Saturday 19 January 2013

Viols and violent emotion - Fretwork and Alamire at Kings Place

Thea Musgrave’s Wild Winter performed last night by Fretwork and Alamire at Kings Place was a triumph despite injury.

Thea was commissioned by Lichfield festival in 1993 to write a piece to commemorate the 1643 Siege of Lichfield. The Royalist Earl of Chesterfield had occupied Lichfield against the Puritans, but in March 1643 Parliamentary forces led by Lord Brooke attempted to take back the city. Although the Puritans won this battle Lord Brooke was shot through the eye and killed, which devout Royalists claimed was divine retribution. The Royalists took back Lichfield, and it remained Royalist until the end of the Civil War, but not without heavy damage to the cathedral and city and an outbreak of plague.

Wild Winter is written for 5 viols (treble, treble, tenor, bass, bass) and four voices (soprano, tenor, tenor and bass) and was first recorded by Fretwork in 1993 at Lichfield Cathedral. Last night’s performance was especially commendable because Simon Wall had lost his voice. During Alamire’s beautiful performance of Thomas Tallis’ (1505-1585) Lamentations of Jeremiah Simon was struggling to sing and David Skinner who directed the performance was doubling the part.

By the interval Simon had had to give up entirely and for Wild Winter Nicholas Todd took on the second set of tenor solos, along with his own. Nevertheless the performance was moving and passionate. Alamire covered the gap so well that, as someone unfamiliar with this work, I would not have known that they were a man down.

Wild Winter is a perfect example of the human qualities of viol and how viols are capable of so much more than renaissance polyphony. From the very start Thea uses pizzicato and percussive effects more usually at home in a modern string quartet, but every bit as effective for viols. Every note was crystal clear, from the striking first pizzicato to the final harmonics – a real feat when you have frets and no sound post!

Thea Musgrave Photo: Christian Steiner
Thea Musgrave Photo: Christian Steiner
The libretto is based on poems from different times and countries, each sung in their original language: English, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian and German. The poems all deal with the powerful emotions arising from the loss and anguish caused by war, and together provide a timelessness which brings the Siege of Lichfield forward 370 years into the present and to current fighting all over the world. This suffering was brought to life by the vocal talents of Alamire, who were equally at home in all the languages, and brought out the struggles of soldiers and the people left at home.

Thankfully the combined consort did not leave us at catharsis but brought us back to a more meditative consciousness with a beautiful lament by Josquin Des Prez (1450-1521).

The beauty of Wild Winter was supported by a renaissance program which began with Robert Parson’s (1534-1571/2) In Nomine and Ave Maria. The In Nomine was a dissonant and striking start to the evening, and contrasted with the more consonant Ave Maria. But Rubum Quem by Chistopher Tye (1505-1572) seemed to get a little lost in the hall. Viol is difficult in a modern concert hall and it seems that even in an intimate setting like Kings Place it is easy for the sound to become muddy. While I could see the fingers moving I could not always hear detail especially when they were playing fast. However from where I was sat the bases had their backs to me so perhaps sound was muffled by their bodies. The Robert White (1505-1574) In Nomine had a very sweet treble solo and lovely echoes and White’s Lamentations, which led on to Wild Winter, was a perfect foil providing a touch point for the moments of vocal polyphony in Musgrave’s Lament IV where the role of renaissance dissonance was provided by discordance in the viols.

Alamire, director David Skinner
Fretwork and Alamire together brought out the tension in Wild Winter, piling up contrasts and expectations - from the juxtaposition of the soprano with the male voices and the different musical styles, to how the languages sound against each other.  The performance was a perfect example of how both in early and modern music the sound of voices and viols goes straight to the very core of human emotional response.
review by Hilary Glover

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