Tuesday 18 October 2022

Music, merriment and mayhem: a day at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Christopher Bucknall, Jonathan Byers, Caroline Taylor, Christopher Purves, choir of the Queen's College, Oxford - Oxford Lieder Festival at Freud (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)
Christopher Bucknall, Jonathan Byers, Caroline Taylor, Christopher Purves, choir of the Queen's College, Oxford - Oxford Lieder Festival at Freud (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival)

The Catch Club
, Sonnets in Song; Chris Price, Mark Padmore, Elizabeth Kenny, Christopher Purves, Caroline Taylor, Chrisopher Bucknall, Jonathan Byers, the Friendly Harmonists, choir of The Queen's College, Oxford, Owen Rees; Oxford Lieder Festival at Freud
Reviewed 17 October 2022 (★★★★)

Evoking the eclectic tastes and musical mayhem of 18th-century Catch Clubs at an Oxford cocktail bar, and an intriguing project to put Shakespeare's sonnets to music by his contemporaries

Having begun my day at the Oxford Lieder Festival (17 October 2022) with Coleridge-Taylor & Friends [see my review] we continued with an afternoon lecture, Music, Merriment and Mischief by Chris Price introducing the catch club. The early evening concert featured tenor Mark Padmore and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny in a programme which combined the songs of John Danyel, setting sonnets by his brother Samuel, alongside new versions of songs by John Dowland where Ross W. Duffin has newly retrofitted Shakespeare's sonnets. The evening event, building on the afternoon lecture, was The Catch Club, featuring baritone Christopher Purves, soprano Caroline Taylor, the Friendly Harmonists, the choir of the Queen's College, Oxford, director Owen Rees, in an evocation of the 18th and 19th century phenomenon of musical clubs that involved not just music, but drinking, food, merriment and much else besides.

Catch Clubs were a remarkable phenomenon of the 18th and 19th centuries. A catch (effectively a round sung by all the assembled company), once described as 'three parts obscenity and one-part music' was a type of music that never expected and audience. Catch Clubs were about joining in, everyone sang, everyone ate, everyone drank.

The musical fare overlapped with the glee (which arose out of the madrigal) and with that of other musical clubs such as the Academy of Ancient Music. At the afternoon lecture Chris Price (director of music at Canterbury Christ Church University and author of a book on The Canterbury Catch Club) mixed entertaining illumination with live performance with the Friendly Harmonists, giving us a sense of the style of the music and the sort of events that the music was performed at.

In the evening, the festival retired to the cocktail bar, Freud (a converted 19th-century church) for a convivial evening that combined cocktails, wine, bratwurst and music in a manner that evoked those 19th-century occasions. The music seemed at first to be a bizarre patchwork, combining Palestrina, Gibbbons, Purcell, Lobo, Byrd and Arne with composers we had never heard of and including, towards the end of the evening the remarkable catch, Farting and Belching!

What the event tried to do was to create a picture of the remarkable amount of participatory music in London in the 18th and 19th centuries with the Catch Club, the Madrigal Society and the Academy of Ancient Music. Many of the leading lights were antiquarians and so the repertoire of music performed moved between the contemporary catches and glees and the older works, including misattributions and unsuitable styles, Orlando Gibbons' The Silver Swan as mass participatory chorus anyone?

We heard Owen Rees directing the 40-strong choir of the Queen's College, Oxford in the more serious music and Chris Price and the Friendly Harmonists (Olivia Earl, Joshua Kenney and Alexander Smith) in the catches, but there was overlap. The choir joined with the Friendly Harmonists for catches, and also Rees directed the choir in some of the more serious Glee repertoire including the remarkable Applaud so a great a guest, a setting of Purcell's memorial inscription from Westminster Abbey by Mary Hudson (c1755-1801) that won the Catch Club medal, and Blest Pair of Sirens, a large-scale Milton setting by John Stafford Smith (1750-1836). 

There was audience participation too. Time constraints meant that some of this had to be dropped, but we all sang along to the catch Now We Are Met by Samuel Webbe (1740-1816), and to Non Nobis Domine, then thought to be by Byrd, which worked as a round by starting on two different pitches. The results were entirely creditable, unsurprisingly Oxford Lieder Festival clearly has a musically literate audience, and most enjoyable. Perhaps another year we could have another mass-participation event!

In between soprano Caroline Taylor and baritone Christopher Purves (looking dashing in a kilt) were accompanied by Christopher Bucknall (harpsichord) and Jonathan Byers (cello) in a selection of songs that concentrated on Purcell's theatre music but included Down among the Dead Men (attributed to Purcell), Arne's O ravishing delight, Edward Johnson's Eliza is the fairest Queen and John Bannister's Ariel's Songs. The soprano was meant to be Rowan Pierce, and Caroline Taylor stood in a late notice; she is one of the festival's young artists whom we saw as Asteria in Cambridge Handel Opera Company's production of Handel's Tamerlano [see my review]. Taylor's performances gave no hint at the last-minute nature of the gig, she was charming and very suggestive in Purcell, brought a nice swagger to Down among the dead men, and duetted wonderfully with Purves. Her account of Arne's complex arioso and aria, O ravishing delight was finely stylish, whilst she really sold Bannister's Ariel's Songs and made them something of a highlight of the evening.

The evening was something of an experiment, the venue was a first for the festival (and the fact that Freud managed to run out of red wine rather early in the evening suggests that the bar had misjudged the clientele!) and the evening itself was complex (and inevitably over-ran) and ambitious in its scope. But the results were wonderfully enjoyable, and managed to capture something of the madcap, eclectic atmosphere of those drinking clubs where music played a big role. The performances were strong all round, and more to the point, everyone seemed to be having a terrific time. More please!

In between the lecture and the evening performance, we retired to the chapel at Somerville College (another first time venue for the festival) where Elizabeth Kenny and Mark Padmore (who is resident at this year's festival) sang Elizabethan and Jacobean lute songs setting sonnets. They opened with two by John Danyel (1564-1626), Like as the lute delights and Time, cruel time setting sonnets by his brother Samuel Danyel (1562-1619). The first one was written for a female singer but with a male lutenist (the text refers to the lutenist as he) a neat swapping of roles. Both were finely captured by the performers, with Padmore giving primacy to the text. There were problems however, Padmore did not seem quite to evoke the magic that his performances can often do, and whilst he sang at a volume level suitable for the chapel's size, Elizabeth Kenny on the lute was more restricted in volume. This meant that Padmore's voice was rather more spot-lit than is ideal in this music, an example of the complex issues surrounding the performance of lute songs in a concert context.

The main reason for the concert was Ross Duffin's project matching some of the best-loved sonnets to pre-existing tunes from the lute-song repertory. Duffin is a scholar and author of Shakespeare's Songbook and has recently completed this project to musick some of Shakespeare's sonnets. The results are intriguing, we heard four sonnets to music by John Dowland, one to music by Robert Jones and one to music by John Danyel. We also heard Dowland's setting of Robert Devereux, Can she excuse my wrongs, John Danyel's stunning three-part Grief, keep within and Thomas Morley's setting of a Shakespeare lyric, It was a lover and his lass.

I have to confess that I was in two minds about Duffin's project. Clearly Padmore and Kenny believed in it and gave the songs a fine launch-pad. But the fitting of words and music was not quite perfect, and too often we were seduced by a pre-existing tune that haunted without quite shaping the words. What was noticeable about the Danyel sonnets was how intimately bound words and music were, and the same was true of Dowland's Can she excuse my wrongs? Very few of Shakespeare's sonnets have made great songs, partly because the highly structured form and the genius of Shakespeare's words make the music almost redundant.

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Elsewhere on this blog

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  • Serenade to Music: Nash Ensemble and a fine array of soloists celebrate Vaughan Williams' 150th birthday - concert review
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  • The Roadside FireOssian Huskinson & Matthew Fletcher in Vaughan Williams and more on Linn Records - record review
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  • A new benchmark: the first new recording of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage for over 50 years brings out all the work's intoxicating brilliance - record review
  • Composers' Academy: new works from Hollie Harding, Joel Järventausta & Jocelyn Campbell with Philharmonia Orchestra & Patrick Bailey on NMC Recording - record review
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