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Performances

Elizabeth Kenny
24 Feb 2016

Theatre of the Ayre, Wigmore Hall

In the 17th century, sacred vocal music was not just for public worship in church but also for private devotion within a secular setting, and this concert at the Wigmore Hall by Theatre of the Ayre under its director Elizabeth Kenny transported us from Chapel Royal to domestic chamber.

Theatre of the Ayre, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Elizabeth Kenny

 

Noting in his Preface to Harmonia Sacra (1688/93) that the ‘youthful and gay’ had already been entertained with a ‘variety of rare compositions’, the entrepreneurial Henry Playford addressed his new publication to: ‘others, who are no less musical though they are more devout.’ For these ‘pious persons’, who are excellent judges of both music and wit, divine hymns are the ‘most proper entertainment’, one which ‘warms and actuates all the powers of the soul and fills the mind with the brightest and most ravishing contemplations’.

The devotional songs presented here certainly foregrounded the misery of the penitential and the blisses of spiritual consolation which might be attained through devotion — a fitting focus, perhaps, for the current liturgical season. In addition to Psalm texts, there were settings penned by persons whom Playford describes as ‘eminent both for learning and piety’ and who include William Fuller, Bishop of Lincoln, and poet George Herbert.

While the lion’s share of the programme was de devoted to Purcell, whose dominant presence would surely have made the collection more attractive to potential purchasers, there were contributions by Purcell’s English contemporaries, John Blow and Pelham Humfrey, whose collaborative ‘Hark how the wakeful cheerful cock’ opened the programme, seguing from the brief canon ‘Laudate Dominum’ to which the five soloists had processed onto the platform.

The dialogue, begun by Humfrey and completed by Blow, between two penitents was spirited and theatrical: as awareness of their sins mounted so did their misery, and soprano Sophie Daneman and tenor Nicholas Mulroy joined in lamentation — ‘Since then the cause of both our grief’s the same,/ Mix we our tears for grief let’s die,/ But first our dirge let’s sing, or cry:’ — the enriched accompaniment, as theorbo was joined by viola da gamba and harpsichord, ironically deepening the sweetness of their miserere.

Pepys may have described Humfrey as a man ‘full of form and confidence and vanity’, but the anthem ‘Lord! I have sinned’ suggests that his self-assurance may have been justified, for he was clearly skilful in using flamboyant musical gesture to express sombre contrition. The Italianate idiom — drooping chromaticism, angular melodic shapes and poignant dissonances — was delivered with madrigalian vivacity by Daneman, accompanied by organ and viola da gamba, but while the soprano’s phrases were expressive, the line and tuning were not consistently controlled. In particular, I found Daneman’s tendency to slide through the chromatic sighs to be excessive; the sentiments she seemed sought are already present in the music and need no exaggerated articulation.

There was even more Italianate virtuosity to enjoy in soprano Katherine Watson’s witty and technically assured performance of Giacomo Carissimi’s dramatic motet ‘Lucifer Caelestis olim’, which enacts Lucifer’s fall from grace. Watson was equally convincing as the imperious narrator, the boastful Lucifer and when she was when delivering God’s condemnation, perhaps not surprising as the two dramatic figures are, ironically, not distinguished in terms of musical style. Lucifer’s deluded bragging — ‘O me felice, o me beatum coelestis gloriae decoratum!’ (O how happy am I, blessed and adorned with the glory of heaven!) — was delivered in nimble coloratura with a bright edge at the top and real strength in the lower register.

John Blow brought Mulroy and bass Matthew Brook together in two rich duets. ‘Help, Father Abraham!: The dialogue of Dives and Abraham’ showcased the agility and diverse hues of Mulroy’s bright tenor as he pleaded for Brook’s Abraham to show pity, while Brook demonstrated rhetorical presence — ‘What son of Hell and darkness dare molest/ This blessed saint, scarce warm yet on my breast?’, he thundered — and control of vocal nuance. In ‘Enough my muse, of early things’, it was Mulroy’s registral range which was noteworthy, as he rose from low depths to a fervent upper register, calling upon his muse to take up its lute and play ‘Happy mournful stories, The lamentable glories of the crucify’d King’. There was striking urgency as the two voices blended in thirds, and melismas were delivered with sharp musical and textual clarity.

