Wednesday 1 October 2014

Musgrave and Muhly on viols and voices

BBC Singers
The BBC Singers
Orlando Gibbons, Christopher Tye, William Byrd, Thea Musgrave, Nico Muhly
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 30 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Imaginative programme of interconnecting pieces for viols and voices from three different centuries

Choral at Cadogan joined forces with BBC Radio Three for the concert at Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 30 September 2014. Broadcast live on Radio 3, the BBC Singers (currently celebrating their 90th birthday) and viol consort Fretwork were conducted by Andrew Carwood in a programme of music by Orlando Gibbons, Christopher Tye, William Byrd, Thea Musgrave and Nico Muhly.

Alongside unaccompanied anthems, O Clap your hands and What is life by Gibbons and Christ rising again by Tye, verse anthems Christ rising again by Byrd and Behold, though hast made my days by Gibbons, there were three more extended works for voices and viol consort. From the 17th century came Gibbons The Cryes of London, from the 20th century Thea Musgrave's Wild Winter and from the 21st century Nico Muhly's My days.

Fretwork performed with a consort of five viols, played by Richard Boothby, Asako Morikawa, Reiko Ichise, Jonathan Reese, and Richard Tunnicliffe.

The BBC Singers is a modern choir with a flexible modern sound, appropriate to their enormously wide range of repertoire. Under Carwood's direction their performances of the 17th century music were stylish and apposite, but the sound quality that they made was for me a little dense and opaque - a highly blended ensemble, rather than a sense of four or five very individual lines coming together. They opened Orlando Gibbons unaccompanied full anthem O Clap your hands, a lively Ascension anthem setting Psalm 42 written for Gibbons own doctoral ceremony at the University of Oxford. The singers gave it a bright, upfront performance, beautifully shaped but any sense of individual lines was subsumed into the overall texture.

BBC Singers, Fretwork and Andrew Carwood at the Cadogan Hall, photo BBC
BBC Singers, Fretwork and Andrew Carwood
at the Cadogan Hall - photo BBC
Next came Byrd's Christ rising again, which was one of the few full anthems Byrd produced with organ accompaniment. Here it is was performed in Byrd's own version for voices and viols, sung by just six solo voices from the BBC Singers (soprano, alto, two tenors and two basses) with the singers including Margaret Feaviour, Margaret Cameron or Rebecca Lodge, Andrew Murgatroyd, Edward Goater and Charles Gibbs (my vagueness is due to the line-up not matching the singers printed in the programme). Here the combination of voices and viols worked superbly and the individual voices kept their character but blended into a characterful ensemble. The work started with soprano and alto soli with the men forming a refrain, before developing into a full voiced anthem with lively rhythms.

Fretwork then played Byrd's Fantasia a 5 (canon 2 in 1), a work which has a quite complex construction including the two upper voices in a canon at an interval of a fourth, with the other instruments in imitation around this. But Byrd also inserts a popular song into the work, and the whole had a light and attractive feel. The viols made the texture rather continuous, but with lovely details coming through and lively rhythmic underpinning. A serious, and engrossing piece, but an appealing one.

Tye's unaccompanied full anthem Christ rising again from the dead set the same text as Byrd's anthem (it is the text set for Easter Day in Edward VI's first prayerbook). Tye was music teacher to Edward VI and his setting of Christ rising again is a far more Edwardian piece than Byrd's. Tye adheres to the Edwardian Church's ideals of clarity of text, so that that texture uses a lot of homophony (a prime masterpiece of this style is Tallis's If ye love me). But Tye enlivened it with many false-relations, and Carwood and the BBC Singers gave us a finely shaped performance, with a lovely slow, smooth texture to the music.

Finally, the first half concluded with Thea Musgrave's Wild Winter which she wrote in 1996 as a commission from the Lichfield Festival to commemorate the siege of Lichfield (a Civil War siege of 1643, when Parliamentary forces attempted to take Royalist Lichfield). Musgrave set a sequence of poems by Wilfred Owen, Garcia Lorca, Stephen Crane, Victor Hugo, Pushkin, Scots traditional, Petrarch and Georg Trakl, with the non-English poems being set in their original language and the words by Owen threading through. The piece deals with war and its cruelties, losses and inhumanities. In theory the work is in seven movements, but listening to it, it became apparent that Musgrave took a more flexible attitude. The different movements intercut each other, and words from other sections re-occurred as if one is commenting on the other, so that Lorca's young woman weeping on her balcony, is comforted in a strange way by the men singing Stephen Crane's Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind, and Wilfred Owen's words occurred as thread running through. The Pushking poem, dealing with a pair of crows, was aptly paired with the Scots traditional song Twa corbies.

