ACRONYM makes a stylish case for Rosenmüller’s music
The pleasurable paradox of the early music movement is how many new experiences it delivers by presenting music that is, at its youngest, 300 years old. The vast amount of music from the time before 1650 or so is like the oceans, whose depths are so little known that each excursion below the surface brings back astonishing reports.
Good early music ensembles don’t just play with stylistic authenticity, they explore the past and bring back music that has been barely heard, if at all, for hundreds of years. One of the best at this is the young ensemble ACRONYM, which played music by Johann Rosenmüller at a Music Before 1800 concert at Corpus Christi Church, Sunday afternoon. Half of the pieces were sonatas for ensemble, the other, bass cantatas with sacred texts, sung by the excellent, versatile baritone Jesse Blumberg.
Rosenmüller lived entirely within the 17th century. He was accomplished, prolific, and well-regarded enough to have been promised the important position of Thomaskantor at the Nicolaskirche in Leipzig. That path ended when he was jailed for sodomy in 1655.
He escaped from prison and made his way to Venice, where he lived for almost half his life, working first as a trombonist, then as a composer. Of the eight items ACRONYM played, seven came from this period (the eighth was made after his return to Germany, and two years before his death in 1684).
Rosenmüller may be obscure, but he’s not unknown—there are a couple dozen recordings of his work in the current discography (ACRONYM will be releasing a CD in March with almost all the music from this concert).
All the music was stylish and stylishly played. The sonatas and cantatas made for a compressed but representative body of work. All the music shared notably responsive, syncopated continuo writing, and a thoughtful, expressive alternation between fast and slow passages. The sacred music had an emphatic, almost literal emphasis on the text, and often considerable drama.
Blumberg and ACRONYM moved easily back and forth from anguished lament to triumphant energy. The cantatas displayed a notable quirk in that several ended on an abrupt upbeat.
The playing Sunday stood out for its gusto and vitality. There was an utter lack of mannerism or curatorial preciousness. This was music played as part of a living tradition, with a sense of normalcy that is the foundation of authenticity.
ACRONYM took to all the music with verve, playing with excellent communication and unanimity of rubato. The character of each instrument combined in the whole to make a bright, grainy sound that seemed bigger than the eight or nine instruments arrayed for each selection. On the vocal music, ensemble founder Kivie Cahn-Lipman added the shimmering colors of his lirone—a gamba-type instrument, usually with around a dozen strings, used to play chords.
Blumberg and the group were a companionable pair. The baritone’s transparent tone and precise articulation floated above and around the rich ensemble textures. His voice is bigger than is usually heard in early music performances, but his smooth phrasing and precise intonation and rhythmic alertness made for an ideal, intimate projection.
The most intriguing piece on the program will unfortunately be missing from the recording; Sonata No. 7 in D minor, the one from Rosenmüller’s return to Germany. This is based around a minor scale that first rises then falls back. The music is gorgeous and emotionally haunting, and ACRONYM performed it with moving grace.