Few of us have ever encountered a lute quartet. The chance to remedy that void came last Saturday evening at Early Music Now in a concert held at Cathedral Church of All Saints on Juneau Avenue. The Venere Lute Quartet presented a varied program of 16th century original music for this instrumentation, and since the repertory is slight, also arrangements of music of the period. Despite the snow, there was a sizable audience of music lovers at this 5 p.m. event.
The quartet has all the qualities of excellent music making: balance, agreement on articulation and approach, and true ensemble. Tuning is a constant battle for all lutists, but was conquered most of the time by the quartet. A single lute is a quiet sound. Four are a bit louder, but still decidedly subtle, which required careful listening. Lutes come in various sizes, comprising this quartet of soprano, alto, tenor and bass instruments.
The program was a parade of short pieces by Dutch, French, Italian and English composers, including Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck, Michael Praetorius, Anthony Holborne, Palestrina and others. The players gave spoken introductions which, at the beginning, I worried would be too didactic and dry. But these remarks soon warmed up and became interesting and sometimes entertaining.
The pieces with rhythmic dance qualities were welcome respite from those medium to slow pieces that dominated the program with too little variety. There was certainly some appeal, but the unvarying tone of the lute and its slight dynamic range added up to some inescapable monotony. I began to long for the sound of another instrument to add to the ensemble.