Sunday, June 7, 2009

Fretwork and Clare Wilkinson in concert, Israel Festival 2009

A special treat in the 2009 Israel Festival was a concert performed by Fretwork, the illustrious British viol sextet specializing in the interpretation of English Renaissance and Baroque music as well as contemporary repertoire. Joining Fretwork was mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson, in a program of works by J.S.Bach (1685-1750) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695). 2009 celebrates the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth.

The consort played a number of Bach organ works. His Piece d’Orgue BWV 572, written before 1712, is organ music at its most idiomatic, no less the mighty C minor Passacaglia BWV 582. “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir” (Out of the depths I cry to Thee), a powerful large-scale chorale motet setting in the stile antico, is the only organ piece Bach wrote in six parts with double pedal. Transcribed and presented articulately by Fretwork, I found the intimate timbre of viols not evocative enough of this organ music, with its pedals, varied registers, colors and extroverted character. Interesting and pleasing were a Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier; in a Ricercar from “The Musical Offering” BWV 1079, strands were crystal clear and expressive.

Very interesting pieces for viols (and, in my opinion not heard often enough in the concert hall) are Purcell’s rather somber Fantazias of c.1680. Composed when viol consorts were already less fashionable than the violin family, the young composer refers back to two centuries of Fantazias and ahead, with crunching dissonances, to a newer musical language. His Fantazia ‘upon one note’, whereby an alto part sustains a “c” for the duration of the piece, is one of Purcell’s most creative and daring pieces, with dense imitative writing contrasted by slower, chordal sections. Fretwork’s detailed and meaningful working of these pieces was thought-provoking and much enjoyed by the audience.

English mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson is a Renaissance- and Baroque specialist, performing widely in groups and as a soloist. She presented a number of Purcell songs. In “Music For a While”, from “Oedipus” (c.1692), Wilkinson uses dynamics effectively, painting an evocative picture of Alecto, one of the Furies, with the snakes dropping one by one from her head. “Sweeter Than Roses”, composed for Richard Norton’s play “Pausanius, Betrayer of his Country”, is not as innocent as it may sound and Wilkinson uses the “first trembling” to stir up emotions and reveal Pandora’s seductive intentions. In “O Solitude”, to a plucked ground bass, the singer uses her fine diction and articulacy to weave the delicate and bittersweet ambivalence of the text, with stanzas alternating between singer and ensemble. Wilkinson’s performance never oversteps good taste and she never fails to move her audience.

The program ended with a seven-part Purcell “In Nomine”, with Wilkinson singing the cantus firmus part. For their encore, players and singer performed Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the English folk song “O, Waly, Waly”, Britten’s heavy, disturbing and strangely-tinted chords contrasting with Wilkinson’s gentle tones.
‘O love is handsome and love is fine
And love’s a jewel when it is new
But love grows old and waxes cold
And fades away like morning dew.’

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