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Bard comes alive: Abraham and Le Concert des Nations at Ozawa Hall.

Photo: Hilary Scott

Sing a Song of Shakespeare

By B.A. Nilsson

Le Concert des Nations with F. Murray Abraham

Ozawa 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.

“How 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.

The 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, inspiring experience.

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