other oral poetic traditions. Founder and director Benjamin Bagby, who cites an obsession with “Beowulf” since childhood — and regularly performs a large section of the epic, accompanying himself on the harp — has devoted years of work to reconstructing “lost songs” from the era.
These songs, as presented in Wednesday’s program, included ululating incantations against disease, a spellbinding section from the “Poetic Edda,” and instrumental pieces by flutist Norbert Rodenkirchen based on the surviving ancient tunes. At points, the audience was challenged with rhythmic riddles in spoken verse; before the answer (which was sometimes a naughty bait-and-switch) appeared on the supertitles screen, harpist and singer Hanna Marti plucked out a short passage. The Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the “Jeopardy!” music, perhaps?
Listening to Marti’s reconstruction of the elegy “Wulf and Eadwacer,” with its resurgent refrain ringing against her vehement, pulsing harp, I found myself reminded of quite a different Northlands bard: the Swedish-Argentine singer-songwriter José González, with his straightforward, compelling guitarwork and modal melodies. The more things change. . .
The next night, Jordan Hall’s time machine jumped forward several centuries to 18th-century France. The BEMF Orchestra, directed by concertmaster Robert Mealy, led a whirlwind tour through the theatrical delights of Rameau, who premiered his first opera at age 50 and never seemed to run out of material once he started. Through gavottes, tambourins, and menuets, dance pieces for those operas, the Baroque orchestra was in its full splendor. Watching the way the players blended their sound and engaged one another from their seats, it seemed impossible that the orchestra gets together only infrequently.
The ensemble received big assists from energetic dancing duo Caroline Copeland and Pierre-François Dollé, whose original historically informed choreography brought even more life and color to the music. The program also showcased a trio of singers; it was lovely to hear soprano Teresa Wakim in her high-flying element with “Volez, Plaisirs,” while soprano Emőke Baráth followed up her fiery mainstage opera debut earlier this week with two gorgeously shaped tunes. While baritone Christian Immler shook the stage with a commanding rendition of a sorcerous scene from the opera “Dardanus,” Dollé flew across the stage with tight footwork and long leaps, sky-blue cape billowing around him; the two men seemed two halves of the same character. When the audience demanded an encore afterward, the orchestra and dancers delivered one in the literal sense, reprising a fleet-footed tambourin from earlier in the program.
A large crowd turned out for the late-night concert, “Delirium,” featuring the dream-team bill of Immler, soprano Amanda Forsythe, and a continuo band composed of gambist Cristiano Contadin, harpsichordist Luca Guglielmi, and on theorbo and guitar, BEMF artistic directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs. The theme was madness, English style, treated so horribly by the medical establishment of the time, but with such irresistible fascination by composers. As Forsythe strutted around the stage for a cocky theater tune and Immler raged through Purcell’s unhinged showpiece “Let the dreadful engines of eternal will,” it felt like an after-party; all one needed to do to get in was fight sleep for a few more hours.
BOSTON EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL
Sequentia; June 12, Jordan Hall. BEMF Orchestra and Forsythe, Immler & friends; June 13, Jordan Hall. Festival continues through Sunday. www.bemf.org