Thursday, January 20, 2011

English music of the 16th- and 17th centuries at a concert at Yad Hashmona

On a crisp, sun-drenched winter’s day, the village of Yad Hashmona, tranquilly perched on one of the Jerusalem Hills, beckons one to forget the pressures of today’s world, to feast one’s eyes on the pastoral surroundings, breathe in the pristine air and enjoy a noon concert. It was January 7th 2011 and we were assembled in one of the small halls to hear a concert of English music of the 16th- and 17th centuries “From Dowland to Purcell”. Those performing were viola da gamba player Roberto Gini (Italy), soprano Ayala Sicron, Drora Bruck (recorders) and Bari Moscovich (lute and theorbo).

The artists embarked on their presentation of love in English poetry and music, or, rather, of its entanglements and problems, with poet, composer and physician Thomas Campion’s (1567-1620) “Harke all you ladies that do sleep” scored for voice, bass viol and lute. The song, from “A Booke of Ayres” (1601), was written in collaboration with Philip Rosseter, a lutenist at the court of King James. Ayala Sicron’s vocal timbre is clear and bright, as is her diction and her British accent is well attuned to the content of the songs. In Robert Jones (c.1577-1617) “Farewell, dear love”, from the “First Booke of Songes or Ayres” (1600) Sicron sings the laments of disappointed love. In a letter to Queen Anne, to whom Tobias Hume (c.1569-1645) had dedicated his collection “Captain Hume’s Poeticall Musicke” (1607), the composer refers to his current unfortunate situation, stating that his “Fortune is out of tune”. Sicron and Gini, in a powerful and vehement reading of Hume’s “What greater grief”, communicate the melancholy and grief of the song.

John Dowland’s (1563-1626) “Can she excuse my wrongs” from his “First Booke of Songes” (1597) tells of a courtier’s disappointment at being denied his lady’s favors. Based on dance rhythms, like so many of Dowland’s songs, this is a galliard. Moscovich and Sicron coordinate elegantly in the alternating 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms, with the minor/major shifts symbolic of the ambivalent situation described.

Robert Johnson (c.1580-1634), lutenist to James I and, later, to Charles I, was the only composer to have written music for Shakespeare’s plays. “Have You Seen but a White Lily Grow?” (1616), a positive love-song for a change, was composed for Ben Jonson’s play “The Devil is an Ass” and expresses the infatuation of a man for his true love in daring and sensuously lush language that is rich in nature imagery. Actually a lute song, it was performed by Sicron, Moscovich and Gini. Sicron’s performance of it, graced with ornamental melismas, was rich in shape yet always vocally controlled.

The Restoration “mad song” is a genre arising from a morbid interest in madness on the part of English poets, playwrights and the nobility. The “mad song” is a miniature theatrical piece constructed of short sections of arioso punctuated by recitative, its erratic, Italienate form representing the instability and mood shifts of a woman become deranged through lovesick grief. Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) “Bess of Bedlam”, from his fourth volume of “Choice Ayres and Songs to Sing to the Theorbo-lute or Bass-viol” (1683), one of the finest examples of the mad song, combines an existing melody – “Gray’s Inne Masque” – with elements of “Tom of Bedlam”, a popular ballad. (“Bedlam”, meaning chaos, actually a medieval variant of “Bethlehem”, was the name of London’s public mental asylum. For the price of one penny, a person could tour the corridors of the hospital. Tipping the warden enabled the more curious to interact with the inmates. The hospital still exists today.) Sicron’s presentation of the piece was detailed, theatrical and convincing. Her connection with the text never wavers as she skillfully moves focus from observer to subject, her depiction of Bess’s delusions convincing and colorful. For Bess, the hospital grounds have become an idyllic country setting, complete with gods and fairies. Having come to grieve her departed lover, Bess hopes to die there as well, with the animals of the enchanted wood providing her eulogy. Bess’s hallucinations sometimes give way to more lucid memories and thoughts, as when she advises women to beware of men; her wisdom, therefore, is finally likened to that “of a king”.

