Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Music At Twilight

Before I lost the hearing in one ear in the mid-’80s, I listened primarily to what’s commonly called classical music. My special love was the chamber music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries—roughly Hayden to Schubert. We used to go to a lot of live performances, the memories of which still give me pleasure many years later. Two of the most wonderful were given at Sprague Hall at Yale: a deep and intense Death and the Maiden by the Alban Berg Quartet, and a joyfully friendly reading of the Mendelssohn Octet by a group of superb local players.

After a multi-decade hiatus, we headed for Sprague again Sunday to hear a long-time favorite (and probably the only performer who could have gotten me to New Haven through what has become this autumn’s habitual rain, wind, and low temps), the splendid Emma Kirkby who, with Lutenist Jakob Lindberg, presented a program of “Songs and Solos from Early 17th Century Europe.” Lindberg is no mere accompanist. He took four or five solos, and plays his 500-year-old instrument with immaculate technique and great musicality.

I prefer Emma Kirkby in later music—the Handel and such that I’m more familiar with—but she certainly sold me on Dowland, Purcell, et al. What a voice! As the program said, she “values ensemble, clarity and stillness alongside the more usual factors of volume and display.” “Stillness” in a soprano—a miracle! It is this restraint in the service of the music, along with the remarkable purity and accuracy of her voice that made me a Kirkby groupie long ago.

I remember in the late ’70s listening to the long-time, long-gone, morning classical radio fixture Robert J. Lurtzema (I so miss Robert J.) interviewing Kirkby. On air, he exclaimed that he noticed she was wearing a band on her ring finger. He asked, in evident distress, if she was married. She was. He immediately, on air, went into a little public spiral of mourning. He’d obviously had a terrific crush on her. Surely, he wasn’t alone in that.

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