But, this was really Purcell’s evening. Many of the Purcell’s devotional songs survive only in manuscript, and so Playford’s publication is a valuable one; the songs are some of the less familiar works among the composer’s output but also some of the finest. On his title pages to the two volumes of Harmonia Sacra, Playford noted that the continuo part should be played by ‘theorbo-lute, bass-viol, harpsichord, or organ’ and that was the ensemble gathered here, supplemented by two violins, as ‘domestic’ representatives of the renowned Twenty-Four Violins of the Chapel Royal. Brook was joined by the violins, viola da gamba and organ in Purcell’s ‘My song shall be of the loving kindness of the Lord’, and the instrumentalists provided a rich-textured symphony between the arioso and recitative passages of Brook’s intense but lyrical solo; there was some delightful interplay and dialogue between voice and instrumentalists, and Watson, Mulroy and countertenor Robin Blaze gradual heightened the exaltation of the choral Hallelujah. Brook’s performance of ‘In the black dismal dungeon of despair’ was a highlight of the evening: to the sparse accompaniment of theorbo, the bass wrought meaning from every detail of the text — for example, opening the vowels of the title line to convey the depths of suffering, or the rolling of the ‘r’ in ‘certain horrid judgement’ — and music. Here, too, the unsurpassed naturalness of Purcell’s text setting was evident, in the short-long sprung rhythms (‘Lost to all hope of Liberty,/ Hence ne-ver to remove’) which punched home meaning, and in the melismatic flourishes which reified emotion — ‘Being guilty of so long, so great neglect’. This was a masterly rendition, sustained to the final perfectly executed trill.

Contrasting trios of voices were presented in and ’I was glad when they said unto me’ (ATB) and ‘In guilty night: Saul and the witch of Endor’ (STB). In the latter, the voices moved with freedom from ensemble blend to solo prominence and build the drama with urgency. The chromatic piquancy conveying his ‘sore distress’, Mulroy’s Saul hurried fearfully through his imploration, ‘For pity’s sake tell me, what shall I do?’ but Brook’s Samuel was implacable in his magisterial authority: ‘At thou forlorn of God and com’st to me?’ Daneman was a lively witch, but at times I thought that, determined to impress upon us the passion of Purcell’s declamatory idiom, she sacrificed beauty of tone and precision for dramatic effect. In ‘I was glad’, the interjection of the two violins rivalled the voices for rhetorical impact.

The two female voices spoke with a pleasingly unified timbre at the close of Purcell’s ‘Jehovah quam multi sunt hostes’; Watson demonstrated a burnished lower range at the start of ‘With sick and famished eyes’, and again negotiated the dissonances and disjunctions of the more Italianate passages skilfully, though the virtuosity did occasionally detract from the clarity of the diction.

In the concluding items, and with the metaphorical setting of the sun, we moved closer to spiritual consolation and rest, with two ‘Evening Hymns’. The first, to an anonymous text, was warmly delivered by Mulroy and Brook, and again the interaction between instrumental and vocal bass parts brought expressive richness to the close, ‘By sleeping, how it is to die’. Robin Blaze performed Purcell’s long-lined melodic setting of Bishop Fuller’s more well-known text with gentle understatement, accompanied by Kenny’s thoughtful theorbo. Thomas Tallis’ hymn, ‘All praise to thee my God this night’, the textures engagingly varied for each verse, brought the evening to a soothing close.

The continuo ensemble also performed three trio sonatas by Purcell, with expertise and musicality. The unanimity of articulation and expression of violinists Rodolfo Richter and Jane Gordon was remarkable, and Alison McGillivray’s viola da gamba provided a lyrical even-toned bass, while Robert Howard was an alert and crisp contributor at the keyboard and organ. The increasingly complex and deeply compelling accumulations and variations of the Chacony of the Trio Sonata No.6 in G Minor (Z807) almost stole the show.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Theatre of the Ayre: Rodolfo Richter violin, Jane Gordon violin, Alison McGillivray viola da gamba, Robert Howarth organ, Sophie Daneman soprano, Katherine Watson soprano, Robin Blaze countertenor, Nicholas Mulroy tenor, Matthew Brook baritone, Elizabeth Kenny director, theorbo.

Anon — Canon a 3 Laudate Dominum; John Blow — ‘Hark how the wakeful cheerful cock’; Henry Purcell — ‘My song shall be alway of the loving kindness of the Lord’ Z31, Trio Sonata in Three Parts No. 10 in A major Z799; John Blow — ‘Enough, my muse, of earthly things’; Henry Purcell — ‘In the black, dismal dungeon of despair’ Z190, Trio Sonata in Three Parts No. 11 in F minor Z800, ‘In Guilty Night’ (Saul and the Witch of Endor) Z134, ‘I was glad when they said unto me’ Z19, Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes’ Z135; Giacomo Carissimi: ‘Lucifer, caelestis olim’; Henry Purcell — ‘Trio Sonata in Four Parts No. 6 in G minor’ Z807; Pelham Humfrey — ‘Lord, I have sinned’; John Blow — ‘Help, Father Abraham’; Henry Purcell — ‘With sick and famish’d eyes’ Z200, ‘Now that the sun hath veiled his light’ (An Evening Hymn on a Ground) Z193, Trio Sonata in Four Parts No. 10 in D major Z811, ‘The Night is come’ (An Evening Hymn) Z77; Thomas Tallis — ‘All praise to thee my God this night’.

Wigmore Hall, London, Tuesday 23rd February 2016.

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