Unsolicited Music Review – Choralism in London

The past couple of weeks have been pretty interesting musically–we’ve been to a number of choral concerts, and they ranged from the truly boring to the magnificent. But what most characterized them was a distinction between the excessively academic approach to performance, versus what I guess we need to call a more Romantic approach. Not that the second label is remotely applicable to most of the music in question–it’s pretty much, with two exceptions, music of the 13th through the 17th centuries.

This all started with what used to be called Early Music Weekend at South Bank, before it was devalued by whoever it was that makes these decisions there. Back in the day, these were largely run and organized by the redoubtable Philip Pickett and his New London Consort, and the standards were uniformly excellent–great groups, great performances, and always an interesting thematic basis for each year. Then, suddenly, Pickett was gone, and things have been in decline ever since. Not that there haven’t been some interesting concerts–this year we had an absolutely first rate one or two, in fact. But we seem to have migrated to some excessively academic orientation, and the result has been increasing variability in the quality of the performances, and in the interest levels of the audiences–which, as far as I can tell, have been declining. A purely anecdotal view, however.

So this year it was called Taking the Risk. And what this was supposed to encapsulate was the fact that Medieval and Renaissance musicians–singers and instrumentalists both–often worked without written notes, and had to, you know, improvise. This penetrating insight formed the basis of a series of concerts that were supposed to demonstrate how, well, risky this was. Get it? Actually, given that the vast majority of attendees of these concerts are pretty sophisticated musically, it would be a bit surprising if they didn’t already know this. And it’s also the case that when singers and instrumentalists “improvised”, it was well within expected guidelines–there were lines that you just knew, and where and when to use them. It was part of your training as a musician. This wasn’t John Coltrane. There was a certain art, to it, of course–you were probably working within the confines of a group of some sort, and had to attend to what others were likely doing–but, there again, you probably knew what they were LIKELY to do in any given measure, so it was probably pretty straightforward. It wasn’t necessarily easy–but it was part and parcel of a musician’s training and education. So we felt there was a teeny bit of exaggeration here, and as best we can figure, there probably was some Arts Council funding involved. But what do we know?

Anyway, the four concerts we saw two weeks ago varied widely in their approach, with two– Stevie Wishart, and a group called The Division Lobby, led by lutenist Patrice Chateauneuf– being the disappointments. Not because of their level of professionalism, or their abilities–it was more the academic attitude that this is what improvisation meant. In the case of Wishart, it also meant several songs on the hurdy-gurdy, which were probably several too many. Granted, it’s an interesting instrument, but as a solo unaccompanied instrument it’s really of academic interest only. Not that there weren’t supporters of this approach in the audience. But it wasn’t quite what we had in mind. Same with The Division Lobby–I have seldom heard such uninspired “improvisation” from any group–and this was a group of pretty impressive musicians (it included Pavlo Beznosiuk and Elizabeth Kenny, stellar violinist and lutenist respectively), but it just didn’t work very well. I suspect there was a bit too much of a search for some sort of improvisational purity involved–but, sadly, this led to a pretty lifeless result. Which was disappointing, given the reputations of the participants (and the high regard I have for them). Of course, it gave the impression of being something of a pick-up group as well, which didn’t help. It’s hard to know why these two concerts were so lifeless. But I think it’s bound up, inextricably, with an excessively academic approach to what improvisation is supposed to entail, and the search for authenticity that has bedeviled early music devotees for the past 30 years.

The other two concerts of that series were considerably better–one in particular. The Orlando Consort presented a concert displaying a range of polyphonic styles, each building on the previous performance, which showed the evolution of chant over three centuries—mainly the 13th to the 16th. And, thankfully, they didn’t really talk up the improvisational dimension of this–but we knew it was there. In fact, if there is any polyphonic group associated with improvisation, it’s this group–they’ve recorded a couple of CDs with Perfect Houseplants, a jazz group (one of which as in interesting take on Armed Man Masses), and their most recent CD was recorded with a group of musicians from Goa. So these guys are pros. A satisfying concert in all respects.

The best of the lot, though, largely because it demonstrated the theme perfectly, was the final concert, Crawford Young and Friends. What friends! Patricia Bovi, the force of nature who founded Micrologus; Begoñia Olivade, who sings with Hesperion XXI and has founded her own group, Mudejar; and London’s own Leah Studdard, who founded Mediva. And Young himself–one of the best lutenists in the world, who disproves any notion that one may have about the limits of improvisation on the lute. This was a masterclass in not only improvisation, but also how to present a concert with a minimum of fuss. Five stars here, without a single reservation–the songs were impeccably chosen and performed, Bovi and Olivade are wonderful singers (although with different styles, Olivade coming out of the Spanish/Moorish tradition, and Bovi more of a straight-ahead Italian renaissance pro), and all are superb instrumentalist. This was the concert to see. And Young himself seemed a bit sheepish about “mentioning the ‘i’ word.”

