by Michael Caruso
Piffaro, Philadelphia’s Renaissance Band, brought the local classical music Christmas season to a close Saturday, Dec. 22, with “A French Noel.” The concert was performed in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill and drew an audience that nearly filled the church’s sanctuary.
The concert offered a survey of the music that would have been played and sung during a 16th century celebration of Christmas in rural France. It was enhanced by the contributions of the five-member solo vocal ensemble, Les Canards Chantants, and actors Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell from Happenstance Theater. Their involvement, plus the splendid playing by the six instrumentalists from Piffaro, made the program’s two-hour length (with intermission) fly by as though in an instant.
Prior to the ascension of King Louis XIII to the French throne in 1610 and his subsequent appointment of Cardinal Armand Richelieu as his first secretary, the Kingdom of France was not the tightly centralized nation that it was to become. Louis XIII, and even more so his grandson Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” throttled the autonomy of the landed aristocracy. That cynical subjugation obliterated much of the variety and diversity of the French provinces in favor of a uniform consistency set by Paris and then Versailles. It also, by breaking the traditional bond between the nobility and their feudal subjects, set the stage for the French Revolution in 1789 and its particular brand of visceral violence.
During the previous century, however, French celebrations of the Nativity of Jesus Christ were marvels of the particular. Like its dialect, cuisine and wine, each province was almost a unique world unto itself. As a result, its celebration of Christmas was equally distinctive.
The musical centerpiece of Piffaro’s “A French Noel” was the setting of the traditional Latin Mass “Pis ne me peult venir” (Nothing worse could befall me) by Thomas Crecquillon, 1505-1557. Although the chanson on which the Mass is based is not especially seasonal to Christmas, its melodic beauty lent itself to the pastoral character often employed by Renaissance composers to achieve the feel of Jesus’ birth in a stable in a small town in the province of Palestine in the Roman Empire.
Piffaro co-directors Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken surrounded Crecquillon’s polyphonic choral writing for the Ordinary of the Latin Mass with instrumental processionals and recessionals plus vocal and choral chants and motets from the period. These evoked the simple yet delightful celebrations of Christ’s birth as it might have been marked in the smaller parishes throughout France, at the time dubbed the “Eldest Daughter of Holy Mother Church.”
The Mass is nothing short of a masterpiece. Crecquillon’s balance between unaccompanied sections and those with instrumental accompaniment was inspired by the text itself and therefore absolutely right on the mark without fail. His use of polyphonic developmental techniques to enhance the music’s expressivity projected the meaning of the words far beyond that which any translation could have achieved. And the music itself is supple yet solid, delicate yet strong. It unfolded Saturday evening like the flow of an unencumbered river.
Les Canards Chantants performed it beautifully. Soprano Molly Netter, alto Robin Bier, tenors Michael Jones and Bradley King, and bass Graham Bier sang with tones that were individually beguiling and immaculately blended as an ensemble. Their renditions of the program’s other works were no less memorable. Most notable was the lyricism of their phrasing.
Of course, their singing did not approximate the sound of a choir of men and boys, which would have been the norm at the time. Les Canards Chantants’ individual and ensemble vocal colors were full-throated, even during the most lightly voiced of measures, rather than the timbre of ethereal fragility of boy trebles. Still, they sang with stylish authenticity.
The six members of Piffaro played their dazzling array of period instruments with the technical prowess and interpretive artistry that has become the hallmark of their concerts. In their hands, the playing reached far beyond merely evoking the music of a bygone century. It truly called back to life the society that produced that repertoire and the people who lived their lives with its sounds in their ears and hearts. There was nothing of the museum about the playing and the singing. Each piece danced with fervor and sang with vitality. This was the music of people whose lives may not have been easy but that throbbed with passion.
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