Lutenist Timothy Burris and cellist Raffael Scheck seem to have had at least two things in mind when they named their Saturday evening program “An Age of Invention: Music of 17th Century Italy for Cello and Theorbo.” The concert was the season opener of Portland Early Music‘s compact but invaluable Chapel Series at St. Luke’s Cathedral.

On the surface, the title referred to the music at hand – sonatas, caprices, toccatas and passacaglias, all forms that, in the 17th century, were still tests of a performer’s improvisatory inventiveness. But technological invention was on the players’ minds as well: In their spoken comments, the players discussed not only the composers and works, but also, 17th-century Italian innovations in instrument building and string making.

A third form of invention was on display as well. Since the 17th-century repertory with the cello in the spotlight is fairly sparse, Burris rescored three of the eight works on the program, transforming them from lute or theorbo solos to duets in which the cello had an equal or greater share of the thematic material. Reworking of this sort was common at the time; scores, back then, were road maps on which performers could impose their own ideas, not the sacrosanct documents they became a century later.

Several of the composers on the program were lutenists, with a few keyboardists in the mix, but Scheck and Burris began with a Sonata in G major by Domenico Gabrielli, a cellist who thrived in Bologna in the second half of the 17th century. His Sonata, a four-movement alternation of slow and fast movements, is built on elegant cello themes and rich theorbo counterpoint.

Scheck, who is a professor of modern European history at Colby College but also an expert Baroque cello player, phrased the work thoughtfully and brought some graceful ornamentation to its slow movements, also leaving ample space for Burris’ accompanying elaborations on the theorbo.

The duo approached the similarly structured closing work, Felice Maria Picinetti’s Sonata in C, in much the same way, emphasizing the stateliness of the slow movements and the vital, almost athletic danceability of the fast ones. But Picinetti, about whom little is known, flourished at the start of the 18th century, and his cello writing was more assertive – close, at times, to what you hear in Bach’s solo cello suites. He may have been the innovator here: Though musicologists don’t have firm dates of composition for either, Picinetti’s work is thought to have been written around 1700, Bach’s around 1720.

Between those sonata bookends, Scheck and Burris played the three works that Burris arranged, starting with the Toccata per Spinettina solo over Liuto, from Girolamo Frescobaldi‘s “Il Primo Libro delle Canzoni” (1628). In its published form, the work – which, oddly, appears only in the first of the collection’s three editions – includes a notation telling the performers that they may begin and end wherever they please. As Scheck and Burris played it, the piece sounded thoroughly structured, and indeed, the arrangement gave the cello answering lines that mirrored the lively themes in the lute part.

In a passacaglia from Alessandro Piccinini’s “Intavolatura di Liuto” (published posthumously in 1639, a year after the composer’s death), Burris kept much of the invention and detail in the lute part, giving Scheck the bass ostinato from which the work’s figuration emerges. And in his arrangement of Giovani Girolomo Kapsberger’s Seconda Arpeggiata (1604), Burris brought to life the simple notation – mostly four repeated chords in each bar – by giving the cello a simple but effective elaboration on the chords, while he played alternately strummed and arpeggiated versions of the chords on the theorbo.

The most interesting works, though, were solo pieces. Scheck gave an energetic, rich-toned account of Giovanni Battista dagl’Antonii’s concise but wide-ranging Ricercata No. 6 in A minor (from his Ricercata, Op. 1, published in 1687). Burris gave expansive, beautifully detailed readings of the “Capricio detto il Capricioso” and the “Corrente detta l’Alfonsina” by Pietro Paolo Melii, a lute virtuoso who wrote in a similarly discursive, contrapuntal style similar to that of his more famous contemporary, John Dowland.

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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