This has been a recurring debate in early music performance for a couple of decades now–how “authentic” are these performances, and how can performers make them more “authentic?” Original instruments were supposed to resolve some of htis debate, and I guess it has, to some extent. Of course, the tuning goes out of whack on these instruments pretty easily, but that seems a price performers (some, anyway) appear willing to pay. The broader issue is what are the criteria for “authentic” performance? It’s this issue that I think has diminished the appeal of early music concerts. A bold statement, but the contrast between the pristine efforts of, say, The Division Lobby last weekend, and the more raucous performances of groups that improvise a lot, like Oni Wytars, Micrologus, Ensemble Unicorn, and Joglaresa, are pretty dramatic. And I vastly prefer the latter. I know, I know, if I were a music historian I would probably take this more seriously, but I’m not. I’m a reasonably well-informed concert-goer (and occasional singer), so my criteria are different–I want to be entertained, hopefully even exhilarated. It’s the difference between the Boston Camerata of thirty years ago and the one of today–the performances these days may be more historically accurate, but they lack the good-natured messiness that brought such joy in their early years.

A similar contrast emerged later last week in the two performances we attended. On Saturday night we heard the Tallis Scholars in a sumptuous concert, mainly of Lamentations by Lassus, Gombert and Josquin, and the Victoria Requiem Mass. And it was lovely. Peter Phillips conducts brilliantly, the singers are glorious, the balance is perfect, and the song selection is faultless. And it sounded just like every other Tallis Scholars concert we’ve ever heard. Everything they do, they do exactly the same way. Now, this can be justified by the general lack of critical markings in the pieces they’re singing–but whereas Harry Christopher and The Sixteen will add in interpretive modulation, Phillips doesn’t–and the Scholars sing it the way it’s written. This is why we stopped attending Tallis Scholars concerts–each one sounds exactly the same as another one. From the standpoint of academic purity, this is a brilliant approach. But it leaves some in the audience, including me, wanting just a bit more. In the Gombert pieces you could tell the choir was aching to cut loose, but they didn’t. A pity. This is why we prefer The Sixteen–they’re not afraid to take chances with the music.

Which brings us to the highlight of the past two weeks—last Thursday’s performance by Nordic Voices at Saint John’s, Smith Square. This, again, was Renaissance music, at least the first half–but there are only six of them, and they were booked into the gargantuan SJSS concert space by their record company, and the audience was not, shall we say, as sophisticated as one would have liked–it gave the impression that the Norwegian Consulate had pulled out the stops. But what a concert! The first half was Renaissance Lamentations, mostly by Victoria (again) and Gesualdo, but done with considerably more feeling than the Scholars. The voices were of comparable quality–the difference was the emotion Nordic Voices brought to the pieces. And the second half! This was devoted to contemporary Norwegian composers, who are producing some amazing choral works, many of which involve some sublime experimental voicing, particularly with overtones. And this includes the group’s baritone, Frank Havrøy, who composed the last scheduled piece in the work, a lullaby called Bysjan, bysjan, lite ban, that has to be one of the most stunningly beautiful lullabies–or choral pieces of any type, for that matter–we’ve ever heard. This is a group to savor. It was the first concert appearance in London, and I hope not the last. Hopefully, someone over at South Bank will book them into the Purcell Room, or Queen Elizabeth Hall–or maybe Wigmore Hall, where the acoustics are even better. But I look forward enthusiastically to their return, whenever and wherever it may.

Wednesday night’s concert at SJSS was something a bit different. The National Gallery has just opened its blockbuster show for the fall–The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting & Sculpture 1600-1700, and I imagine it will be a huge hit. If nothing else, the millions of Spanish tourists in London on any given day will be flocking to see it. It’s all that depressing painting that Spanish artists did during this period following the Council of Trent, when the Catholic Church struck back, as it were, against the Reformation, encouraging painting and sculpture with boatloads of religious imagery. So there will be lots of Velázquez and Zurbarán at their religious best, and if you know anything about the Spanish art of the time, you already know that it’s lots of doom and gloom. Beautiful doom and gloom, to be sure, but still. But this was a great period for Spanish composers as well—the demand for church music swelled, and composers like Victoria were matching their Italian counterparts in the beauty and complexity of their output.

We were surprised, then, to discover that the concert itself—which was designed to highlight the exhibition, and had the catchy title The Sacred Made Music—spanned the 16th through the 20th centuries, rather than focusing on the 17th century. This was designed to show, as the commentary pointed out, the influence of the counter-Reformation on Spanish composers through the centuries. And if the desired outcome was to demonstrate the stultifying effects of the Council of Trent on several centuries of Spanish composers, the concert succeeded brilliantly. The 16th and 17th century works, particularly by Victoria, Romero and Cererols, were stunning—and the later works, even those of the 20th century, were decidedly not. They all were lovingly sung by Coro Cervantes, an English choral group that specializes in Spanish music, and aside from one or two wobbly entrances, they were fine—good voices and balance, and inflection and modulation where appropriate. But there was no getting around the fact that the genius that characterized Spanish music from the 13th to the 16th centuries was already fading away in the late 17th century, and the next 300 years was pure derivation. The only later piece that stood out was the one composed by, of all people, Pablo Casals, whom I actually never really though of as a choral composer. This was true also of the piece by Fernanco Sor, whom I normally think of as the greatest composer for the guitar from any country, but whose choral compositions, if last night’s effort is any indication, probably deserve to be performed about as regularly as they currently are. Authenticity wasn’t really the issue in this concert. But I have rarely been at a concert where the quality of the compositions presented stood in such contrast. It was interesting in that regard, at least.

Categories: Arts/Literature, Music/Popular Culture, World

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