Friday 1 March 2019

Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall

Dame Emma Kirkby (photo Allan Watson)
Dame Emma Kirkby (photo Allan Watson)
The Consent of speaking Harmony - Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th Birthday Concert; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 February 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An evening of engaging and intimate music making with Dame Emma joined by friends and younger contemporaries

It is difficult to believe, but Dame Emma Kirkby is 70 and to celebrate the Wigmore Hall invited her to perform, and with typical generosity she chose to share the platform with colleagues and younger contemporaries. So on Thursday 28 February 2019, we heard Dame Emma in the company of Dowland Works (Angela Hicks soprano, Clemmie Franks alto, Michael Solomon Williams & Daniel Thomson, tenors, Gareth Thomas & Laurence Williams bass, Sam Brown & Toby Carr lute), the Chelys Consort (Ibraham Aziz, Kate Conway, Alison Kinder & Jenny Bullock viols), the Fieri Consort (Hannah Ely soprano, Nancy Cole & Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano, Paul Bentley & Josh Cooter tenor, Ben McKee bass), Emily Owen (soprano), Jakob Lindberg (chitarrone), Miriam Allan (soprano), Steven Devine (harpsichord) and Charles Medlam (viola da gamba), in a programme of lute songs, consort songs, madrigals and more, which moved from John Dowland and John Danyel, through William Byrd, Michael East and Orlando Gibbons, to Luca Marenzio, Giovanni Kapsberg, Sigismondo d'India, Antonio Cifra, and Giovanni Felice Sances, to John Jenkins, William Lawes, John Blow, and Henry Purcell.

It was a long programme, but an engaging one and very much devoted to music making which was communal and often quite intimate, with Dame Emma taking her place alongside younger colleagues to create a very collegial atmosphere.

We opened with Dowland and Danyel, the members of Dowland Works sat and stood around a table on which the music lay, a rather arch concept but one which brought out the intimacy and informality of the consort songs. This wasn't loud music, sound was sometimes a thread but words were always prime. Words were a constant running through the evening, as was a sense of the rhetorical import of the poetry. This was something that Dame Emma's performances brought out, whatever the composer or the language, and the other performers followed. It wasn't so much a sense of conveying the poetry, as adding detail to it to bring out the underlying rhetoric that was natural in the period. The final Dowland piece linked to the later programme as we heard Would my conceit that first enforst my woe which is in fact a re-working of a madrigal by Luca Marenzio.

The stage layout then shifted as the viols of the Chelys Consort came on stage. First we had a William Byrd Fantasia a 4, giving us another form of quiet intimacy and one involving civilised conversation between voices. We then moved to that distinctive English form, the consort song which pairs voices with viols - poetry, rhetoric, dialogue and intimacy. Dame Emma excelled in conveying a detailed sense of character as Ulysses' wife Penelope  in Byrd's Constant Penelope,  and Helen Charlston was devastating in Byrd's Ye sacred muses, his testament to Thomas Tallis, works by Michael East and Orlando Gibbons brought different singers and different focuses to this fascinating and still overlooked genre, finishing with the strong rhetoric of Walter Raleigh in Orlando Gibbons' What is our life.

After the interval the Fieri Consort sang a substantial excerpt from Luca Marenzio's madrigal sequence Se quel dolor che va innanzi al morire. A different kind of rhetoric here, and music that is highly wrought and very chromatic, in a vividly intense and vibrant performance which was fuller sound than the music of the first half.

Jakob Lindberg then played a Toccata by Kapsberger on the chitarrone, a stunning display of dextrous fingerwork. Lindberg was joined Emma Kirkby and Miriam Allen for a sequence of Italian madrigals by Sigimondo d'India and Antonio Cifra. Here the music was far more demonstrative and virtuoso, with bravura moments in both vocal parts sung with devastating style by Kirkby and Allen. In D'India's Ahi, chi fia che console il dolor mio  the text uses the device of having an echo to repeat the final word of the line, shorn of one syllable or letter, to alter the meaning, and in the second stanza we had two echoes, two shortenings, so for instance 'Qual merce dunque avra chi s'innamora? [Mora] [Ora]' ('Then what reward will he have who falls in love? [Let him die] [Now]', with Allen singing the madrigal and Emma Kirkby and Hannah Ely supply the echoes. All rather wonderful. This sequence ended with a delightful dance song by Giovanni Felice Sances, with wonderfully pointed words, 'Tearful beauty'.

For the next section, Dame Emma and singers from Dowland Works and the Fieri Consort were joined by harpsichordist Steven Devine, viola da gamba player Charles Medlam and lutenist Toby Carr for a sequence of dialogues by John Jenkins and William Lawes. These varied from the comic to the serious, always with a great sense of character ending with the rather dramatic and definitely serious  trialogue by William Lawes, Orpheus, O Orpheus with Clemme Franks as Alecto, Laurence Williams as Orpheus and Emma Kirkby as Euridice.

Finally we reached Purcell, with a sequence of his songs including a devastating account of Musick, Musick for a while sung by Dame Emma. Finally Dame Emma, Dowland Works, the Fieri Consort, Steven Devine, Charles Medlam and the Chelys Consort all joined together for a characterful account of For love eve'ry creture is form'd from Purcell's King Arthur.

Update: We have recived an interested comment from a reader, about performance practices in the music of John Dowland. 'The practice of singing and playing 4-part airs around a table was in Dowland’s time absolutely normal, as we know both from contemporary pictorial evidence and from the original edition of his music. This carried the four parts on one page but with each facing in a different direction for easy legibility from all corners of the table, as it were. The members of Dowland Works were performing from that edition as they prefer to when appropriate, in order to recreate the intimacy that belongs with the medium. An additional advantage of this arrangement, incidentally, is that the lute – if rested on the table top – receives invaluable extra resonance. You may perhaps agree that this is not so much an ‘arch concept’ as rather an essential aspect of authentic practice with this music.'  My apologies for being a bit flippant in the review.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Sparkling delight: Coloratura Offenbach from Jodie Devos (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
  • Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child  (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season (★★★½) - opera review
  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women (★★) - concert review
  • Choral music for Advent and Christmas from Portsmouth  - CD review
  • Love songs in Temple Church: Brahms and Schumann for Valentine's Day (★★★½) - concert review
  • Home

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