Music’s Quill devoted its Saturday evening program, in the small chapel of St. Luke’s Cathedral, mostly to Baroque vocal music, with the group’s fine tenor, Timothy Neill Johnson, holding the spotlight. But the group’s instrumentalists – Timothy Burris, playing archlute and theorbo, and Raffael Scheck, switching between cellos with different tunings – each performed solo pieces as well, and what the vocal and instrumental music shared, to varying degrees, was an approach to interpretation that demands improvisatory skill.

The vocal works, for example, were continuo songs – that is, music in which the vocal lines are written out fully, but allow leeway for extemporaneous ornamentation, while the continuo, or accompanying parts, are scored simply as a bass line with numerical figuration indicating the necessary harmonies. How this figured bass is brought to life is, to a great extent, up to the musicians.

It’s trickier than you might think. Although the bass lines must be rendered straightforwardly, listeners expect a lutenist to produce inventive accompaniments that punctuate and perhaps comment on, or respond to, the song’s melody and text. But an accompaniment that is so detailed that it arrests the attention can be a problem, since the vocal line, after all, is the main business of the song.

The singer, too, must find a sensible balance between presenting the vocal line as written, and adding embellishments that must be pleasing and virtuosic, yet not so arresting that they obscure the words. Further complicating matters, the line between not enough embellishment, and too much, varies from one listener to the next. For my taste, the Music’s Quill musicians could have been more elaborate with their improvisations, but it could not be said that they failed to meet the style’s demands.

The vocal works were split between love songs of Giulio Caccini and airs by Henry Purcell. Caccini, like his colleagues in the Florentine Camerata – the group that created opera – was concerned with capturing the essence of emotion in his vocal music, so for him, leaving room for improvisation meant allowing singers to magnify those emotions as they saw fit in the heat of performance.

Johnson was at his best in Caccini’s plaintive “Amarilli, Mia Bella,” in which he ornamented the refrain subtly at first, and more elaborately in the final verse. Similarly, in the more energetic “Torna, Deh Torna,” he applied a different set of ornaments to each verse, again increasing their adventurousness as the piece unfolded.

The Purcell set included “Music for a While,” “O, Solitude” and “Evening Hymn,” all works built upon a ground (a repeating bass figure). Like the Caccini songs, these are heard most frequently in performances by countertenors or sopranos. Putting them in the tenor range did them no violence, but the Purcell settings seemed to fall high in Johnson’s range, and he strained at times, particularly in “O, Solitude.”

Supporting Johnson in the Purcell and Caccini songs, Scheck played the bass lines firmly, and Burris filled out the texture gracefully, for the most part leaving attention-grabbing decorations to the bars between lines or verses. An exception was Caccini’s “Mentre Che Fra Doglie e Pene,” at the end of the program, which benefitted from a more rhythmically assertive theorbo accompaniment.

Burris had a better opportunity to demonstrate his improvisatory skills in Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger’s “Toccata Arpeggiata,” the score of which shows only a series of chords, printed as whole notes, which the performer must play in a harp-like style, ideally as something more thoughtful than straightforward arpeggios.

Burris’s solution was gentle and elegant, as was his shapely rendering of a similarly compose-it-yourself prelude by the French composer François Dufaut, in which the printed score is a series of undifferentiated quarter notes, into which the player must breathe a rhythmic soul.

Scheck devoted his solo moments to exacting, texturally transparent performances of two attractive ricercars by Domenico Gabrielli, lively pieces that create the impression of counterpoint – or at least, of independent bass lines and melodies.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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