CENTREVILLE, Del. - Halfway into Brandywine Baroque's harpsichord festival, titled the Dumont Concerts, distinguished guest artist Davitt Moroney explained why events like this need to exist. Fine music can be wedded to circumstance: Put Francois Couperin in a program with J.S. Bach "and Bach sort of squashes Couperin. Nothing you can do about it," said Moroney.
So Couperin was heard last weekend in programs surrounded by his contemporaries, for an audience that numbered less than 100, amid the rolling farm country around the Barns at Flintwood. There, the music's subtle, quiet voice could emerge from complete silence. Another considerable factor was the instruments: a 1707 Dumont and a 1635 Ruckers, both contemporaneous with the repertoire. In effect, the 21st century was kept at bay.
In the two Saturday concerts - one by Brandywine Baroque artistic director Karen Flint, the other by Moroney (who is among the most distinctive harpsichordists of his generation) - you could walk in with a severe German mind-set and convert to the alternative French formality, in which musical events have such a different sense of commencement and conclusion. A set of dance pieces by Chambonnieres (drawn from the rediscovered Borel manuscript of music from the mid-17th century) left you wondering when one ended and another began.
By the time Moroney's evening concert began, one's ears were so accustomed to the music's formulas that the repetitiveness that could set in in less-sympathetic circumstances was replaced by appreciation for gratifyingly subtle compositional variations. Pieces that departed from the template were arresting indeed. The Saraband from Clérambault's
Suite in C minor
was a confessional soliloquy.
More arresting was an allemande by one Jacques-Denis Thomelin (1640-93). Only two of his pieces survive, and the one heard Saturday was thoroughly individualistic, with sporadic little explosions of notes and only a ghost of a formula in the background. Least effective, oddly, was Couperin's
suite: Musical descriptions that made it popular seem a bit silly now.
Flint's playing was amiably uncompromising, full of positive virtues but careful not to oversell anything. In contrast, it isn't so much that Moroney is extroverted as that he lets you in on his intellectual process. Nearly every piece unfolds with a sense of leisure and expanse (notes don't compete with each other for room in the sound picture), the effect being that even the composer's technical decision had a near-theatrical impact.
Though Moroney maintains a palpable pulse, there's little sense of steady tempo. Each event occupies as much time as it needs. The effect made such intuitive sense, you wondered if current notions of consistent tempo were as relevant to Couperin as consistent word spellings were to Shakespeare (whose name was sometimes Shaxpere).