musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

English Lute Songs
Emma Kirkby, soprano; Jakob Lindberg, lute (soloa)
concert: March 19, 2015, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg

Cataldo AMODEI (1650-1695): Bianco il pel, toso il crin; anon: The English Nightingalea; When Daphne fair; John BLOW (1648/49-1708): If mighty wealth; Sappho to the goddess of love; William BYRD (1540-1623): Constant Penelope; John DANYEL (1564-c1626): Coy Daphne fled; John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Fantasiaa; Preludea; When Phoebus first did Daphne love; Alfonso FERRABOSCO (c1575-1628): So Beauty on the waters stood; Pelham HUMFREY (1647-1674): Cupid oncem, when weary grown; Giovanni Girolamo KAPSBERGER (c1580-1651): Toccataa; Henry LAWES (1595-1662): Ariadne's Lament; I long to sing; Thilo legein Atreidas; William LAWES (1602-1645): Aire - Almain - Courante - Sarabandea; Alonso MUDARRA (1510-1580): Dulces exuviae; Alessandro PICCININI (1566-1638): Ciaccona Mariona alla vera Spagnolaa; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Cebell - Ritornell - A New Irish Measure - Scottish Measure - A New Ground - Hornpipea; Cupid, the slyest rogue alive; Dido and Aeneas (Thy hand, Belinda - When I am laid in earth, rec & aria); John WILSON (1595-1674): Diffugere nives

If Dame Emma Kirkby, the grande dame of English lute song, is in town to sing her core repertoire, you don't want to miss it. For generations of singers of and listeners to early music she has set the standard in 'authentic' performance practice of vocal music. Over the years she has shown that she has her limitations, and she is well aware of that. She never forced her voice and because of that it still sounds astonishingly fresh. She is 66 but you wouldn't believe it if you didn't know it. On 19 March she was in Utrecht, as part of a tour across the Netherlands and Belgium, with a programme of lute songs, accompanied by Jakob Lindberg.

The programme was announced as being devoted to English lute songs. That was a somewhat imprecise description. There were also some non-English items in the programme (from Italy and Spain), and some songs were for voice and basso continuo; obviously the latter can be realized with a lute. And Byrd's Constant Penelope was originally written as a consort song, but performed here with the viol parts intabulated for the lute.

The programme was divided into a number of sections devoted to a specific subject. It started with So Beautie on the waters stood by Alfonso Ferrabosco, under the heading 'Creation', which can be explained from the opening phrase: "So Beautie on the waters stood when Love had sever'd earth from floud". The next chapter was entitled Metamorphosis, which was about Daphne, the nymph who is turned into a tree to save her from Apollo pursuing her. It was followed by Heroines: William Byrd devoted a song to Penelope, the faithful wife of Ulisses, whereas Henry Lawes was one of many composers intrigued by the story of Ariadne. He composed a remarkable piece which one wouldn't expect from a composer of the English renaissance. In his time the baroque style hadn't established itself in England yet, but his song shows unmistakable Italian influences, especially in the dramatic treatment of the subject.

Another interesting aspect of the time is the interest in classical writings. Some composers set Latin or Greek poems to music, and Emma Kirkby once devoted a whole disc to this kind of repertoire. We heard four pieces: John Wilson set a poem in Latin by Horace (Diffugere nives), whereas Henry Lawes and John Blow turned to the Greek poet Anacreon. The former set the poem Thelo legein Atreidas twice, first in the original and then in an English translation, but to different music. Obviously Ms Kirkby has no problem with such texts as she has been educated in classical philology.

The second half started with a piece by an Italian composer, Cataldo Amadei, rather odd in a programme with English lute songs. It was the only piece in a short chapter devoted to Fate, according to Amadei's cantata spinning the lines of people's lives. The second section was about two other mythological characters, Venus and Cupido, and here we heard some pieces with typical English wit, about Cupid complaining to his mother about being stung by a bee. She doesn't show much sympathy: he now feels what he, with his darts, does to poor men. One can leave it to Emma Kirkby to make the most of it, without falling into the trap of exaggerating the humorous side.

After that things went very serious when she sang about the tragic fate of Dido. First we heard a song by the Spanish renaissance composer Alonso Mudarra on a famous Latin text: Virgil's Dulces exuviae, also set polyphonically by other composers of the time, and then a much later work: the end of Henry Purcell's only opera Dido and Aeneas: "When I am laid in earth", also known as Dido's Lament. This was given a very intense and emotional performance and brought this captivating programme to a fitting end.

One can put together many different programmes of lute song (although some songs were with basso continuo which obviously can be played with lute). Dowland's songs are the best-known and most popular, and some people in the audience may have expected - and probably hoped - to hear such pieces. I was happy that the two artists followed a different path and brought some lesser-known aspects of English lute song to our attention, such as the intellectual side of the English renaissance which comes to the fore in the Greek and Latin songs.

Ms Kirkby delivered outstanding performances in which the character of every single song was clearly expressed. She made use of gestures; I had the impression that these were more or less based on what we know about gesturing in ancient times. However, I am not sure whether this should be part of a performance of lute songs. For me it was the voice which was the main tool of expression. In that department Emma Kirkby is still hard to surpass. The means of expression which a singer of this kind of music has at his or her disposal were meticulously chosen and well balanced. Jakob Lindberg was a congenial partner who also delivered some fine performances of lute pieces. Among them were a nice set of variations on The English Nightingale and a brilliant Fantasia by John Dowland.

Emma Kirkby singing English lute songs is an event. I am glad I didn't miss it.

Johan van Veen ( 2015)

Concert reviews