Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ensemble PHOENIX presents English 'mad songs' in "Passion & Madness"

“Passion & Madness”, a musical theatre piece by Myrna Herzog, combining texts and 17th century English music, is a new production of Ensemble PHOENIX. This writer attended the performance on May 31st 2016 at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv. Artists performing in the event were Alon Harari-countertenor, Rachel Ringelstein, Tali Goldberg-Baroque violins, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and PHOENIX founder and musical director Myrna Herzog playing a 1680 Edward Lewis viola da gamba, quite in keeping with the program!

In order to present the 17th century English ‘mad song’ sub-genre, Dr. Myrna Herzog has created a story, basing the texts read by Alon Harari on writings of the time - in particular on those of the outspoken prolific poet, playwright and librettist Thomas D’Urfey (1653-1723) - a story that evokes the emotions and tribulations of Tom, a man driven insane by love and the rejection of his lover, the stages of his derangement, how people in his state were treated in London of the time and, finally, the point where he is cured of his madness when his lover returns to him. You might call Herzog’s production a 17th century English case study of insanity. In Restoration England there was a fascination with the abnormal,in particular with lunacy; people paid money to be entertained by visits to such asylums as the Bethlehem Royal Hospital (Bedlam) in London. As to the fanciful, often amusing, daring and colourful mad songs all written within a span of 50 years, this (under-researched) body of English music gave composers opportunities to deviate from musical conventions,to write more freely and use “jarring harmonies, disjunct melodic leaps,rhetorical musical repetition and sudden changes in tempo and key” in the words of American singer and teacher Rebecca Crow Lister. The ‘mad song’repertoire also serves to throw light on society’s mores and standards of normalcy. Since Restoration drama made extensive use of music, mad scenes and insane characters often formed the showpiece of a play, the songs describing traits of madness, those being different in men to those in women.Popular both on the stage and in the streets, the 17th century 'mad song' reached a pinnacle with the songs of Henry Purcell.

The PHOENIX program, designed by Herzog along the lines of the English masque and including a couple of arrangements written by Dr. Alon Schab, falls into different sections: Passion, Misogyny, Delirium, Bedlam and Epilogue. Musical items were punctuated by Alon Harari’s informative, spirited and emotional reading of Herzog’s text, its theme bristling with dire philosophy on the dangers of love…and women. Setting the scene and whetting the audience’s appetite for an evening rich in extreme emotions, the instrumentalists performed a movement of Christopher Gibbons/Matthew Locke’s masque “Cupid and Death”. Following Harari’s posing the question of whether passion could turn into madness, the ensemble launched into songs by John Blow (1649-1708), a pupil of Christopher Gibbons, who was to constitute a major influence on Henry Purcell. Blow’s small theatre music oeuvre contains some fine examples of mad songs. Alon Harari’s singing of “Loving Above Himself” was gorgeously sighing, rich in melismas, gestures and interest; “The Self-Banished”, delicately accompanied by harpsichord and viola da gamba, expresses both avoiding the dangers and the irresistible attraction of loving a certain woman, with  dejected agenda of “Tell Me No More You Love” offering advice on how to avoid the pain of love.  John Eccles (1668-1735), on the other hand, composed music for some 30 plays, setting texts of D’Urfey and writing much for an actress by the name of Anne Bracegirdle. Eccles’ songs figured substantially in the PHOENIX production. “I Burn, I Burn” (from D’Urfey’s 1694 extravaganza “Don Quixote”) and written for Anne Bracegirdle, became one of the most celebrated of the 'mad songs' and a prototype for the risqué female mad song genre (with sexual references characterized by references to fire and heat). Harari’s performance of it was dramatic, volatile and moody, as he took cues from the text to fashion his singing. In “Restless in Thought, Disturbed in Mind”, a striking evocation of a woman’s despair shaped by short imitative exchanges between singer and continuo, Harari was easeful in his use of melisma as he disturbingly stressed such words as “restless”, “fluttering” and “enslaved”, the woman’s insanity portrayed by uncanny upward leaps from below the countertenor voice. An interesting contrast to these extroverted pieces was Moravian composer Gottfried Finger’s (1655/6-1730) “While I with Wounding Grief”. Godfrey (to the English) Finger spent some six years in London, in which time he wrote prolifically for London’s busy theatre scene. In this tranquil, strophic setting of his, the PHOENIX artists outwardly keep demonstrative behaviour subtly under wraps as D’Urfey’s text spills out a volley of insults, heartbreak and contempt of the unfaithful woman – “Love had turned your brain; From you the dire Disease I took; For I much more doe rage for you…” Another understated approach is that of John Wilson (1595-1674) in “Beauty which all men desire”, in which unorthodox harmonies lend emphasis to the text’s uneasy content.

And to Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) mad songs, with Harari and the players’ zesty, dancelike C-major jollity of “There’s nothing so fatal as Woman”, no real disguise for vehement and virulent misogyny. From Purcell’s incomplete opera “The Indian Queen”, “I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly”, Marina Minkin offered a sophisticated inégal lilt to the introduction of the popular and celebrated soprano rondeau air, once again, a bright melody and fairly light accompaniment enigmatically expressing Queen Zempoalla’s despair and longing, her “fever and pain”. Harari infused the imaginative, indeed hallucinatory text of “I’ll sail upon the Dog Star” from D’Urfey’s “A Fool’s Preferment” (1688) with verve. With Tom confined at Bedlam, D’Urfey’s text sends him sailing upwards harum-scarum to find his lover:
‘I’ll climb the frosty mountain,
And there I’ll coin the weather;
I’ll tear the rainbow from the sky,
And tie both ends together…’
As to the anonymous song “Mad Tom of Bedlam”, Harari’s daring,  unaccompanied performance allowed the audience to ponder the text’s dense information telling of Tom’s ordeals at Bedlam in a “sad and dismall cell”, in “troublesome shackles”, where “pity is not common”, his monologue also turning to the gods of classical mythology.

Not only did the instrumental pieces threaded through the program provide dramatic relief from the anxieties of misguided love and its consequences, they connected with the songs on different levels and provided interludes of elegant- and superbly crafted chamber music. In their truly poetic and polished reading of Purcell’s Sonata no.3 in A-minor Z.804, for example, the players gave expression to Purcell’s blend of Italian energy and French elegance imbued with a touch of English melancholy. Also making for splendid listening, we heard Sonata in G-minor by Italian organist and composer Giovanni Battista Draghi (c.1649-1708), who was brought to England by Charles II in the 1660s. In precisely crafted performance and flawless communication between the instrumentalists, the PHOENIX players brought out the beauty of this somewhat sombre, chromatically coloured piece. Another treat was Marina Minkin’s hearty playing of John Blow’s “Mortlake Ground” written to an Italian ciaccona bass, as she invited the listener to hear each variation as fresh and different to its predecessor, then teasing the audience with some playful tempo changes as the work drew towards its conclusion.

In one of the current season’s most exciting and unique concerts, Dr. Myrna Herzog and her team of select artists have once again presented the public with a new and inspiring program, one stamped with PHOENIX Ensemble’s signature high quality performance. Not to be missed.

Rachel Ringelstein,Marina Minkin,Tali Goldberg,Myrna Herzog,Alon Harari (photo:Maxim Reider)

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