Friday 8 October 2021

Musick's Monument: Lucy Crowe and Fretwork in consort songs by Byrd, Gibbons and Purcell

William Byrd
William Byrd

Musick's Monument
- Byrd, Gibbons, Purcell; Lucy Crowe, Fretwork; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 October 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Still somewhat underappreciated, the consort songs from the Golden Age of English viol music were presented alongside fantasias, in nomines and more in a thoughtful and engaging programme

The consort song, a voice accompanied by four or five viols, was a distinctively English form from the late 16th century, William Byrd wrote plenty but it gradually fell out of favour as more Continental models wielded influence.

For their programme Musick's Monument at Wigmore Hall on Thursday 7 October 2021, Fretwork (Richard Boothby, Asako Mirokawa, Sam Stadlen, Amily Ashton, Joanna Levine) had the intriguing idea of pairing music for viols from the Golden Age of English viol music with songs by the same composers. So soprano Lucy Crowe joined Fretwork for music by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell, including Byrd's O that most rare breast and My mistress had a little dog, and Gibbons' Now each floery bank of May and Faire is the rose, plus Purcell's O Solitude and Music for a While in Richard Boothby's versions for voice and viols.

The programme's title, Musick's Monument comes from a book written by Thomas Mace. Extremely long-lived, when Mace wrote Musick's Monument in 1676 he was looking back fondly on the Golden Age from a vantage point of the radical changes in fashions of music in the late 17th century after the Restoration. Yet around the same time the young Henry Purcell was, intriguingly, writing music for viol consort. His Fantasias date from 1680, written before he was 21 and seemingly with no reason. Purcell was a choir boy at the Chapel Royal, was taught by one of Orlando Gibbons' sons and one of his pupils, so Purcell would have been aware of the viol consort tradition and perhaps exposed to some performance. Who knows? I have always liked the fantasy image of a teenage Purcell joining three or four elderly gentleman to play viol consort music and being struck by the intriguing textures and harmonic possibilities.

We began with Byrd, his Prelude and Ground 'The Queen's Goodnight' and Two parts in one the fourth above, plus the songs O Lord, how vain and O that most rare breast, the latter being one of Byrd's elegies on the death of Sir Philip Sidney, England's leading poet and something of a Protestant hero. The viol consort music was very much a civilised interaction between five friends, each line of equal importance (in a way which would not happen in later chamber music until Beethoven and Schubert). The sound was often rich, mellow and sober, even in the livelier pieces there was something of a gravity to the music, yet Byrd enlivens everything with flourishes, divisions and moments of great character.

Lucy Crowe sat with the viol players, making the consort songs a real chamber music event rather than a voice accompanied. And the voice did sit in amongst the viol lines. O Lord how vain was full of meditative melancholy, with Crowe's plangent voice setting it off beautifully whilst the elegy for Sir Philip Sidney was highly expressive in a performance which brought out the contrast between the timbres of voice and viol.

Orlando Gibbons died suddenly, merely two years after Byrd, thus we tend to forget that he was one of the 'younger generation', he was part of the group of musicians and artists that surround Prince Henry (King James I's eldest son) and his published book of madrigals includes laments which surely reference Prince Henry's untimely death. Two Fantasias by Gibbons came first, each in three parts and full of engagingly busy music and lively rhythms. Then Gibbons' Now each flowery bank of May for voice and five viols, with Crowe's expressive line enlivened by the lovely ornamental detail in the viols.

The first part ended with another Byrd consort song, My mistress had a little dog, apparently a light-hearted piece about the poet's mistress' dog being attacked, and Byrd so overdoes the emotion at the end that it is clear the piece is ironic and amusing, isn't it? Except, of course, that there may be a subtext, it may refer to story about the Earl of Essex and his sister. The text refers to Appleton Hall, where Edward Paston (another Catholic) lived and Paston had a copy of the song, indeed may have written the text. So we can listen in two ways, the result was delightfully perky with Crowe having great fun with the character of the song, yet Byrd's writing is full of felicitous detail.

Two of Purcell's Fantasias in four parts opened the second half, wondrous music where the young Purcell explores the rich possibilities of this expressive, chromatic medium. Both fantasias moved from grave to satisfyingly lively, and each too a surprisingly rhetorical turn in the middle.  Purcell's song, O Solitude began with plucked viols setting off the plangent tone of Crowe's voice. Throughout she brought great attention to the text, shaping the music accordingly and the moment when the viols gradually started using their bows was pure magic.

Orlando Gibbons' two In nomines were both richly satisfying affairs, the first a lovely piece, all mellow flowing lines, the second quite remarkable in the way it began in quiet intimacy but developed into rich textures and energy. The second Gibbons song of the evening as Faire is the rose, setting a text which alludes to life's transience, so beauty with a moral.

Two further Purcell Fantasias came next, the first moving from richly sophisticated yet considered textures to something far livelier, the second eliciting warm tones from the players in this wonderfully complex music, again with something rhetorical about the middle section.

Purcell's Music for a while needs little introduction, here the four richly expressive viols complemented Crowe's pleasing simplicity of delivery and clear tones, whilst When I have often hard young maids complaining from The Fairy Queen brought things to a delightfully characterful end.

Richard Boothby explained that the concert was Asako Morikawa's final one with the group, having played with them since 2005 she is returning to Japan. There was also an encore, something unseasonal but completely delightful and unexpected. Summertime from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, with everyone clearly having great fun.

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