Yet Rossi was devoted to his faith and his synagogue, composing liturgical music to Hebrew texts in the forward-looking forms of the time – forms, and a sound, that we mostly associate with Christian sacred music and secular madrigals. It has been a revelation to me to discover Rossi’s explicitly Jewish choral music from that period, and to hear it performed not only by the men of Profeti della Quinta but by other ensembles, including the Clarion Music Society and the CBST Chorus.
Performing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on Wednesday night, Profeti della Quinta brought together Rossi’s music with that of the much more famous Claudio Monteverdi, renowned to the present day for his sacred motets, and as, by some accounts, the progenitor of opera. Indeed Profeti titled the program “The Father of Opera and His Jewish Coeval.”
The two composers were contemporaries in Mantua. Rossi’s sister, a well-known singer, was associated with productions of some of Monteverdi’s operatic works. So their juxtaposition in concert is a natural. Profeti delivered sensitive renditions of Rossi’s settings of various Hebrew psalms and secular texts, Italian-language works by Monteverdi (including an arrangement of music from one of his operas in which Rossi’s sister may have sung), and instrumental interludes for lute and harpsichord.
Harmonious balance and natural, conversational phrasing marked the whole program, beginning with the opening a capella Rossi psalm settings with their beautiful polyphony, then two Rossi madrigals featuring a solo by countertenor Doron Schleifer with lute accompaniment. The five singers projected not only skill and sensitivity but luminous character, the harmonies usually topped by Schleifer’s bright confident tones.
The presence of two countertenors lets the group have a lot of fun with female roles as well as male ones, especially in character-driven pieces like Monteverdi’s well-known “Lamento della Ninfa” (The Nymph’s Lamnet) and Rossi’s madrigal “Udite, lacrimosi spirti d’averno.” In other works Profeti’s generous playful spirit became positively theatrical.
By contrast, a range of emotions arced through the program’s weightiest selection, a long madrigal arrangement of music from Monteverdi’s lost opera Arianna, while in one of the instrumental intervals lutenist Ori Harmelin brought a mournful dexterity to a Toccata by Alessandro Piccinini.
Also instrumentally, an elegant, period-appropriate harpsichord improvisation by the group’s bass singer and founder Elam Rotem on a traditional tune was technically dazzling and recalled the fabled extemporizing of the great keyboard composers of the later classical era. Together with the singers’ vivid vocalizing, it was just the kind of effort that frees this ancient music from the museum and dances it out into the town square.