Saturday, February 8, 2020

More notes from the 2020 Eilat Chamber Music Festival: early English music - Dowland, Purcell and Henry Lawes

Maria Keohane, Alon Sariel (photo: Maxim Reider).
Early music featured at two events of the 15th Eilat Chamber Music Festival (Dan Eilat Hotel, January 22nd to 25th, 2020). “The Mozart Requiem” (Concert No.6) featured the NFM Choir (Wroclaw, Poland, musical director: Agnieszka Franków-Żelazny), the Israel Camerata Jerusalem (director: Avner Biron) and soloists. The concert was conducted by Maestro Paul McCreesh (UK). To the surprise and delight of many there, the concert opened with two of John Dowland’s lute songs performed by soprano Maria Keohane (Sweden) and Alon Sariel (Israel-Germany) - theorbo. For just a small taste of the music of the greatest composer of the English lute song, a genre flowering briefly late in the reign of Elizabeth I and through James I’s reign, we heard the artists in two of Dowland’s 87 songs. Both, as typical of these songs, are written to early dance rhythms: “If My Complaints Could Passions Move” follows the rhythm of the galliard and “Flow My Tears” mirrors a pavane. Keohane’s singing was articulate and clean and her use of vibrato suitably sparing as she and Sariel gave expression to the melancholy mood and to the references to unrequited love proverbial to Dowland’s songs. Sariel’s playing added interest, with eloquent comments, transitions and ornate phrase endings. The lute songs provided an introduction to the work that followed - Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae for viola and strings - performed with delicate subtlety by violist Vladimir Percevic (Serbia) and the Camerata Orchestra. “Come, heavy sleep”, the Dowland song on which Britten’s piece is based, appears only at the very end of the work, ending it with wistful, touching poignancy.
‘Come, heavy Sleep, the image of true Death,
And close up these my weary weeping eyes,
Whose spring of tears doth stop my vital breath,
And tears my heart with Sorrow's sigh-swoll'n cries.
Come and possess my tired thought-worn soul,
That living dies, till thou on me be stole.’

Concert No.14, “A Dialogue on a Kisse”, offered a festival program of English Baroque songs and instrumental pieces, most of which coming from the pen of Henry Purcell. It was presented by the prestigious Belgian Ricercar Consort. Performing the works were soprano Maria Keohane (Sweden), tenor Anders Dahlin (Sweden), harpsichordist François Guerrier (France) and founding member of the Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot (Belgium) on the viola da gamba. Actually, the program took its name from “Among thy fancies (A Dialogue on a Kisse)” by Henry Lawes’ (1596-1662); in this song, we heard Keohane and Dahlin engaged in whimsical discussion to define the “creature born and bred betwixt the lips all cherry red”. 

In the minimalist medium of solo song, Henry Purcell left pieces of an astonishing range in style and function, setting a wide variety of lyrics. Of his 85 secular songs, whether tender, witty or tragic in character, there lies a wealth of interest and sophistication. Anders Dahlin’s fine singing of “‘Tis Nature’s Voice” from “Ode to St. Cecilia” (1692) gave fine expression to its vigorous word-painting and melismas. “O Let Me Weep” from “The Fairy Queen, one of the many Purcell songs attesting to the composer’s consummate skill in writing works to a ground (recurring bass), was beautifully crafted: Keohane’s expressive and easeful singing brought out the song’s woe and despair, as Pierlot soloed, endorsing and colouring such utterances as “his loss deplore”. Of Purcell’s songs with a Scottish flavour, we heard Keohane and Dahlin (complete with a bagpipe-associate bourdon played by Pierlot on the viol) in a whimsical, somewhat risqué discussion of a relationship lacking love in “Jenny, ‘gin you can love me”, concluding with the couple’s hearty resolution:
‘Then since ill Fortune intends 
Our Amity shall be no dearer;
Still let us kiss and be friends,
And sigh we shall never come nearer.’

From one of Purcell’s finest odes, “From hardy Climes and dangerous Toils of War”, we heard Dahlin and the instrumentalists in one of the composer’s most exquisite ground bass solos - “The Sparrow and the Gentle Dove”. Dahlin’s singing was both touching and finely shaped, giving the lush and effusive text centre stage. As to another great Purcell masterpiece, “Sweeter than Roses”, Maria Keohane presented the song’s build-up of emotions, from its meditative start to the jubilant celebration of “victorious love”. Above Purcell’s forays into unexpected harmonic regions, she indulged wholeheartedly in the wealth of word-painting and suggestion offered by the mere seven lines of text, weaving through it some lavish and stylish, melismatic passages. Taking the listener into rural England, “Let us wander not unseen” from “The Indian Queen” (text: Dryden) concluded the recital with a duet imbued with contentment and a sense of well-being.

The instrumental pieces performed at this concert gave the stage both to the stylistic expertise of François Guerrier and Philippe Pierlot and to two genres of music prevalent in England - that of divisions common in 16th- and 17th-century music and of works written on- or improvised to a ground (ostinato) bass. 

Philippe Pierlot,Francois Guerrier,Maria Keohane,Anders Dahl (Maxim Reider)

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