‘Songs of Longing and Exile’: Stile Antico at LSO St Luke’s

The ensuing conversations between past and present, and between different
cultures, can reveal surprising affinities and inspire experiment and
transformation. In 2019, I enjoyed performances by


whose concert drama, Burying the Dead (directed by Tom Guthrie),
took us back to 1695 and into the feverish mind of Henry Purcell, and
American violinist,

Elicia Silverstein

, whose recital of music for solo violin illuminated striking continuities
stretching over three centuries.

There are certainly many ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’ to be found in the
music of the Baroque, not least in the operas of Handel – one of the finest
being ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Rinaldo in which Almenira, abducted
by the sorceress Armida and imprisoned in the palace, laments her fate:
‘Let me weep over/ my cruel fate,/ and let me sigh for/ liberty.’ Oddly,
this aria, included in Stile Antico’s published programme, was omitted
during this afternoon concert at LSO St Luke’s, thereby removing the only
item that might accurately have been termed ‘Baroque’ from the sequence of
songs and instrumental works about displacement and exile. But, if the
relationship between the repertoire performed and the Baroque at the Edge ‘concept’ seemed rather tenuous (the programme
had in fact previously been presented at Wigmore Hall in June last year),
the twelve-voice ensemble still offered intriguing reflections and some
fine singing in music spanning from John Dowland to Giles Swayne.

Stile Antico took a little time to settle into their first item, Robert
White’s Lamentations ‡ 5 (Part 1), a setting of part of the liturgy of
Tenebrae. The music of White, who lived from c.1538-74, looks back towards
the music of the early sixteenth century, when precise musical illustration
of the text was not a priority, rather than forward to the Baroque: the
vocal scoring reflects the cumulative polyphony and ‘waves’ of sound that
one finds in manuscripts such as the Eton Choirbook, and the topmost ‘mean’
part often lies low. The twelve singers were arranged in an arc of
alternating voice-types, which created a strong blend, but disadvantaged
the three soprano voices which were occasionally lost within the whole.

At the heart of the programme was the cycle of seven pavans by Dowland
which form the composer’s Lacrhrimae. These instrumental works
were sung to new texts by poet Peter Oswald, based on the testimonies of
modern-day refugees and migrants. Dowland’s ‘Flow my tears’ was heard at
the opening of Lachrimae Antiquae Novae, then individual voices
emerged to tell their own stories: a journalist who ‘spoke against
the state’; a migrant whose appeal, “Driver, driver, save me from hell!”,
was ignored. (The texts of all the works performed during the concert were
helpfully projected onto a screen overhead). After recollections of racism,
aggression and loneliness the concluding pavan, Lachrimae Verae,
offered some consolation with its images of acceptance and assimilation,
the voice now ‘safe in daylight’.

Stile Antico shaped the interweaving polyphony with refinement and tailored
the tierce de Picardie cadences with gentle expressivity,
conveying both pathos and tender hopes for peace. With the semi-circle
anchored by basses James Arthur and Nathan Harrison, sopranos and altos
grouped either side, and tenors to the fore, individual parts were able to
rise and recede affectingly. On the whole the intonation was secure – the
false relations of Lachrimae Amantis were focused and pungent –
but at times the straight-toned sopranos pushed a little sharp,
particularly as the dynamic rose. However, overall the execution was

The ‘concept’ was a worthy one but there were several innate problems.
First, its hard to think of a repertory in which musical and textual
rhetoric are so inextricably fused as the Renaissance lute ayre or
part-song. Here, the register, rhythm and imagery of Oswald’s texts sat
uncomfortably on the musical gestures. Moreover, the courtly airs and songs
of Dowland and his contemporaries are founded on the principle of the
poetic conceit and artifice: yet, the voices we heard spoke with openness,
plainness and sincerity, creating a further odd misalignment of text and
music. And, while there was no doubting the directness and sometimes
disconcerting honesty of the voices inhabiting Oswald’s texts, the diction
and imagery was often banal. Perhaps such plainness, and clichÈ, was
‘truthful’, and intended, but the text’s potential power seemed diminished
within this musical context.

Stile Antico were joined in this concert by the refugee choir Woven Gold and oud player Rihab
Azar, herself a refugee. Azar opened the concert with Farid al-Atrash’s
‘Lahnul-Khulud’ (Melody of Immortality), the darkened church enhancing the
reflectiveness of the traceries and rhythmic energies that she drew from
her oud. Further instrumental items were interwoven between Dowland’s
pavans. The melodic rhetoric of the Classical Arabic Muwashshah
(literally ‘girdled’), ‘Badat Min al-Khidr’ (Seen through the veil), was
deeply affecting; the extract from Nedim Nalbanto?lu’s ‘Buselik Saz
Semaisi’ had a beautiful fullness of tone and captivating vigour. One could
sense a strong ‘narrative’ in Khalid Mohammed Ali’s ‘Uyun Sharida’ (Escaped

Azar delivered these songs, and her own compositions (‘Questions’ presented
a striking individual musical voice), with a delicate wistfulness that was
unmannered, unassuming and communicative. It was a pity that she was seated
to the extreme left of the stage, for though her oud spoke clear and true,
her performances deserved the opportunity to acquire even greater presence.

At the close of the concert, though, Azar was able to occupy centre-stage,
at the heart of a performance of

Giles Swayne’s ‘Bodrum Beach’

which was commissioned for the ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’ project. Swayne
has composed a frank and disturbing musical response to the 2015 tragedy in
which a Syrian woman and five children drowned when attempting to cross the
2.5- mile strait of the Aegean Sea from the Bodrum peninsula to Kos. The
text adapts Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ and here the union of words,
imagery and choric rhetoric was both apt and dramatic. Swayne’s
discomforting dissonances and the pitch cluster of the cry, “There were
twelve of us”, were powerful and unsettling.

The final item saw Stile Antico and Azar joined by Woven Gold, to conclude
the programme with Dowland’s ‘Now, o now, I needs must part’. Earlier in
the concert, Woven Gold – whose members come from diverse cultures from
Congo to Iran, Uganda to Pakistan – had performed traditional songs from
Arabia and the Congo, sung in the original languages and arranged by
members of the group. Now they responded with sensitivity and skill to the
music of another distant culture, that of Elizabethan England, showing us
the pleasure and rewards of shared experiences.

Claire Seymour

Stile Antico, Woven Gold, Rihab Azar (oud)

Farid al-Atrash: ‘Lahnul-Khulud’ (Melody of Immortality); Robert White:
Lamentations ‡ 5 (Part 1); Trad. Arabic: ‘Sultana Ghalban’, ‘Il Bulbul’,
‘Balini Balwa’; Trad. Congolese: ‘Elonga ezali’; John Dowland: Lachrimae Antiquae; Rihab Azar & Peter Wiegold: ‘Love far
away’; Dowland: Lachrimae Antiquae Novae, Lachrimae Gementes; Classical Arabic Muwashshah: Badat Min
al-Khidr; Dowland: Lachrimae Tristess, Lachrimae Coactae;
Azar: ‘Questions’; Nedim Nalbanto?lu: ‘Buselik Saz Semaisi’ (extract);
Dowland: Lachrimae Amantis, Lachrimae Verae; Giles Swayne: ‘Bodrum
Beach’; Dowland: ‘Now, o now, I needs must part’.

LSO St Luke’s, London; Sunday 12th November 2020.

product_title=Baroque at the Edge: Stile Antico, Woven Gold, Rihab Azar (oud) – ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Stile Antico

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve