Monday, 29 March 2021

Super-excellent Gabrieli and RVW on viols: National Centre for Early Music's Awaken festival

Title page of Coryat's Crudities, 1611.
Title page of Coryat's Crudities, 1611.

Awaken
- RVW, Johann Christoph Bach, Gabrieli; Iestyn Davies, Fretwork, I Fagiolini, English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, Robert Hollingworth; National Centre for Early Music

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 March 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
From RVW on viols combined with North German 17th century composers to Gabrieli writ large, NCEM's Awaken festival

Last weekend (27 and 28 March 2020) the National Centre for Early Music in York presented Awaken: Music Online for Spring with a variety of concerts from historic venues across York. We caught two of the events, on Saturday counter-tenor Iestyn Davies joined Fretwork for a programme of music by Schein, Scheidt, Johann Christoph Bach, Franz Tunder, Christian Geist and RVW. Then on Sunday evening, Robert Hollingworth conducted I Fagiolini, the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble and former members of the The 24 in Super-excellent a programme of multi-choir pieces by Giovanni Gabrieli, Joan Cererols, Alessandro Grandi, Juan de Araujo, Palestrina arranged Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, Edmund Hooper, and Heinrich Schutz, which was inspired by the writings of the 17th century traveller Thomas Coryat.

Saturday saw Iestyn Davies and Fretwork (Emily Ashton, Richard Boothby, Joanna Levine, Asako Morikawa, and Sam Stadlen viols, Silas Wollston organ, virginals) at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York. They began with an intriguing arrangement of RVW's Silent Noon with the viols accompanying Iestyn Davies. Having just heard Kitty Whately singing this at Leeds Lieder [see my review] with piano, the change in sound-world was fascinating, with Iestyn Davies finely controlled vocal line contrasting with the timbres of the viols.

Next came a suite for viols by Johann Hermann Schein (1586–1630), his Suite no. 7 from Banchetto musicale (1617), a lovely sequence of dance movements which all displayed Fretwork's rich chestnutty textures. Another RVW song followed, The Sky above the Roof which proved rather touching in this new incarnation, though the idea of arranging RVW songs for viols has a curious element to it as it was an instrument that RVW detested and he famously refused to use a viola da gamba in his performances of the Bach passions with the Leith Hill Festival.

Samuel Scheidt (1587–1654) was a friend and contemporary of Schein, and we heard his delightful Canzon super O Nachbar Roland from Ludi musici (1621), a delightful piece which proved very inventive and varied. 

Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703) was a cousin to J.S. Bach and uncle to J.S. Bach's first wife. Johann Christoph was a member of the wider Bach family of composers. His Lamento was perhaps the best known work in the programme. A remarkable piece for voice and ensemble (in his programme note Richard Boothby comments that by the time JC Bach came to write he probably expected either viols or members of the newer violin family to play the piece), and the work seemed to be full of harmonic daring as well as giving us a lovely contrast between the elegant vocal line and the texture of the viols.

Franz Tunder (1614–67) came from the island of Fehmarn, between Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark and studied in Copenhagen, but he may also have visited Florence. His Salve me Jesu was an arrangement of a Salve regina by Giovanni Rovetta (1595/7–1668) but with a new Latin text (to Jesus rather than the Virgin). It was a lovely fluid and flexible motet, a little gem. Finally came Es war aber an die Stätte by Christian Geist (?1650–1711).  Geist was born in Güstrow, just south of Rostock, but spent most of his life working in Scandinavia, working in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Göteborg. Hids piece proved very fluid of form and rather striking.

In St Lawrence Parish Church, Lawrence Street, York on Sunday things were somewhat larger in scale. Robert Hollingworth conducted a (well spaced out) ensemble of I Fagiolini (Martha McLorinan mezzo-soprano, Nicholas Mulroy, Matthew Long tenors, Greg Skidmore baritone, Stuart O’Hara bass, William Lyons dulcian, bajoncillo, shawm, Nicholas Perry dulcian, bajoncillo, shawm, cornett, Lynda Sayce, Eligio Quinteiro chitarrones, guitars, James Johnstone, Catherine Pierron organs), the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble (Gawain Glenton, Conor Hastings cornetts, Emily White, Miguel Tantos-Sevillano alto sackbuts, tenor sackbuts, Tom Lees, George Bartle tenor sackbuts, Adam Crighton, Adrian France bass sackbuts) and 18 singers who are former members of the University of York's ensemble The 24.

The inspiration behind the programme was the travel writer Thomas Coryat who in his book Coryat's Crudities described a 1608 visit to a musical entertainment provided by the confraternity of San Rocco, which Coryat described as 'so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so superexcellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like'. So we heard a programme of music for multiple choirs starting with Giovanni Gabrieli's Buccinate and ending with Hugh Keyte's four-choir reconstruction of Gabrieli's In ecclesiis, along with music by Joan Cererols, Alessandro Grandi, Juan de Araujo, Palestrina arranged by GIovanni Battista Bovicelli, Edmund Hooper and Heinrich Schutz. Not all the music was large scale and there were some smaller scale works for punctuation and contrast.

The concert had originally been planned for 2020, but cancelled and finally recreated without an audience. In between the items, Robert Hollingworth provided engaging and informative introductions to the music with contributions from Nicholas Mulroy and Gawain Glenton.

We began with Giovanni Gabrieli's four choir piece, Buccinate which introduced us to the terrific sense of surround-sound that the music creates with each choir comprising a different mix of instruments and voices (one choir here featured four trombones and one singer). The result is very grand, and you can understand Coryat's reaction, but it is not the 19th century wall of sound and the mix of choir and writing means that textures ebb and flow. This was followed by the Kyrie and Gloria from the Missa de batalla by the Spanish composer Joan Cererols (1618-1676) who lived his whole life at the monastery of Montserrat (first as choirboy and then as monk). It used three choirs, but for the Kyrie we heard just voices and continuo, thus giving us some finely intimate moments, before the instruments joined for the vivid Gloria, mixing grandeur with solo voices.

Next came something on a far smaller scale, the motet O intermerata by Alessandro Grandi (1586-1630) performed by tenor Nicholas Mulroy with just continuo accompaniment, a truly ravishing piece.

With the Dixit Dominus byJuan de Araujo (1646-1712) we moved to South America, where the music was in one sense relatively conservative, writing in a poly-choral style after it had gone out of fashion in Europe, but also introducing local elements, so Robert Hollingworth described the music as 'sort of polyphonic with funky bits'. Very true, a striking piece with a very intriguing sound world.

Members of the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble then performed an anonymous Canzon a 6, 'Sire' which was originally a vocal piece but this sort of transferrence between voices and instrumets were common at the period. This was also demonstrated by the arrangement by Giovanni Battista Bovicelli (a singer at St Mark's in Venice) of a motet by Palestrina, Ave verum corpus. Here we had four male singers from I Fagiolini (TTBaB) performing a quite slow moving motet, over which Gawain Glenton performed a vividly florid cornet solo. In many ways it reminded us of a sort of 17th century version of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble's Officium project!

Edmund Hooper (c1553-1621) was a name entirely new to me. His O God of Gods was written to celebrate the accession of King James I to the English throne, setting part of Sir George Buc's Hymn inauguratory for his Majestie, with the work here reconstructed by William Hunt. Whether the piece was intended liturgically or not is uncertain, but Hooper uses the standard antiphonal verse anthem type structure, adds an instrumental group and in the final chorus almost emulates St Mark's in Venice. A remarkable piece. Then came a smaller scale one by Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), Fili mi Absalon for bass, four sackbuts and organ, which was almost a brass motet with vocal interruptions.

The final work on the programme moved us back to the large scale with Hugh Keyte's reconstruction of Gabrieli's In ecclesiis. This survives in a published copy dated after Gabrieli's death, where there are two choirs (one of brass, one of voices) and two solo voices, which doesn't really work and Keyte has recaptured the lost original with four choirs. Having performed in the traditional version this one makes a lot more sense, and the result was a simply glorious noise. Super-excellent indeed.



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