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23 Feb 2020

Seventeenth-century rhetoric from The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall

‘Yes, in my opinion no rhetoric more persuadeth or hath greater power over the mind; hath not Musicke her figures, the same which Rhetorique? What is a but her Antistrophe? her reports, but sweet Anaphora's? her counterchange of points, Antimetabole's? her passionate Aires but Prosopopoea's? with infinite other of the same nature.’

The Sixteen sing Dowland and Byrd at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Harry Christophers

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve


Published in 1593, Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman reminds us of one of fundamental philosophical and cultural tenets of the Elizabethan age: the close, perhaps inextricable, relationship which was held to exist between the art of music and the art of spoken rhetoric. And, it was that bond of music and word - which composers exploited to ‘move’ the listener by cultivating grief, melancholy, joy and faith - that this programme of music presented by The Sixteen at Wigmore Hall was designed to reflect.

But, the self-conscious rhetoric of the lute ayre, with its quasi-metaphysical tensions and its strange intensity and elusiveness, is quite a different thing from the nature of the musico-poetic relationship that we see William Byrd crafting in his 1611 collection, Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets. When Byrd declares his music as being ‘framed to the life of the words’ he does not mean that his songs are a musical embodiment of a poem’s central conceits, such as we find in John Dowland’s 1612 collection, A Pilgrimes Solace. Byrd is concerned not with elusiveness but with clarity; his music reinforces the formal contours of the poetry which thereby acquires a rhetorical force so that the listener may appreciate its meaning more directly and powerfully. The Sixteen, led by their conductor Harry Christophers, proved more comfortable exploring Byrd’s expressive formal rhetoric and madrigalian detail than Dowland’s illusive tropes and dialectic.

The items by Dowland offered individual singers an opportunity to step from the ensemble and perform as soloists, accompanied by lutenist David Miller. Soprano Katy Hills sang ‘Disdain me still’ with directness, purity of tone and some attentiveness to the words, but her delivery lacked the flexibility required to convey the erotic tension of the text which opposes desire’s fulfilment with its self-destruction: “Disdain me still, that I may ever love”, begins the poet-singer, concluding, “Love surfeits with reward, his nurse is scorn”.

These songs require considerable performative presence. Perhaps the presence on the platform of the other singers and Christophers, the latter perched on a high stool, was inimical to the recreation of the intimate context for which these courtly songs - intended for a specific, intellectually sophisticated and socially elevated status - were composed. That said, the ensemble was necessary for the choric conclusions to ‘Welcome black night’ and ‘Cease these false sports’, which suggest that these songs were performed within a masque or similar entertainment. The florid melismas of the latter were elegantly sung by bass Ben Davies, although he did not communicate the nuances and inferences of the text, which he articulated clearly, as the poet-speaker bids “Goodnight” to his “yet virgin bride”. Jeremy Budd’s tenor was fittingly light and buoyant in ‘Up merry mates’, though in characteristically melancholy fashion, Dowland concludes with a minor-key choral lament, “A dismal hours,/ Who can forbear,/ But sink with sad despair.”

Alexandra Kidgell revealed the richly colour lower register of her soprano at the start of ‘In darkness let me dwell’, but she seemed uncertain how to negotiate the irregularity of Dowland’s phrase structures and his inventive approach to text setting which capture the idealisation of sorrow and death in these elegiac ayres, embodying as they do the notion of inexpressibility and the dissimulation, concealment and ambivalence which are the essence of the courtly pose.

The stillness and serenity of soprano Julie Cooper’s performance of ‘Sweet stay awhile’ was compelling, and bass Eamonn Dougan made much of the repetition of the final couplet of ‘Shall I strive with words to move’: “I wooed her, I loved her, and none but her admire./ O come dear joy, and answer my desire.” Here there was a real sense of human complexity, contradiction and desire. The Dowland songs were accompanied in a rather restrained manner by Miller, tasteful and no doubt idiomatic, but with little sense of the mercurial and ‘strange’ that more elaborate renditions may intimate. Miller and tenor Mark Dobell had the stage to themselves for a sequence of three songs, ‘Thou Mighty God’, ‘When David’s Life by Saul’ and ‘When the poor cripple’. Dobell’s soft even tone was apparent from the first unaccompanied “Thou”, and the vocal line was well-focused as it twisted through the chromatic contortions and the aching repetitions of “misery and pain”.

