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Opera Today enjoys Stile Antico’s Shakespeare Prom

Claire Seymour, Opera Today (15 August, 2016)

It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.

On this occasion, the vocal ensemble Stile Antico and the viol consort Fretwork joined forces to present music by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and settings of Shakespeare old and new. Once the two groups of performers had adapted to the venue, and to performing with each other, they communicated a striking sensitivity to Elizabethan sensibility, iconography and poetic conceits as embodied in musical forms and language. And, they captured the era’s notions of fluent artistry which deliberately, and sometimes ostentatiously, displays both its own grace and its complexity.

But, we began with light spirits: Thomas Morley’s ‘It was a lover and his lasse’ the text of which is drawn from As You Like It (V.iii). It’s interesting to reflect on whether Morley and Shakespeare knew each other: they both lived in Bishopgate in the late 1590s, and the contemporary artistic community embraced poets, actors, musicians and composers. Morley’s madrigal is a jovial, springy – and slyly bawdy (‘with a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonny no’ foregrounds a contemporary euphemism!) – madrigal which describes a loving couple’s ‘roll in the hay’. Originally for three voices, it was arranged here by Andrew Griffiths for three groups of four unaccompanied voices for each of the first three stanzas, with the twelve voices joining together for the final verse. And, although there was an attempt to conjure the relaxed intimacy of domestic music-making of the period, Stile Antico offered a fairly innocent reading! It took them a little time to settle though, and the various vocal groups struggled to find a balance that appropriately foregrounded the upper voice, which carries the melody, the dark colours of the lower voices tending to out-weigh the buoyancy of the sopranos, though the text was clearly conveyed.

There were some intonation hiccoughs in Byrd’s ‘O Lord, make thy servant, Elizabeth’, as the voices struggled to accord their timbre with that of the five viols of Fretwork, but by the concluding, elaborate ‘Amen’ these problems had been ironed out and in the subsequent, ‘Why doe I use my paper, inck and pen?’ tenor Benedict Hymas worked fluently with the viol counterpoint – underpinned by Richard Boothby’s expressive and mobile bass line. The text was written by Henry Walpole on the occasion of the execution of Edmund Campion, and Byrd – who had established himself as one of Queen Elizabeth’s favourites – was nevertheless taking a few risks: the only previous attempt to publish the poem had resulted in the torture and execution of the publisher! We would not have sensed this danger, though, from Hymas’ tone, which had the effete lightness of Nicholas Hilliard’s Young Man Among the Roses; but occasionally as the phrase rose high, though the sound was sweet, the line was not sustained. The tierce de Picardie close was beautifully poignant, though: ‘An Angel’s trump were fitter to sound/Their glorious death, if such on earth were found.’

Thomas Tomkins’ ‘Be strong and of good courage’, sung by seven singers, was marred by some untidy interaction between voices and viols, and by the occasion tendency of the sopranos to push sharp-wards – which was noticeable at the final cadence. Robert Ramsey’s ‘Sleep, fleshly birth’, however, was stunning. Ramsey, director of music at Trinity College Cambridge, is probably a name less familiar to us than that of Morley, Byrd, Tomkins et al: his dramatic madrigal in six movement, Dialogues of Sorrow upon the Death of the Late Prince Henry, is only partially extant, but ‘Sleep, fleshly birth’ is almost certainly a tribute to the Prince. Stile Antico milked the chromatic piquancy for all it was worth, without the slightest hint of mannerism, and this performance has sent me scurrying to find recordings of Ramsey.

The twelve singers of Stile Antico showed intelligent awareness of the formal procedures of the music of the period in Robert Johnson’s ‘Full Fathom Five’, a setting of The Tempest (I.ii) in which ascending modulations in the first part are countered by a descent in the second, suggestive of the rise and fall of currents from the ocean floor, and the resurrection and laying to rest of the father’s spirit to the repetitions of ‘ding-dong bell’.

The programme also included two modern settings of Shakespeare. The first, Huw Watkins’ ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ (2014), is wonderfully responsive to the rhythmic energies and formal implications of the language. The twelve voices signalled loudly the opening command, ‘Let the bird of the loudest lay,/On the sole of the Arabian tree,/Herald sad and trumpet be’, establishing an animated momentum which burst through the sprung rhythms of motifs such as the ‘death-defining swan’. They later gave way, though, to quieter reflection allied with twisting dissonances which recalled the false relations of the Elizabethan madrigal. In slower, homophonic episodes the bass’s long pedals served as a reliable anchor for chromatic inflections, particularly in the final prayer-like section where the triple-time reflects the three-line stanzas. This text, which describes a funeral for the Phoenix and Turtledove, emblems of flawlessness and devotion respectively, has been described as one of Shakespeare’s most obscure poems, and one of the first metaphysical poems.Stile Antico, and Watkins, made it perfectly accessible. The close was magical: after a deliberating treat and pause, ‘For these dead birds’, the upper voices were released to ‘sigh a prayer’.

The lower voices in Nico Muhly’s ‘Gentle Sleep’ (2015) ululated like a primordial lullaby while tenor and soprano alternated in offering pronounced statements against this paradoxically soporific yet energised texture. The isolation of the silvery soprano, set against lively movement of the alto and tenor viols within the counterpoint, and the static low voices, was scintillating.

Fretwork offered some Fantasias and In nomines between the vocal works. Byrd’s Fantasia a 5 – ‘Two parts in one in the fourth above’ – was typical of the way the ensemble balanced timbral blend with the animation of individual instrumental lines, with once again Boothby’s bass line giving direction to the more dance-like episodes. The pacing of Byrd’s Browning a 5, ‘The leaves by green’ was well-conceived, particularly given its strangely truncated ending. Orlando Gibbon’s In nomine a 5 No.1 in D minor perhaps most wonderfully captured the era’s blend of melancholy, measure and mellifluousness.

John Wilbye’s ‘Draw on, sweet night’ brought the programme to a close, the delicious, and brave, diminuendo in at the close – ‘And while thou all in silence dost enfold’ – giving way to new animation in the final insistence: ‘I then shall have best time for my complaining.’ This was a perfectly constructed programme, delivered with a real sense of engagement with the ethos of the works performed and the texts set. We didn’t really need an encore of Gibbons’ ‘The Silver Swan’, but who would complain?