With just the printed words and no indication of structure in the programme notes, the piece was tricky to follow (it did not help that the singers diction was sometimes rather occluded) and towards the end I had to fight a tendency to simply sit back and let the work wash over me.

Using a full choir, plus viols, Musgrave solved the balance problem by using a solo voices (soprano Olivia Robinson), and by using the viols to contribute texture and colour, rather than harmonic underpinning. The instruments have a wonderful range of bowed and plucked colours and textures, and these were used to the full. The different words were set, by Musgrave, in manners which reflected the poet's origins so that the Lorca had a very Spanish guitar-ish feel and the Petrarch was more of an Italian madrigal.

Musgrave produced two versions of Wild Winter, (Wild Winter I and Wild Winter II), with the first being for solo voices and viols; this was premiered by Red Byrd and Fretwork (the CD advertised at the bottom of this article includes their recording of Wild Winter I). Wild Winter II being for SATB chorus and string quintet, with the composer providing singable English translations but noting that she prefers the original texts. We were given what was strictly Wild Winter II, but with viols not strings. I would be very interested to hear the version with just solo voices. But Carwood and his forces gave us a very powerful evocation of Musgrave's wonderful commentary on war.

After the interval we had something just as complex, but a bit lighter. Orlando Gibbon's The cries of London. In which Gibbons writes and In Nomine for viols and over the top places the various London street cries moving from early morning to night. This was performed with just solo voices, Micael Haslam, Cherith Millburn-Fryer, Christ Bowen, Stephen Jeffes and Stephen Charlesworth.  Underneath the viols played with style and poise, whilst over the top the singers were pell mell evoking the London street scene. The singers clearly had great fun, singing in a variety of voices and accents, the results were a complete delight.

What is Life? is Gibbons unaccompanied setting of a grim text by Walter Raleigh was rather grave and moving, though I did wonder whether the performance was a little too beautiful given the words. Next came another viol consort piece, Gibbons' In Nomine a5, No. 2 finely played and richly textured, the piece started calmly but got gradually more delightfully virtuosic.

Gibbons' verse anthem, Behold, though has made my days sets words selected from Psalm 39. The words were selected by the commissioner, Dr Maxey, who wanted the piece for his funeral. The solo part was sung with expressive convictions by Cherith Millburn-Fryer, with each verse answered by the chorus. The result was a complex meditation on death (Behold, though hast made my days, as it were a span long); not a simple piece, but not too demonstrative either.

The choice of Gibbons anthem was made clear by the final piece in the programme, Nico Muhly's My Days for choir and viols. Muhly also sets Psalm 39 (in a rather fuller form than Gibbons). Muhly described the piece as 'a ritualised memory piece' and it sees Muhly revisiting the sound-world of the church choir in which he sang treble. Anglican psalmody and renaissance polyphony are filtered through a technique with also uses the repetitions and incessant consonance of the American minimalists.

Mulhy starts of with Psalm 39, sung like Anglican chant. Mulhy uses only the lower three voices (alto, tenor, bass) in the piece and it was, I think written for a choir which used male altos. The expressive chant-like setting is interrupted by the viols, who don't so much accompany as comment (another composer making imaginative use of the balance problems implicit in choir and viols), and like Musgrave, Muhly seems to have been fascinated by the range of colour and texture from the viols. In the middle section we get a direct quote from the rather scary Autopsy Report on Gibbons himself, which includes a description of the composer's moment of death. For this, Muhly brought his forces together, combining psalmody and viols, but also introducing solo voices (Rebecca Lodge, Stephen Jeffes, Andrew Murgatroyd). The final section, returns to Psalme 39, with words starting Take they plague away from me, and Muhly uses a more complex texture mixing his genres and creating something entirely, expressively and imaginatively his own, bringing things to a highly virtuosic close.

Whilst I would love to hear the piece sung by a cathedral type choir, with all the resulting changes to sound quality, the BBC Singers, Fretwork and Carwood gave us a highly vivid and finely involving account of a very imaginative piece.

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