The members of The Sixteen seemed more comfortable singing as an ensemble, and the idiom of William Byrd’s Psalmes, Songs and Sonnets, ‘Some solemne, others ioyfull, framed to the life of the words: fit for voyces or viols of 3.4.5. and 6. parts’, is a natural fit for Christophers’ approach to words, rhythmic form and temporal expression.

There was a gradual heightening of intensity in the opening ‘Retire, my soul’, while the ever denser textures of ‘Come woeful Orpheus’ were beautifully strengthened by the eloquence of the middle voices, culminating in the urgent chromaticism of the closing appeal: “Of sourest sharps and uncouth flats make choice,/ And I’ll thereto compassionate my voice.” A ‘wiry’ nimbleness characterised ‘Come, let us rejoice unto the Lord’ and this energy swept through and beyond the final phrase, Christophers briskly snatching away the concluding avowal, “in psalms let us make joy to him”. The way Byrd’s uses formal rhetoric to communicate verbal, often moral, meaning was well-illustrated at the close of ‘Arise Lord into thy rest’, the melismatic ‘leans’ of “Let the priests be clothed with justice ” being sharply superseded by the staccato dance, “And let the saints rejoice”.

I found some of the lighter lyrics presented in the second half - ‘Sing we merrily’, ‘Come jolly swains’ - a trifle too tinged with the diction and tone colour of the English cathedral school tradition; but, ‘This sweet and merry month of May’ had lovely flexibility, the triple-time “pleasure of the joyful time”, giving way to the expansive awe and adulation of “ O beauteous Queen”, before a celebratory surge to the close. The “Amen” at the end of ‘Praise our Lord all ye Gentiles’ was warm and florid, opening its petals like a budding flower releasing its scents and welcoming the sunlight. Some of the ensemble songs were accompanied by Miller but, at least from my seat at the rear of Wigmore Hall, the lute was practically inaudible.

‘This day Christ was born’ had made for a buoyant conclusion to the first half of the concert, “rejoice” blossoming melismatically before a majestic “Glory be to God on high” was answered by a triple-time “Alleluia”. Christophers manoeuvred the structural and temporal shifts with masterful control and ease. Similarly, the seamless polyphony of the final item of the concert, ‘Turn our captivity, O Lord’, built persuasively towards the confident assertion, “they shall come with joy”, and the broad assurance, “carrying their sheaves with them”.

Claire Seymour

The Sixteen: Harry Christophers (conductor)

Byrd - ‘Retire my soul’; Dowland - ‘Disdain me still, that I may ever love’; Byrd - ‘Come woeful Orpheus’; Dowland - ‘Welcome black night/Cease these false sports’; Byrd - ‘Come, let us rejoice unto our Lord’, ‘How vain the toils’, ‘Arise Lord into thy rest’; Dowland - ‘Thou mighty God’; Byrd -‘Make ye joy to God’, ‘This day Christ was born’, ‘Sing we merrily’; Dowland - ‘In darkness let me dwell’; Byrd - ‘Come jolly swains’; Dowland - ‘Up merry mates’; Byrd - ‘Crowned with flowers and lilies’; Dowland - ‘Sweet stay awhile’; Byrd - ‘This sweet and merry month of May’; Dowland - Preludium, ‘The Frog Galliard’; Byrd - ‘Praise our Lord, all ye Gentiles’; Dowland - ‘Shall I strive with words to move’; Byrd - ‘Turn our captivity, O Lord’

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 21st February 2020.

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