by Michael Caruso

Piffaro, the Renaissance Band, joined forces with the acclaimed choir, the Rose Ensemble, to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation with a concert entitled “Welcome the People,” heard in Chestnut Hill Saturday, Oct. 21.

It was on Oct. 31, 1517, that the German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, nailed his “95 Theses” on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, appropriately the day before the Feast of All Saints. Although Luther’s initial intentions were to initiate a conversation with the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church — first in Germany but eventually in Rome, itself — his questions and complaints about Catholic doctrine and practice inevitably sparked the second major split in Christendom.

The first was the “Great Schism” of 1054, when the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches officially separated over the creedal definition of the Holy Spirit. In reality, the divisions began to gain momentum when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne, King of the Franks, “Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” on Christmas Day 800 A.D. in defiance of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Emperor. The Pope’s intent was to revive the western provinces of the ancient Roman Empire under a ruler subservient to his authority.

The move worked for nearly half a millennium. And then came Martin Luther, who challenged the supremacy of papal authority and, in particular, demanded that the Bible and much of the Church’s liturgy be translated into the vernacular language of the laity. Contrary to his hopes, Luther’s “95 Theses” were not greeted with enthusiasm in Rome but, rather, visceral opposition that eventually led to an attempted suppression of his movement, which in turn led to a plethora of other reformers establishing many churches that protested specific practices of the Roman Catholic Church.

In a pair of odd twists of “name connections,” it was another Pope Leo who strove to bring Luther to trial on what the Council of Trent (1545-1563) would eventually label “heretical depravity and diabolical fraud.” And yet another, the XIII, who in 1896 quashed a serious attempt to reunite Rome with one of those reformed churches — in this case, the Church of England — when he ruled that Anglican holy orders were “absolutely null and utterly void.” Those two are breathtaking phrases if ever two were uttered, but neither was meant to foster cooperation let alone organic reunion.

It was in the sphere of language that Luther’s reforms made their most powerful impact on the musical world. Luther placed a high value on music, considering it humanity’s second greatest treasure after Scripture. He composed many German-language chorale tunes to replace the Medieval Latin Gregorian chants in the new liturgies of the Lutheran Church. I hasten to point out that Luther hated the use of his own name in the church’s moniker.

The program Piffaro and the Rose Ensemble performed in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill was cleverly divided between a survey of the first century of Reformation church music in the first half. After intermission, the two offered a re-creation of a Royal Christening Mass of 1616 in Stuttgart, capital city of the medieval Duchy of Wurttemberg within the Holy Roman Empire.

Aside from Luther, the principal composers of the program’s first half were Michael Praetorius, who lived from 1571 until 1621, and Hans Leo Hassler, whose dates are 1582 until 1612. Their instrumental versions of chorale tunes were played with tart timbres and spiky rhythms by the instrumentalists of Piffaro while the choristers of the Rose Ensemble sang the original chorales with pure intonation, pristine balance, impeccable blend between the vocal ranges, seamless phrasing and immaculate ensemble.

The “Missa Prima” of Leonard Lechner (1553-1606) was the principal score of the second half. The open-vowel clarity of the original Latin text when sung stood in odd contrast to the more muffled German words of the other choral pieces that were performed as part of the Stuttgart Christening. Perhaps the German diction of the Rose Ensemble was the culprit. Still, I found myself wondering how much of an improvement the translation from the Latin into the vernacular (in order that poorly educated people could more easily understand the words) actually accomplished in the final balance sheet. Perhaps universal education would have saved us all a lot of turmoil that remains unresolved after 500 years?


The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society launched its 2017-18 piano recital series Wednesday, Oct. 25, in the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater with local favorite Richard Goode performing a program that worked beautifully as a survey of keyboard history. Goode, who studied with the legendary Rudolf Serkin at the Curtis Institute of Music, opened his program with Two Pavians & Galliards by William Byrd, then played Bach’s “English” Suite in D minor and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 28 in A major to fill out the recital’s first half. After intermission, he played all 12 of Debussy’s Piano Preludes from Book Two. As an encore, he filled in the gap between Classicism and Impressionism with Chopin’s Romantic “Nocturne” No. 16 in E-flat major, Opus 55, no. 2.

Byrd (1538-1623) played an incredibly important part in music history but not particularly in the repertoire of the keyboard instruments of his time. It was in the sphere of sacred choral music that Byrd’s genius was most obviously revealed. As a devout Roman Catholic as the Church of England separated itself from the Church of Rome — he was born the very year Queen Elizabeth I ascended England’s throne — he tread a delicate line between faith and treason. Fortunately for him, the Queen (who founded the Church of England) appreciated his musical talents sufficiently to allow him to remain a Catholic, composing three full settings of the Latin Mass for private celebration while also composing English-language music for the newly established Anglican liturgy.

But he also composed much secular music, including dance suites for the virginal, the English term for the clavichord. Richard Goode fleshed out four of these charming miniatures, employing the sustaining pedal of the Perelman’s splendid Steinway & Sons concert grand piano to produce a singing legato that evoked the intimate seductions of the “Virgin” Queen’s inner court.

When Bach composed his “French” and “English” Suites and “Partitas” for harpsichord in the early decades of the 18th century, many of the individual dances had already become archaic. Bach certainly never intended them to be danced to. Rather, he used their familiar rhythms and turns of phrases as shimmering sheaths of style with which to cloak his dazzling counterpoint. With pinpoint dynamic command, lyrical voicing and varied colorings, Goode projected Bach’s peerless sense of ongoing thematic development.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28, Opus 101, is the first of the final five he composed for his personal instrument. The others are Opuses 106 (“Hammerklavier”), 109, 110 & 111. In them, Beethoven achieved a level of inspiration at the piano never before or ever since approached let alone matched. Goode, a past master of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, laid out his mature mastery of classical structure and development in the particularly lyrical voice of Opus 101.

With such a penchant for the classical, it wasn’t altogether surprising that Goode’s way with Debussy was something less than idiomatic. He did, however, bring an admirable directness to his Chopin encore.

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