comes alive: Abraham and Le Concert des Nations at Ozawa
a Song of Shakespeare
Concert des Nations with F. Murray Abraham
Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, Mass., July 15
Aside from the music of the words themselves, Shakespeare’s
plays were bathed in a context of music—songs within the scripts,
music summoned by various scenes, and a general sense that
there were tunes being played even when not specifically mentioned.
And there’s been a huge industry during and since Shakespeare’s
time of providing song settings, instrumental underscoring,
overtures, ballets, operas, and more. Robert Johnson is the
only composer known to have set songs in the first productions
of Shakespeare’s plays, although his instrumental pieces aren’t
as easy to place. It is reckoned that he contributed to The
Winter’s Tale, so last week’s Tanglewood concert by Jordi
Savall and his period-instruments group Le Concert des Nations
commenced with lines from that play.
Thanks to F. Murray Abraham’s conversational but rhythmic
approach to the texts, we also were treated to the musical
nature of Shakespeare’s words. And this was no random pairing
of actor and ensemble; Abraham and Savall joined forces late
last year to present words and music from and inspired by
Don Quixote. Uniting again for Shakespeare was therefore
a natural extension.
For Johnson’s music, Savall led the ensemble while playing
a treble viola da gamba (a fiddle-sized instrument that rests
upon the knee), surrounded by a variety of other stringed
instruments as well as a an imposing-looking theorbo (played
by Enrique Solinis, who occasionally switched to the theorbo’s
smaller cousin, the guitar), harpsichord and percussion; the
last-named was a battery of hand drums, tambourines and even
Jew’s harp wielded by the deft Marc Clos.
did you dare to trade and traffic with Macbeth,” asks Hecate
in an angry monologue, “in riddles and affairs of death?”
With that, Abraham darkened the mood, and the subsequent music
included a solemn Scottish dance with bagpipe effects as well
as a tender, affecting solo by Savall.
Tempest figured next, with three spoken segments that
danced around scenes and characters, again excellently declaimed,
beginning with Ferdinand’s wonder at the music of the invisible
Ariel: “Where should this music be?”
Matthew Locke’s music was built around traditional dances—galliard,
gavotte, sarabande—brilliantly performed, this time with Savall
at the podium. The first half ended with an impressive canon
whose contrapuntal lines were well pointed by the players.
Every dance was in its own way compelling because of the spontaneity
of the musicianship. That’s a quality that can be brought
to bear upon any formal score, although it too often seems
to be avoided. Savall and his musicians treat their music
like jazz ditties, flirting with the boundaries of what constitutes
an appropriate interpretation of an antique piece and thus
sparking with the kind of excitement we can believe was enjoyed
by the 17th-century audiences.
Certainly the music of Purcell was acclaimed, gaining a reputation
during its time as something fans would line up to listen
to. His works were the most recent on the program, although
that took us only to 1695, and were drawn from his Fairy
Queen, itself a much-changed A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
From the original text came an act two scene in which Abraham
impersonated Puck, Oberon and Titania; somewhat later, he
startled the audience with a through-the-house exit while
promising to “put a girdle round about the earth in 40 minutes!”
Good-natured music matched the joy of the words, with a succession
of contrasting movements meant to depict, for example, a “dance
for the fairies,” “symphony while the swans came forward”
and, most curiously, “dance for the green men.”
A concluding chaconne, billed as a “dance for a Chinese man
and woman,” was in fact a set of “Folia” variations, celebrating
a dance tune borrowed by dozens, if not hundreds of composers,
and forming the basis of two of Savall’s early recording successes.
For an encore, a dance from 17th- century Versailles: Les
Ameriquains, as collected by Andre Philidor, and introduced
by Abraham with lines from The Merchant of Venice.
Another encore for the small but demonstrative crowd: A contredanse
by Rameau that put the audience to work, conducted by Savall,
adding rhythm. With so much talent and enthusiasm—and all
that Shakespeare!—on board, the concert was a satisfying,