As music neared our modernity, it lost much of the earthy joy in the sounds of Christmas. Holiday music pulled on the robes of solemnity, or it bathed in nostalgia and sentiments gone threadbare. All that served to magnify Piffaro's celebration of Advent and Hanukkah, which portrayed the early-music ensemble's turf, the 17th century, as a time to celebrate the winter holidays with unabashed joy and dash.
In weekend concerts in Philadelphia and, Sunday, in Wilmington, the ensemble, with soprano Julianne Baird, showered the season with boldly imagined performances that could only have been an accurate translation of the solstice mood 400 years ago. Texts drawn from psalms must have invited lusty dancing, and sacred texts, as sung by the soprano, drew images of almost boisterous celebration.
Lest the listeners grow too envious of that early time, it is hard to imagine a singer in those days able to offer the music in a way even approaching Baird's pure musicality and beguiling, expressive voice. Her singing lures listeners into believing they can see the printed line floating alongside her voice. Every note, every dynamic and decoration is there to show how the notes enhance the text and heighten its every nuance. Composers then found pleasure in shifting details almost note by note. Baird showed all that while infusing the music with buoyant energy and graceful turn of phrase.
This was not soloist with accompaniment. The nine-member ensemble, playing a cornucopia of winds, lute, theorbo, sackbuts, bagpipes, harp, and percussion - and even singing a bit - gave the soprano grounds for expressive bursts. Singing and playing became wide-eyed pleasure, spurred by changing meters and contrasting tempos, something akin to inspired and surprising jazz.
The program was drawn from music suggesting light. Monteverdi and Michael Praetorius were stalwarts, but the scarcely known Salamone Rossi, a Jewish composer, was shown as a gifted colorist in instrumental and vocal works for Hanukkah.
The instrumentalists, guided from within the group by Joan Kimball and Robert Wiemken, showed how boldly colored music can sound at low decibels. In Italian works by Frescobaldi, G.B. Riccio, Diego Ortiz, and G.M. Cesare, combinations of instruments poured new sonorities in torrents into the musical mix. Songs of the Sephardim dazzled with color and wit, and Praetorius' Wachet auf gave the winds a chance to show their deft handling of difficulty with ever-new sonorities.