Thomas Mace’s Musick’s Monument, or, A remembrance of the best practical musick, both divine and civil, that has ever been known to have been in the world divided into three parts, looked back wistfully at an age of English music almost passed. Conservative, even reactionary, Mace detested new-fangled French influences on the musical culture of his own time. He disliked ‘Squaling-Scoulding-Fiddles’, to be used only if balanced by ‘Lusty Full-Sciz’d Theorbos’, and, as favoured sacred music from the age of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons, elevated music for viol consort, consort songs included, over newer styles and genres. If most of Henry Purcell’s music stood very much in the latter vein, Purcell, in his celebrated Fantazias of 1780, also paid tribute to the golden age of the consort, showing beyond doubt that a composer could be master of both. It was a farewell, though, however masterly—and probably ignored. They went unpublished until 1927, by Peter Warlock, and there is no evidence of performance in Purcell’s lifetime. This concert from Fretwork and Lucy Crowe, then, also looked back at English music of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, less from the standpoint of Mace than from that of Purcell. It proved enjoyable and instructive in equal measure.
Byrd opened the programme and occupied much of the first half, shared with Gibbons, split between both halves, the younger composer a mediator between Byrd and Purcell. The Queen’s Goodnight, like so much of what was to come, flowed and gently danced: not reduced to merely ‘being’ a dance, but rather partaking its spirit, remembrance, and rejuvenation. The fascination of its harmonies spoke for itself without underlining, whether of false relations or other dissonances. This was a golden age of instrumental variations too, and it showed. Here was a lovely curtain-raiser, also enabling Byrd’s 1588 consort song tributes to Sir Philip Sidney, one to a text by Sidney himself, the other an explicit tribute by Sir Edward Dyer, to emerge as much as companion pieces as contrasts. Crowe’s floating of her melodic line atop the viol music proved undeniably affecting, perhaps especially in the Dyer setting, O that most rare breast. Undimmed in courtliness and affect, it negotiated and combined confessional traditions and boundaries as skilfully as Byrd himself, finally sublimated with quiet ecstasy on ‘thy friend here living dieth’. In between, for instruments only, Two parts in one the fourth above, gently suggested both affinity and variety within the family of consort music, much as one might with later instrumental music of Haydn. Pleasure derived both from occasional grit in the oyster, as well as the oyster itself, was the thing. Closing the first half, owing to a fine ballad-like performance by Crowe and her supporting musicians.
Gibbons provided another voice, less expansive in the first of his two Fantasias than the second, and perhaps even another world in whose counterpoint one could readily, pleasurably lose oneself. In Fretwork’s performances, both of those Fantasias and two In nomines,it sounded lighter, perhaps more aristocratic, though not necessarily less ingenuous. If I find it less moving, on the whole, than Byrd or Purcell, that may just be me. Now each flowery bank of May had a different flavour, with a nice ambiguity in performance as to any ultimate message, should there be one: ‘… whose love is life, whose hate is death’. In the second half, Faire is the rose was short, sweet, and subtle.
We lost a Duo in G for two bass viols by Christopher Simpson, Asako Morikawa having sprained her thumb—one would never have known from other performances—but heard four of Purcell’s four-part Fantazias. If there were times when I felt Purcell’s well-nigh Mozartian combination of seemingly effortless mastery and fathomless depth might have been served better by a touch of Romanticism, these were fluent, comprehending performances with their own agenda that had no need to be mine. At their best, they showed a splendid inevitability in unfolding and had me wanting more. Many counsel us against importing modern conceptions of sadness, melancholia, and so on into this music, but so much the worse for them. Purcell’s modernity remains as striking as his historicity; as with any great art, of which this is certainly an instance, the one encourages the other.
O solitude, my sweetest choice, as with all these songs realised by Richard Boothby for his own consort, likewise spoke with almost modern unity of words, music, and underlying sentiment in performance. At any rate, one could hear why Purcell’s word-setting continues to inspire Anglophone composers. Music certainly did our cares beguile ‘for a while’ in the celebrated, loveliest song from Oedipus, King of Thebes. ‘When I have often heard young maids complaining’, from The Fairy Queen, spoke with readier humour, perhaps, than Byrd’s mistress and her dog. It was an animated, captivating performance, as was the surprise encore, as you are unlikely to have heard it before: Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’.
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Fretwork (Richard Boothby, Asako Morikawa, Sam Stadlen, Emily Ashton, Joanna Levine).
Byrd: Prelude and Ground a 5: ‘The Queen’s Goodnight’; O Lord, how vain; Fantasia a 5: ‘Two parts in one the fourth above’; O that most rare breast; Gibbons: Two Fantasias of 3 parts; Now each flowery bank of May; Byrd: My mistress had a little dog; Purcell: Two Fantazias in 4 parts; O solitude, my sweetest choice, Z406; Gibbons: Two In Nomines; Faire is the rose; Purcell: Two Fantazias in 4 parts; Oedipus, King of Thebes: ‘Music for a while’; The Fairy Queen: ‘When I have often heard young maids complaining’.
Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 7th October 2021.
ABOVE: Lucy Crowe, image courtesy of Askonas Holt