‘From silent shades and Elysian groves
Where sad departed spirits mourn their loves
From crystal streams and from that country where
Jove crowns the fields with flowers all the year,
Poor senseless Bess, cloth’d in her rags and folly,
Is come to cure her lovesick melancholy……

Did you not see my love as he pass’d by you?
His two flaming eyes, if he comes nigh you,
They will scorch up your hearts: Ladies, beware ye,
Lest he should dart a glance that may ensnare ye!.....

Cold and hungry am I grown.
Ambrosia will I feed upon,
Drink nectar still and sing.
Who is content,
Does all sorrow prevent?
And Bess in her straw,
Whilst free from the law,
In her thoughts is as great, great as a king.’

The final song in the program was Purcell’s “The Plaint” from Act 5 of “The Fairy Queen” (1692). Often heard with oboe, the score actually calls for violin obbligato. We heard it performed with recorder; Bruck’s playing of it worked especially well with Sicron’s delightful performance in which key words bring out the tragic (or pseudo-tragic) character of the piece, the small “comments” from the recorder adding charm. All the vocal pieces we heard were enhanced by sensitive, detailed and attentive playing on the part of the instrumentalists.

Certain melodies were prevalent in Europe and England. The concert featured several instrumental pieces, some connected melodically to the songs on the program. Dutch composer and nobleman Jacob van Eyck (c.1590-1657), blind from birth, was an organist, carilloneur (carillons are bells played by means of a keyboard) and an expert in bell-casting and bell-tuning. He was also a virtuoso recorder player and improviser; his volume “Der Fluyten Lust-hof” (The Flute’s Garden of Delights) contains 144 sets of variations, the themes taken from folk songs and dances, sacred works, Calvinist psalms and art songs known and performed in England and Europe at that time. The largest collection for a solo wind instrument, “Der Fluyten Lust-hof’s” interest lies in its use of variation techniques of the late Renaissance and early Baroque and in the fact that improvisation and composition can exist together. Drora Bruck played three sets of Van Eyck’s variations on soprano recorder: “O slaep, o zoete slaep” (O sleep, o sweet sleep), sharing the melody of Robert Jones’ “Farewell, dear love”, “Excusemoy”, sharing that of John Dowland’s “Can she excuse my wrongs” and “Come again”, also on a Dowland song of the same name. Bruck’s articulate reading of the pieces, however virtuosic, does not ignore their original use as simple and modest entertainment (for the people strolling in the Jankerkhof, where Van Eyck sat and played them); she shows the freedom, ambiguity and flexibility of Van Eyck’s compositional approach.

Bari Moscovich’s melodic yet spontaneous-sounding performance of Dowland’s “Prelude for Lute” was at times reflective, at others, rife with ornamental passagework.

Roberto Gini’s playing of Tobias Hume’s “Captaine Humes Pavan” (1605) was ornamented, wistful and soul-searching in its careful pacing, his varied bow strokes bringing out the music’s dignified character. “Beccus an Hungarian Lord his delight” is a descriptive piece, a picture of a certain Hungarian aristocrat seen through the eyes of Hume.

Henry Butler was known best as a virtuoso viol player in the chordal style of viol playing that developed in Jacobean England; thirteen or so sets of divisions make up the majority of his oeuvre. Moscovich, playing the harmonic scheme, joined Gini to perform a set of “Divisions for the Bass Viol upon a Ground” by Butler. Despite interesting figurations and the increasingly complex and ornate quality of the variations, the artists spell out the music in melodic shapes and beautiful phrasing.

Leaving art music and the woes of love behind, the ensemble performed a merry, carefree quodlibet of old English country dances, the first being “The Woods so Wilde”, from John Playford’s (1623-c.1686) “The English Dancing Master”.

English music of the 16th- and 17th centuries boasts much repertoire in many genres and styles. Hearing some of the less performed pieces in this concert was most pleasurable; in the hands of this first class ensemble, it was a treat.

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