A feast of early music as it was meant to sound

Boston may not have the greatest track record in the arts of late -- only the Boston Symphony has consistently sustained the standards of a world-class organization. But the in past decade, Boston has become a haven for early-music specialists -- performer and listener alike.

The first of what it hoped will be a biennial Early Music Festival was recently staged here. It offered the early-music maven a chance to absorb six full days of concerts, workshops, demonstrations, and the like, spread along a strip of Back Bay's Huntington, Ave.

The festival was a formidable undertaking, garnering tremendous popular and critical interest: people came from all over America to hear and see. The Music Critics Association chose the event as the locale for its annual meeting, ensuring that 65 critics or so would hear and savor the Boston early-music scene.

There was a fully staged performance of Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea," a concert of Venetian music by the Boston Camerata, and recitals by Weiland Kuijken and Ralph Kirkpatrick. During the day, Horticultural Hall and the New England Conservatory were active exhibition halls of a dizzying variety of early musical instrument reproductions -- a hobbyist would have found the trip worthwhile just for this chance to display or see instruments from stunning virginals to handsome fortepianos and all the varieties of reed and stringed instruments.

The Monteverdi offered a major chance to hear an "authentic" rendering of the composer's colosal work. One can only marvel at the scope of the drama -- a petulant Emperor who wreaks a juvenile, horrific revenge on those who thwart his attempt to replace his wife, Ottavia, with the courtesan Poppea as Empress of Rome.

Musically, it is astonishingly rich in detail. The Busenello libretto is crammed full of motivation and characterization, and Monteverdi has set it to a free-flowing style of composition that is equally alert to detail, and full of tremendous passion and vitality. In fact, the opera wa s performed with fewer cuts than usual, and ran almost four hours, with two short intermissions.

If the Monteverdi was the most industrious undertaking, the Camerata concert was the most magical. The program, a survey of Venetian music from the Gabriellis to Monteverdi, was a model of the genre that music director Joel Cohen has so handsomely perfected. Cohen offers an overview that is not just snippets of this and that, but whole songs and sections, seamed together to give a rich mosaic of the era under exploration. His Camerata troupe is one of th e finest arouond, his orchestra players all first-rate. He had the added forces of the New York Cornet and Sacbut Ensemble and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Aureum to make for a splendidly full sound.

Ralph Kirkpatrick has contributed much to the cause of early music and Bach ont he harpsichord. Though now sightless, he is at his best in his 50 th-anniversary Boston recital. The strength, nobility of phrasing, and articulation of details were most impressive. Often, however, he landed in rhythmically troubled waters.

In many ways, this concert helped to demonstrate the strengths of this first Early Music Festival. If offered an overview of the state of early music today, where monthly new insights are gained, and new ways of expressing and revitalizing the notes on these early manuscripts. There is controversy and partisanship in the field, but it is a most exciting one, in which the articulation of one phrase can spark an hour's discussion. In the arts, that sort of caring and know ledgeable appreciation are increasingly hard to come by.

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