Wednesday 27 March 2019

Iestyn Davies & the viol consort Fretwork in Michael Nyman & Henry Purcell at Temple Church

Iestyn Davies & Fretwork
Iestyn Davies & Fretwork
Michael Nyman, Henry Purcell; Iestyn Davies, Fretwork; Temple Church Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 March 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Ancient and modern intertwine as a counter-tenor and five viols perform music English music from the Baroque and the Contemporary periods

Michael Nyman is best known for his film scores, and when his music does come into the concert hall there is often an electronic element to is such as in the performances with his own band. But his interest in the processes of music of the past means that heard acoustically we can appreciate it in a different way.

For the Temple Music Foundation's concert at Temple Church on Tuesday 26 March 2019, it wasn't just the pairing of the music of Michael Nyman with that of Henry Purcell that was striking, it was that it was performed by the viol ensemble Fretwork, Asako Morikawa, Richard Boothby, Joanna Levine, Emily Ashton, Sam Stadlen (playing on instruments that were falling out of fashion even in Purcell's day) with the counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. The result was a seductive combination of ancient and modern, pairing Purcell's Fantasias, Music for a While and Evening Hymn with Nyman's Robert Herrick setting No Time in Eternity, his Roger Pulvers settings If and Why (from the film Diary of Ann Frank), plus Music after a While, Balancing the Books, and The Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence. A programme which Davies & Fretwork has recorded for Signum Records under the title of If.

We started with Nyman's No time in Eternity from 2016 which sets seven short poems by the 17th century poet Robert Herrick, performed by Iestyn Davies with Fretwork playing two treble viols, an alto and two tenors. The accompaniment was throbbing chords with subtle changes of rhythm, and the lyrical vocal part was very free with uneven phrase lengths so that we were very aware of Nyman's interest in our perception of metre and cadence in the music, something that cropped up quite a lot in the music during the evening. Throughout the piece the rhythmic patterns in the music changed and adjusted, with occasionally a phrase in the treble viol answering the voice. The result was to give the solo line a sort of independence from the accompaniment with a creative dissonance which was fascinating.

This was followed by a pair of Fantasias by Purcell, numbers seven and eleven, played by four members of Fretwork. No. seven started all plangent tone and false relations, and the sound of the viols took on a rather chewy, yet refined quality. It is worth bearing in mind that when Purcell wrote this music the idea of a viol consort must have seemed very old-fashioned, yet he brings something new to the music. Here we had delicacy, plangency and dancing lines, but melancholy too. For No. eleven, the slower opening section had a remarkably vocal quality to it, yet the faster music was full of Purcellian modernisms.

More Purcell followed, a beautiful account of Music for a While in a version for counter-tenor and four viols (the published original is just a vocal line and a bass line), a wonderfully rich sound with Davies' apparently effortless, yet beautifully phrased vocal line floating over the top. Nyman's Music After a While for the viols alone took elements from Purcell yet created a very contemporary sound with the lyrical treble viol line over a slowly throbbing accompaniment, with changes of metre and speed varying the textures. For all the contemporary nature of Nyman's writing, it was clear that he also relished the particularity of the sound of the viols. The first half ended with a beautiful account of Purcell's The Evening Hymn with the voice surrounded by a web of sound from the five viols.

The second half opened with Nyman's Balancing the Books a piece originally written, without words, for The Swingle Singers and here heard in a version for viols. The books of the title are Bach's Well-tempered Clavier, which Nyman uses fragments of in a series of fascinating textures including moments which were positively catchy. Nyman wrote the songs If and Why for the sound track of a animated Japanese film The Diary of Ann Frank. If started with voice and two pizzicato tenor viols, a striking texture. This was a very effective and engaging piece, without the metrical experiments of some of Nyman's writing so that the combination of melodiousness and strict form moved it a little close to the popular. Why was a bit freer in its use of rhythms, and with a very mobile writing for the viols.

Next came a further pair of Purcell Fantasias, no. six and the Fantasia on one note. Again we could appreciate the remarkable invention of Purcell's music and the striking range of writing for the viols. This was music probably written for personal consumption, rather than concert use, yet the lovely interweaving lines flowed round us beautifully in the acoustic of the Temple Church.

Nyman's The Self-Laudatory Hymn of Inanna and her Omnipotence was originally written for the counter-tenor James Bowman. It sets Samuel Noah Kramer's translation of an ancient Sumerian hymn, a remarkably self-important piece of writing which Nyman treats in a strikingly dramatic way. The incantatory nature of the repeated lines of the text is reflected in the music, there are few metrical games here, and Nyman uses plenty of interesting techniques in the viols such as scrubbing and strumming. A remarkably free piece, complex and challenging.

The church was full to overflowing and the audience very appreciative; we were treated to an encore, Purcell's O Solitude which was first published by Thomas Playford and sold at his establishment not far from Temple Church!

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Dance Maze: new chamber music by Tom Armstrong on Resonus Classics (★★★½) - CD review
  • The road not taken: Boito's Mefistofele makes a rare London appearance with Chelsea Opera Group in terrific form (★★★★½)  - opera review
  • Late romantic journeys: opera by Ravel & Tchaikovsky in a highly satisfying double bill from Royal Academy Opera  - opera review
  • 18th & 21st century premieres: Pianist Clare Hammond on the music of Josef Myslivecek and Kenneth Hesketh - interview
  • The French 20th century saxophone: Tableaux de Provence from Dominic Childs & Simon Callaghan (★★★★) - CD review
  • Man, myth and magic: how story telling has come back into opera  - feature
  • Into the harem and beyond: the richness & exoticism of the music of Fazil Say (★★★★) - CD review
  • Thrilling dynamism: Taverner's Missa Gloria tibi trinitas on Signum (★★★★★) - CD review
  • Imaginative debut: Rarities by Lalo and Milhaud on Hee-Young Lim's debut disc of French cello concertos (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Not heard since its 1956 premiere: Eugene Bozza's oratorio Le chant de la mine from Valenciennes (★★★½) - Cd review
  • One last show: Bury Court Opera draws the final curtain, with a terrific account of Britten's The Turn of the Screw (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Almost music theatre: song cycles by Dominick Argento and Robert Schumann from Sarah Connolly at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Emotional soundscapes: the music of young Australian composer Brendon John Warner on his debut album La fonte  - CD review
  • Home

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