By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • March 18, 2012
The early 17th century was an exciting, even pathbreaking time for women in music, not least due to the achievements of Francesca Caccini, a famous singer in the Medici court who — far more significantly — was also a composer of remarkable imagination and skill. The Folger Consort turned a spotlight on Caccini on Friday night with “The Songbird,” a collection of works by Caccini and others of her time that showcased the fine young soprano Michele Kennedy, and the ensemble made a good case that Caccini may be the most interesting composer you’ve never heard of.
The concert, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theatre, opened with “Dal mi permesso,” an aria from Claudio Monteverdi’s infinitely influential opera “L’Orfeo.” The ensemble (Consort founders Robert Eisenstein on violin and Christopher Kendall on theorbo, with harpsichordist Joseph Gascho and Risa Browder on violin) took the work at a languid pace, and Kennedy approached it with quiet reserve, favoring beauty and sweetness over drama and depth.
It quickly became clear that Kennedy has a lovely voice, well controlled and agreeably warm. But as she showed throughout the evening, it’s the gentle warmth of spring rather than the burning heat of summer. Five complex and varied songs from Caccini’s 1618 collection, “Il Primo Libro delle Musiche,” were laced through the program, and though the music was fascinating, Kennedy approached each piece rather politely, substituting mild melancholy for probing drama and polishing every edge to softness. You longed to hear her dig to the music’s core: Even wrenching songs such as Barbara Strozzi’s “L’Eraclito Amoroso” (“Every sadness assails me / Every sorrow lasts eternally”) left only a vague sense of pleasantness in the ears.
Edge came in spades, though, in the instrumental playing. Harpsichordist Gascho turned in a superb reading of a toccata by Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Eisenstein performed the same composer’s “Canzona per basso solo” with great wit on the viol. But the most flavorful and expressive musicianship of the evening came from violinist Browder. Dressed in an artfully ragged outfit — she looked as if she’d just been attacked by a herd of cats — Browder brought real fire to Marco Uccellini’s “Sonata per violino,” and her account of Giovanni Baptista Fontana’s “Sonata per due violini” (in which she was joined by Eisenstein) provided some of the most electrifying moments of the evening.