Thursday, August 4, 2011


Doron David Sherwin
Barbara Maria Willi
August 3
Capilla Flamenca
July 27

A dynamic performer on a staid instrument.

Bigger, faster and louder is the prevailing performance ethic these days, even in sophisticated music circles. Prague Spring staged a concert in May at an arena, the only place large enough to hold hundreds of performers for Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. And it’s the rare young soloist who is not blazing through an uptempo version of a stately Mozart concerto or Brahms sonata.

So it is a distinct pleasure to be reminded of what can be accomplished by a small number of performers in a refined setting – the specialty of the Summer Festivities of Early Music. The festival’s resonant venues, period instruments and unhurried performances are like a tonic, an opportunity to savor the music and be lulled into the rhythms of another era.

And what better setting for this than St. Agnes’ Convent? Along with the National Gallery’s medieval art collection, the magnificent 13th-century Gothic complex on the northern edge of Old Town houses two performance spaces, both large renovated chapels with crystal-clear acoustics and soaring ceilings that lend a spiritual quality to the music.

In the St. Francis chapel last night, harpsichordist Barbara Maria Willi and cornett specialist Doron David Sherwin played a program of 16th- and 17th-century Italian motets and instrumental music that served as a showcase for their virtuoso performing skills.

Willi, an award-winning player who also teaches and runs a harpsichord studio in Brno, has a silken touch on the keyboard that has made her a sought-after accompanist for singers such as Magdalena Kožená, Martina Janková and Thierry Grégoire. Several solo pieces gave her a chance to show her mastery of the harpsichord, a one-dimensional instrument (by modern standards) that typically offers little range. Willi gets remarkable depth and expression out of it, playing with so much style and energy that Giovanni Picchi’s intricate Passamezzo and Pavan in d literally left her winded, breathing hard in between bows.

Finding jazz riffs in early music.
Sherwin spent much of the evening giving dazzling displays of “ornamentation,” improvisations on the score that were performed by accomplished players, much as jazz musicians do now. It would be interesting to see Sherwin sit in with a jazz group, as the cornett sounds a lot like the modern trumpet, and his fluency, particularly on complicated runs and trills, easily matches or betters many contemporary horn players. It was particularly striking in one of the encores, Bach’s Air on a G string, a familiar piece that gave the audience a chance to appreciate how much of Sherwin’s playing was actually improvisation.

While the St. Francis chapel provides a mellifluous environment for instrumental ensembles, the towering Chapel of the Virgin Mary is divine for voices. Last week’s performance by a male quartet from Germany’s Capilla Flamenca offered a mesmerizing re-creation of 15th- and 16th-century polyphony from Burgundy that expanded beautifully in the sacred space.

Four voices that create a fifth.
Done right, polyphony is more than the sum of its parts, a set of interlocking lines or melodies that combine to create a unique single voice. Led by the extraordinarily deep bass of Dirk Snellings, the Capilla Flamenca singers showed perfect form – measured, not flashy, with an expert command of tone and timing. When their voices came together on selections like Pierre de la Rue’s Magnificat tonus V, the sound shimmered almost visibly in the air. And the clarity was superb, transparent throughout and reverberating in long, golden moments after the pieces ended.

In the wake of the giant choruses that have paraded through Prague this summer, and the mammoth Mahler productions of the past year and a half, it’s almost startling to realize how much can be done with just four voices. Or two very good players on period instruments. Soothing as an escape from the modern world, and brilliant for aficionados who appreciate the fine points of the programs and performances, the Summer Festivities festival is a reminder, once again, that small is beautiful.

And the performers:

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