Saturday, June 25, 2016

With a focus on 17th-century plucked string instruments, Early Music Festival presents its first solo recital in many years

Xavier Diaz-Latorre played music for baroque guitar (shown) and theorbo.
The focus on instruments not current for centuries has long been a part of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival's appeal.

Patrons over the psst 50 years have become acquainted with citterns and krummhorns, archlutes and rebecs, finding out a little bit about how they're made and how they work. The main payoff, of course, is exposure to the captivating music written for them in various combinations (sometimes the choice of today's players).

The spotlight narrowed Friday as the festival entered its second week at the Indiana History Center. That's where, for the first time since he began programming in 2009, artistic director Mark Cudek scheduled a solo recital. The Basile Theatre, lights dimmed and the stage set to look like an intimate salon, made an attractive setting for "Music for Kings and Commoners," a program of early baroque music for theorbo and baroque guitar played by Xavier Diaz-Latorre of Barcelona, Spain.

Diaz-Latorre emphasized music for the court of Louis XIV in the first half, then after intermission turned to folk-influenced Spanish music from roughly the same era. With its plangent courses of unstopped bass strings complementing the stopped strings, the theorbo encouraged composers to write pieces with a duo texture. In Robert de Visée's A minor suite "La Royalle," Diaz-Latorre displayed the clear-cut vitality given to dance forms when the melody seems to be animated by springing rhythmically and harmonically off the bass pattern.

"La Royalle" was succeeded by a couple of shorter suites by the same composer (c. 1655-1732/33).  "La Plainte," which lived up to its melancholy title through a Prelude followed by an Allemande for a deceased relative, was both soothing and incisive. The recitalist's firm rhythms and variety of tone color put the piece across well. The more upbeat untitled G major suite that followed indicated how those ringing bass notes can both direct and enclose the melody and harmony above them, when managed by an abundantly skilled artist.

Just before intermission, Diaz-Latorre turned to the most influential of the Sun King's musicians and court. He picked up the baroque guitar to play his own arrangment of Jean-Baptiste Lully's orchestral suite of dances from "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." There his gift for gradations of tone was even more pronounced than with the theorbo. The majesty he imparted to the suite took on an orchestral breadth.

The rest of the concert emphasized the timbral variety and rhythmic vigor of the guitar, focusing on works by Gaspar Sanz, whose life spanned the mid-17th to early18th centuries (no even approximate dates have been established for the Spanish priest-composer).  The elaborate teaching pieces, from the 1697 "Instruccion de musica para la guitarra espanola," featured techniques Sanz explains in the book, particularly the strummed and plucked styles. Both ways of playing the instrument were vividly displayed in Diaz-Latorre's performance. The recitalist's encore was also drawn from Sanz's charming output.

He influenced several Spanish composers, according to Grove's Dictionary, including Francisco Guerau (1659-1722), whose "Poema harmonico" occupied a middle position in the recital's second half. The 1694 piece provided another exquisite exhibition of Diaz-Latorre's sensitivty to tone color and dynamics. That acumen alone makes such straightforward pieces, despite the facility they sometimes push to the fore, seem larger in scope than they are. And when you're advocating for such music as persuasively as Diaz-Latorre does, that comes close to achieving the ideal in presenting this repertoire in 2016.