Whether anybody says so, reformation is bound to imply buzzkill. And yes, during the opening half hour of Piffaro's weekend program Welcome the People: The Musical Legacy of the Reformation – as heard amid this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation – audiences seemed in for beautiful, distilled but near-identical hymns.
But the Friday concert at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral was in two rather different parts, the first showing the basic musical seeds of the Reformation, and the second half moving forward a century or so with a church service reconstruction from 1616 in Stuttgart. In that second half, nothing felt obscure, severe, or even very distant – aided by a presentation that included a large video screen with English translations of what was being sung.
Composers from the 16th and 17th centuries such as Leonhard Lechner, Michael Praetorius, and Gregor Aichinger – whose music is almost never asked to carry a concert program – claimed the foreground as major personalities of their time. All clearly benefited from the directness of their aesthetic foundation – the hymns of Martin Luther.
Celebrating a royal christening, the service reconstruction had music so rich you almost couldn't digest it in a single sitting, enabled by the sturdy but refined pipes of the visiting 12-voice Rose Ensemble from St. Paul. Though Piffaro wasn't quite up to its usual standard, the color and variety of the group's instrumentation raised the intoxication factor. Ceremonial obligations that came with the service reconstruction grew a bit tedious but provided needed breathing room between larger spans of music that simply didn't want to stop.
In contrast to Catholic polyphonic music of that period – which created such glorious webs of sound that seem not of this world – these Lutheran-inspired composers could be carried away with the joy of the occasion but never lost sight of their hymn-based backbones. A composer like Praetorius, known mostly today for his lighter-weight Christmas music, gained substance through the use of layers – lots of them, in triple choir writing – though with a unified earthly purpose. Yes, the infinite is out there waiting for you, the music seems to say, but we won't spoil the surprise. Yet the Rose Ensemble sopranos, in particular, showed how much this music is inclined to soar.
Luther's own music, heard unadorned in the concert's first half, had fascinating dichotomies. The words are full of militant imagery, while the music is that of consolation. What the music says and what it does was often two different things. Yin and yang? Multitasking? Mixed signals? As much as the music exudes clarity of purpose, the tension between its purposes can be a point of endless study.