14 Jan 2020

'Songs of Longing and Exile': Stile Antico at LSO St Luke's

Baroque at the Edge describes itself as the ‘no rules’ Baroque festival. It invites ‘leading musicians from all backgrounds to take the music of the Baroque and see where it leads them’.

The ensuing conversations between past and present, and between different cultures, can reveal surprising affinities and inspire experiment and transformation. In 2019, I enjoyed performances by Ceruleo whose concert drama, Burying the Dead (directed by Tom Guthrie), took us back to 1695 and into the feverish mind of Henry Purcell, and American violinist, Elicia Silverstein , whose recital of music for solo violin illuminated striking continuities stretching over three centuries.

There are certainly many ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’ to be found in the music of the Baroque, not least in the operas of Handel - one of the finest being ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo in which Almenira, abducted by the sorceress Armida and imprisoned in the palace, laments her fate: ‘Let me weep over/ my cruel fate,/ and let me sigh for/ liberty.’ Oddly, this aria, included in Stile Antico’s published programme, was omitted during this afternoon concert at LSO St Luke’s, thereby removing the only item that might accurately have been termed ‘Baroque’ from the sequence of songs and instrumental works about displacement and exile. But, if the relationship between the repertoire performed and the Baroque at the Edge ‘concept’ seemed rather tenuous (the programme had in fact previously been presented at Wigmore Hall in June last year), the twelve-voice ensemble still offered intriguing reflections and some fine singing in music spanning from John Dowland to Giles Swayne.

Stile Antico took a little time to settle into their first item, Robert White’s Lamentations à 5 (Part 1), a setting of part of the liturgy of Tenebrae. The music of White, who lived from c.1538-74, looks back towards the music of the early sixteenth century, when precise musical illustration of the text was not a priority, rather than forward to the Baroque: the vocal scoring reflects the cumulative polyphony and ‘waves’ of sound that one finds in manuscripts such as the Eton Choirbook, and the topmost ‘mean’ part often lies low. The twelve singers were arranged in an arc of alternating voice-types, which created a strong blend, but disadvantaged the three soprano voices which were occasionally lost within the whole.

At the heart of the programme was the cycle of seven pavans by Dowland which form the composer’s Lacrhrimae. These instrumental works were sung to new texts by poet Peter Oswald, based on the testimonies of modern-day refugees and migrants. Dowland’s ‘Flow my tears’ was heard at the opening of Lachrimae Antiquae Novae, then individual voices emerged to tell their own stories: a journalist who ‘spoke against the state’; a migrant whose appeal, “Driver, driver, save me from hell!”, was ignored. (The texts of all the works performed during the concert were helpfully projected onto a screen overhead). After recollections of racism, aggression and loneliness the concluding pavan, Lachrimae Verae, offered some consolation with its images of acceptance and assimilation, the voice now ‘safe in daylight’.

Stile Antico shaped the interweaving polyphony with refinement and tailored the tierce de Picardie cadences with gentle expressivity, conveying both pathos and tender hopes for peace. With the semi-circle anchored by basses James Arthur and Nathan Harrison, sopranos and altos grouped either side, and tenors to the fore, individual parts were able to rise and recede affectingly. On the whole the intonation was secure - the false relations of Lachrimae Amantis were focused and pungent - but at times the straight-toned sopranos pushed a little sharp, particularly as the dynamic rose. However, overall the execution was accomplished.

The ‘concept’ was a worthy one but there were several innate problems. First, its hard to think of a repertory in which musical and textual rhetoric are so inextricably fused as the Renaissance lute ayre or part-song. Here, the register, rhythm and imagery of Oswald’s texts sat uncomfortably on the musical gestures. Moreover, the courtly airs and songs of Dowland and his contemporaries are founded on the principle of the poetic conceit and artifice: yet, the voices we heard spoke with openness, plainness and sincerity, creating a further odd misalignment of text and music. And, while there was no doubting the directness and sometimes disconcerting honesty of the voices inhabiting Oswald’s texts, the diction and imagery was often banal. Perhaps such plainness, and cliché, was ‘truthful’, and intended, but the text’s potential power seemed diminished within this musical context.

Stile Antico were joined in this concert by the refugee choir Woven Gold and oud player Rihab Azar, herself a refugee. Azar opened the concert with Farid al-Atrash’s ‘Lahnul-Khulud’ (Melody of Immortality), the darkened church enhancing the reflectiveness of the traceries and rhythmic energies that she drew from her oud. Further instrumental items were interwoven between Dowland’s pavans. The melodic rhetoric of the Classical Arabic Muwashshah (literally ‘girdled’), ‘Badat Min al-Khidr’ (Seen through the veil), was deeply affecting; the extract from Nedim Nalbantoğlu’s ‘Buselik Saz Semaisi’ had a beautiful fullness of tone and captivating vigour. One could sense a strong ‘narrative’ in Khalid Mohammed Ali’s ‘Uyun Sharida’ (Escaped Eyes).

Azar delivered these songs, and her own compositions (‘Questions’ presented a striking individual musical voice), with a delicate wistfulness that was unmannered, unassuming and communicative. It was a pity that she was seated to the extreme left of the stage, for though her oud spoke clear and true, her performances deserved the opportunity to acquire even greater presence.

At the close of the concert, though, Azar was able to occupy centre-stage, at the heart of a performance of Giles Swayne’s ‘Bodrum Beach’ which was commissioned for the ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’ project. Swayne has composed a frank and disturbing musical response to the 2015 tragedy in which a Syrian woman and five children drowned when attempting to cross the 2.5- mile strait of the Aegean Sea from the Bodrum peninsula to Kos. The text adapts Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and here the union of words, imagery and choric rhetoric was both apt and dramatic. Swayne’s discomforting dissonances and the pitch cluster of the cry, “There were twelve of us”, were powerful and unsettling.

The final item saw Stile Antico and Azar joined by Woven Gold, to conclude the programme with Dowland’s ‘Now, o now, I needs must part’. Earlier in the concert, Woven Gold - whose members come from diverse cultures from Congo to Iran, Uganda to Pakistan - had performed traditional songs from Arabia and the Congo, sung in the original languages and arranged by members of the group. Now they responded with sensitivity and skill to the music of another distant culture, that of Elizabethan England, showing us the pleasure and rewards of shared experiences.

Claire Seymour

Stile Antico, Woven Gold, Rihab Azar (oud)

Farid al-Atrash: ‘Lahnul-Khulud’ (Melody of Immortality); Robert White: Lamentations à 5 (Part 1); Trad. Arabic: ‘Sultana Ghalban’, ‘Il Bulbul’, ‘Balini Balwa’; Trad. Congolese: ‘Elonga ezali’; John Dowland: Lachrimae Antiquae; Rihab Azar & Peter Wiegold: ‘Love far away’; Dowland: Lachrimae Antiquae Novae, Lachrimae Gementes; Classical Arabic Muwashshah: Badat Min al-Khidr; Dowland: Lachrimae Tristess, Lachrimae Coactae; Azar: ‘Questions’; Nedim Nalbantoğlu: ‘Buselik Saz Semaisi’ (extract); Dowland: Lachrimae Amantis, Lachrimae Verae; Giles Swayne: ‘Bodrum Beach’; Dowland: ‘Now, o now, I needs must part’.

LSO St Luke’s, London; Sunday 12th November 2020.