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Review: With Two Star Lutenists, Boston Early Music Festival Comes to the Morgan



The Boston Early Music Festival traveled light for its latest concert at the Morgan Library & Museum on Friday evening, The program, “For Two Lutes,” offered just two performers playing easily portable instruments: the stellar and widely recorded lutenists Paul O’Dette (an artistic director of the festival) and Ronn McFarlane.

The two proved a beautiful match, seamless in their exchanges and well balanced when one took the lead and the other a supporting drone or ostinato. What’s more, the lively acoustics of the library’s Gilder Lehrman Hall were ideal for the sound of what Mr. O’Dette, in preliminary remarks, called “one of the softest of all instruments,” reticent even when redoubled.

The music hailed mostly from the 16th century, when the lute loomed large in aristocratic circles, wielded by both professionals (extremely well recompensed, according to Mr. O’Dette) and amateurs. It all made for a lovely if somewhat monochromatic evening of close listening.

The first half consisted of Italian music, starting with Joan Ambrosio Dalza, Francesco da Milano, Vincenzo Galilei (father of the epoch-making astronomer) and Claudio Merulo. But Alessandro Piccinini made the biggest impression, both in a toccata for two lutes and in a stirring solo passacaglia played deftly by Mr. McFarlane.

In the second half, devoted to English music, Mr. O’Dette took a solo turn in a fantasy by John Dowland, and the players added works by John Danyel, John Johnson and others. Increasingly, Mr. O’Dette and Mr. McFarlane challenged each other in their proclamations and improvisations.

But the real delight came in the encores: “Classical Rag,” a two-lute takeoff on Scott Joplin by a Welsh composer, Ian Davies, and “My Lord Chamberlain His Gaillard,” a Dowland piece for one lute, four hands, complete with hand crossings on the fingerboard.

The lanky Mr. McFarlane wrapped himself around the burly Mr. O’Dette, who commented that Dowland may well have written this to perform with a comely female partner. So quality of execution may not have been the prime concern for the composer. Be that as it may, it is hard to imagine that the work ever had a better performance than the one here.

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