Saturday, May 27, 2017

"Tis Now Dead Night" - soprano Michal Bitan and lutenist Earl Christy in English lute songs and French lute pieces

Earl Christy, Michal Bitan (photo: Berbera van der Hoek)
“Tis Now Dead Night” is a recent recording by soprano Michal Bitan and lutenist Earl Christy of lute songs and solo lute pieces of the Renaissance and early Baroque.

 One focus of the disc is solo vocal music composed on the death of Prince Henry, elder son of King James I and  a figure touted to be a great English monarch. His death from typhoid at age 18 prompted a massive unprecedented body of new material from many of England’s great writers - epistolary, poetic and musical. More than 40 emotionally and texturally intense solo- and ensemble vocal works appeared, a synthesis of musical styles from the Italian courts of Mantua and Venice and the fashionable melancholy pervading music of the late Elizabethan Era. The works either refer to Prince Henry himself or find an association through the biblical story of David and Absalon. Bitan and Christy performed the songs from “Songs of Mourning: Bewaling the Untimely Death of Prince Henry” (1613), a collaboration between Giovanni Coprario (John Cooper) and Thomas Campion. Each song is directed to a specific member of the royal family, with the final two addressing “the most disconsolate Great Brittaine” and the world! Bitan’s singing of “So parted you” - a song addressed to Prince Henry’s sister Princess Elizabeth - was tender and and conversational, with “Tis now dead Night” creating a poignant balance of compassion and regal pride, the queen’s stoicism in her suffering inferred in the piece’s harmonies. Christy’s playing is with Bitan on all levels. Choosing slower tempi for some of the songs from this multi-movement work might have provided Bitan more opportunities to highlight the profound tragedy of the situation. “O poore distracted world”, its narrative defying any time signature, emerged almost jaunty in character:

‘Mourn all you souls oppressed under the yoke
Of Christian-hating Thrace; never appear' d
More likelihood to have that black league broke,

For such a heavenly prince might well be fear' d
Of earthly fiends :   Oh how is zeal inflamed
With power, when truth wanting defence is shamed.
O princely soul rest thou in peace, while we
In thine expect the hopes were ripe in thee.’
The golden age of English lute song coincides with the public career of lutenist and composer John Dowland, a composer  responsible for the flowering of the popular song (the lute song, in particular)  unprecedented in the history of English music.His fellow countrymen John Danyel, Robert Johnson, and Thomas Campion also made significant contributions. Choosing to record a Dowland song uncharacteristic of the poet/composer’s self-castigating misery, Bitan’s sweet tone in her recounting of “Time stands still” floating over Christy’s tranquil, subtly ornamented playing, made for an intimate and stylistic performance. And to a beautifully crafted rendition of “Adieu, fond love”, by Robert Johnson - the most significant composer connected to Shakespeare - in which I felt the artists soft-pedalled the song’s shifting and conflicting emotions. In their inspired, fresh performance of two of Thomas Campion’s religious lute songs - “Author of Light” and “Never weather-beaten” - the artists steered well clear of the often-heard dry, conservative performance of English spiritual texts, allowing spontaneous expression to lead the way in both lute ayres. As to Dowland’s friend John Danyel (whose works were considered by contemporaries to be on a par with those of Dowland) his extraordinarily fine lute songs (from his lute writing, it seems he was also a skilful lutenist) seldom reach our ears. Happily, the CD offers four examples of his songs, including the three-song cycle of “Can doleful notes”, in which Christy displays the prominent and richly independent lute part, with Bitan threading the vocal agenda into and through the instrumental course. Both bring acute attention to this great master’s astonishing word painting, rhythmic- and melodic daring and his no-less-than-breathtaking use of chromatics.
The disc also includes Earl Christy’s performance  of some solo lute pieces from The Lute Book of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (c.1620-1640), a collection today housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (UK). In his autobiography, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Castle Island (1583-1648), an Anglo-Welsh diplomat, poet, philosopher, historian, composer and musician, writes of “playing on the Lute and singing according to the rules of the French masters” when serving as King James’ ambassador to France from 1608 to 1609. The manuscript contains 242 pieces by French composers, anonymous French pieces and a few by Dowland and Holborne. Christy chose to perform some miniatures by French court composers - two eloquent renditions of contrapuntal pieces by the important late Renaissance composer Eustache Du Caurroy, a spirited, articulate “Courant” by the cosmopolitan Jacques Gautier, a colorful “Courant” by René Saman and the enchanting “Filou” by Luc Despond. Played on a 12-course lute by Martin de Witte (2015), Earl Christy’s reading of the pieces was subtle and stylish.
Michal Bitan’s voice, pure and unencumbered by vibrato, is unusual by today’s vocal standards, even among singers of early music. That and her fine diction are wonderfully suited to this early English repertoire. Earl Christy’s playing, informed and sensitive, presents the music in depth and with splendid articulacy. Recorded in December 2015 at the Oude Katholiekekerk in Delft, Holland, the disc offers genuine sound quality and will reward the listener more enjoyment with each repeated listening.   

No comments: