Friday 12 April 2024

Full of good things: Sean Shibe and the Dunedin Consort in John Dowland, a new Cassandra Miller concerto and much else besides

John Dowland: Lachrimae, or Seaven Tears - Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort
John Dowland: Lachrimae, or Seaven Tears - Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort
Milton Court Concert Hall

Rowallan Manuscript, Straloch Manuscript, Dowland, Purcell, Geminiani, James MacMillan arr. George Duthie, David Fennessy, Linda Catlin Smith, Cassandra Miller; Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Milton Court concert hall, Barbican
Reviewed 11 April 2024

Moving from the sheer magic of Dowland writing for lute and viols through to contemporary music for guitar and strings, ending with Cassandra Miller's mesmerising new concerto. A programme full of good things that never quite cohered

The somewhat awkwardly titled Reformations: Concerto at the Barbican Centre's Milton Court concert hall featured Sean Shibe on lute and guitar alongside the strings of the Dunedin Consort, conductor John Butt, in a programme that culminated in the premiere of Cassandra Miller's new guitar concerto, Chanter. This was presented as the end point in a sequence that started with lute pieces from the Rowallan Manuscript and the Straloch Manuscript, then 'Lachrimae antiquae' from John Dowland's Lachrimae, or Seaven Tears, Purcell's Fantasia a 4 in C minor and In Nomine a 7 in G minor and Francesco Geminiani's Sonata No. 3 'The last Time I came o'er the Moor'.

Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort, John Butt - Barbican Centre's Milton Court concert hall
Sean Shibe, The Dunedin Consort, John Butt - Barbican Centre's Milton Court concert hall

Moving to the modern era we then had George Duthie's arrangement of James MacMillan's From Galloway, two movements from
David Fennessy's Rosewoods, Linda Catlin Smith's Sinfonia and finally Cassandra Miller's Chanter.

We began with Sean Shibe alone on stage playing the lute. Frankly, it felt a bit artificial, this was music that was never intended to be used in concert, it was social and functional music and you felt that perhaps something could have been done to relax the atmosphere. But Shibe simply played, and did so wonderfully yet in a remarkably dead-pan manner. The sound of the lute required you to concentrate but his playing drew you in. The Rowallen Manuscript was compiled in the early 1600s and is named for Rowallen Castle in East Ayrshire where it was found. The Straloch Manuscript is named for Robert Gordon of Straloch (1580-1661). First we heard Swit Sant Nickola, a very redolent tune that really made you want to get up and dance, then came Canaries which was written as a dance tune, the name referring to a popular dance. Finally A Scotts Tune which was slow, sad and almost cried out for a voice.

Five string players from the Dunedin Consort (two violins, two violas and cello) joined Shibe on stage and they then moved on to the first John Dowland's Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares his 1604 collection for viol consort and lute. Here on period violins, violas and cellos, the result was still evocative with a lovely veiled quality to the string tone and the lute really told against the wonderfully sensitive string playing. There was a lovely swing to all the phrasing and towards the end they got daringly quiet. The result was pure magic and made you regret that we were only hearing one of the collection, more please.

Shibe then departed the stage and the Dunedin Consort gave us two of Purcell's 1680 collection of Fantasias and In Nomines originally written for viols. The strings played with lovely plangent tone and really leaned into the passing dissonances in the music. The Fantasia a 4 played by violin, two violas and cello, felt a little bit too violin led, as if the players could not quite get the idea of the string quartet genre out of their head. The In nomine, played by three violins, two violas and two cellos, was wonderfully full of moving parts and attractively mobile.

Francesco Geminiani was active in England, Scotland and Ireland, he is one of those people that pops up all over. His Sonata No. 3 comes from a 1749 collection and the work creates a trio sonata out of a Scots song, The Last Time I came o'er the Moor. Here it was played by two violins and cello, without any supporting keyboard, which created a rather striking effect. The stylish playing gave a nice swing to the first movement, with a definite Scots tang to it, whilst the middle movement was full of showy moments for the cello, and the perky final movement got definitely fast and furious.

At this point, Sean Shibe returned to the stage with guitar this time and the Dunedin Consort expanded to its full complement of 12 strings, and John Butt took on conducting duties. Shibe's guitar was amplified and I have to confess that I was not entirely enamoured of the resulting sound quality, it lacked the transparency of some amplified guitars and you felt the presence of the amplification. But perhaps that we me being picky.

James MacMillan's From Galloway is a 2000 piece for solo clarinet, here given in an arrangement for guitar and strings by George Duthie. It is a tiny piece, a hesitating air initiated by the guitar and meditated on by the strings. This was followed by two movements from David Fennessy's Rosewoods which were written for Shibe, based on a solo guitar piece that Fennessy wrote for Shibe's teacher. Fennessy is one of MacMillan's pupils, but we were in a very different sound world. Short repeated motifs were introduced by Shibe and then taken up by the strings, elaborate guitar fingerwork against string insistence. Both pieces felt slightly nebulous and the balance seemed to favour the strings.

Linda Catlin Smith's Sinfonia was specifically written for Baroque ensemble, originally written for Early Music Vancouver. It was full of rich textures, and the first part featured two solo violins, emerging in the manner of a concerto grosso, eventually they were lost amidst the throbbing textures of the faster middle section. Throughout, Catlin Smith seemed to be enamoured of the distinctive textures that HIP performances on period instruments can bring. Eventually the material slowed down again and then finally evaporated.

Cassandra Miller (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)
Cassandra Miller (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)
Cassandra Miller's concerto, Chanter, began with Miller hearing Shibe singing along to music performed by Scottish smallpipes player Brighde Chaimbeul, in fact Chaimbeul's own arrangement of a North Highland air. Miller multi-layered Shibe's voice, then transferred the ideas to guitar, leaning into the way that the guitar can strum, ripple and thrum. The work is in what Miller describes as four verses and a coda - 'Rippling Sea', 'Bellowing', 'Sleep-chanting', 'Slowing Air' and 'Skye-dreaming', but all revisited the same material in different ways, becoming progressively more hypnotic. This was quite a long piece and you wondered whether Miller was deliberately trying to lull us to sleep.

The sound world, with the guitar presenting material full of rippling textures and then the strings taking it up, evoked to me the world of Gaelic psalm singing, where there is a leader and then everyone joins in, each presenting their own variant, all simultaneously. The result was hypnotic and rather mesmerising with a fabulous sound world. At one point we had a quasi-cadenza with the Shibe playing free rhapsodic passages over thrummed bass, but the material circled around, always returning to the same place.

Both Catlin Smith and Miller are Canadian, and I wondered whether this was deliberate, were we meant to hear the Celtic diaspora in their music perhaps? If this was so, then maybe a little more context would have helped.

This was a programme filled with good things, but the somewhat playlist-like structure did not always do the music justice. It would have been nice to dwell somewhat, to pause and consider, perhaps having more Dowland because it was pure magic and more Fennessy because the two short movements were not quite enough to get used to his sound-world. Cassandra Miller's new concerto will repay further listening, and I did wonder whether it might have a more consistent impact on recording. There are further opportunities to hear the piece as the programme is repeated at Saffron Hall (12 April), Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall (13 April), Edinburgh's Queen's Hall (14 April) and at the Music Center de Bijloke in Belgium (18 April).

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