Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ensemble William Byrd (France) closes the 2011 Felicja Blumental International Music festival

The 2011 Felicja Blumental International Music Festival ended with a concert performed by Ensemble europeen William Byrd (France) and pianist David Selig on April 16th 2011 in the Recanati Hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The festival, dedicated to the memory of Polish-born pianist Felicja Blumental, was directed by Blumental’s daughter, soprano Annette Celine together with Avigail Arnheim. One focus of the festival, in cooperation with the Australian Embassy, was on the music of Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger, marking 50 years of his death.

For almost 20 years, Ensemble europeen William Byrd has been performing Renaissance and Baroque vocal music, with particular emphasis on music of the 17th century, the six singers presenting it in a one-to-a-part setting. The ensemble is directed by Australian singer and musicologist Graeme O’Reilly.

The concert began with works by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the first being “Si ch’io vorrei morire!” (Yes, I would prefer death) from the composer’s Fourth Book of Madrigals, to an anonymous text depicting the state of abandoned lovers. The group lavished it in pathos and drama. And to “Lamento d’Arianna” (Arianna’s Lament): a work that was so significant that it created the “lament” as a recognizable genre of vocal chamber music. Monteverdi completed the five-voiced madrigal setting of the text based on his opera of the same name to a text by Rinuccini, publishing it in his Sixth Book of Madrigals, with the monody reworked into the madrigal settings. Here again, we are presented with the drama of the soul – mostly suffering and despair - sketched in chromaticism and dissonant leaps. At the end, in the final stages of Arianna’s despair, when nobody hears Arianna’s tears, Monteverdi takes the voices into the low register to express this. Ensemble William Byrd’s performance of it was expressively crafted, capricious and theatrical, the effective use of dark and light vocal colors providing contrast, the power of words being “the master of the harmonies”.

Thomas Tomkins’ (1572-1656) died 13 years after Monteverdi. His “When David Heard” is surely among the most tragic and moving works of the genre of the English sacred madrigal. The Byrd Ensemble presented the work’s blend of polyphonic- and harmonic writing, leaning into the dissonances that speak of David’s state-of-mind, stressing key words (in authentic pronunciation) and clothing them in clear resonance.

In “Thule, the Period of Cosmography”, a six-part madrigal from Thomas Weelkes’ (1576-1623) collection of “Madrigals of Five and Six Parts” (1600), the amazing travelogue of an Andalusian merchant returning “with cochineal and china dishes”, Weelkes paints volcanoes, sulphurous fire, frozen scenery (Iceland also being an allusion to the end of the world) and flying fish in musical notes and gestures rife with underlying symbolism. An interesting choice, sung with as much descriptive variety as its text boasts, the audience would have gained more insight into this fascinating work by having the text printed on the program to follow.

The second half of the concert presented works by Australian composer Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961.) It began with the composer’s piano arrangement of his orchestral piece “Blithe Bells” (1930-1931), titled “Ramble on Bach’s ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’ for theater, massed or small orchestra”, “ramble” being the composer’s term for “transcription, arrangement or creative thinking”. A free fantasia, its na├»ve melody set in a richly polyphonic setting, the title “Blithe bells” refers to sheep bells. Australian-born pianist David Selig challenged the local audience to enter this musical maze inspired by the great Bach - a piece that is grand, delicate and humorous, perhaps bearing cynical undertones. Selig also played the piano version of “Molly on the Shore”, a delightful setting of two Cork Reel tunes, energetic and charming in its dance rhythms. Composed originally as a string quintet as a birthday present for his mother in 1907, it has also undergone several transformations; Grainger’s “elastic scoring” was in keeping with his aim to make pieces available to many players and instrumental combinations. Selig played Grainger’s “Walking Tune”, outlining its inner voices together with its expressive, direct melodiousness. This piece was played in its original form by the Hindemith Wind Quintet (April 14th 2011, Felicja Blumental International Music Festival.)

Percy Grainger was a collector of folk tunes in England and Denmark. In fact, he was an avid collector of plenty of good song melodies. Ensemble europeen William Byrd sang a representative selection of the composer’s song arrangements, many of them a cappella. Folk song settings from the British Isles included the saucy “I’m Seventeen Come Sunday” (British Folk Music Settings no.8) (its piano accompaniment a little too loud) the unaccompanied energetic, homophonic “Agincourt Song” after a 15th century song and “Lord Maxwell’s Goodnight”. In the latter, arranged by David Tall, the text of the first half is from Sir Walter Scott’s “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border” with the second half added by Grainger himself. Here the solo was sung by soprano Edwige Parat.

In his quest to collect and set what might be called “world music”, Grainger was one of the first ethnomusicologists to record on the wax cylinder. His interest lay in melody and harmony, but also in the timbre, inflections and performance style of folk music. Grainger showed much interest in Scandinavian folksongs; he spoke Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. (He knew Grieg and Delius.) The strophic, homophonic, pleasantly asymmetrical “Song of Varmeland” was representative of the phase during which he collected these songs.

Another genre used by Grainger was the “wordless” song, an idea in which he had dabbled from 1899. He spoke of it as carrying “its own special message to the soul” and as being a “natural musical instinct”; he contended that singing in that manner “proves that choirs develop a purer, richer and more voluminous sonority”. We heard the “Australian Up-Country Song”, based on a melody Grainger had composed in 1905 and set for unaccompanied choir in 1928. Grainger wrote: “In that tune I had wished to voice Australian up-country feeling as Stephen Foster had voiced American countryside feelings in his songs”.

The Ensemble europeen William Byrd boasts some fine singers, its signature sound forthright and individual rather than French in elegance. O’Reilly places much emphasis on words and diction. Of his work with the William Byrd Ensemble he writes: “Any performance …stands or falls by the extent to which it makes apparent the relation between the words and the notes, particularized in the context of its period, and universalized into ours.” In this unusual and daring program, presenting Monteverdi, Tomkins, Weelkes together with Grainger in one evening, O’Reilly has introduced did the Israeli concertgoer to Percy Grainger – his diversity, originality and accessibility. With Grainger’s reputation sadly damaged by the details of his personal life, the 50th anniversary of his death is a fine opportunity to remember, appreciate and enjoy the Australian composer’s music.

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