The Parley of Instruments at 25

Written by: Colin Anderson

This Friday, the 23rd, is St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday. And on this day, in the Wigmore Hall, the Parley of Instruments continues to celebrate its 25th anniversary – with a “Music for Shakespeare” concert. I ask Peter Holman, the Parley’s founder, about the group’s genesis. “I was doing research into seventeenth-century string music and I thought there was a need for a group to explore and play it properly. We’ve achieved quite a lot, spreading a lot of awareness of performance issues, instruments, and style of playing. I don’t think I’m boasting.” Another milestone is the latest issue in Hyperion’s The English Orpheus series, No.50, many of which feature the Parley. “It’s been a marvellous voyage of exploration. The timeframe is roughly 1550-1850, the most neglected area of English music.”

Thus the general perception that the time from Purcell to Elgar, circa 200 years, had “nothing much in between” is being handsomely addressed by Holman and Hyperion. I mention my enthusiasm for Thomas Linley’s Lyric Ode, written in 1776 and subtitled The Shakespeare Ode. “It was in print but sat on the shelf. We realised what a marvellous piece it is and thought this chap worthy of more exploration. We’ve now recorded most of Linley’s major works.” Lyric Ode is on CDA66613. Holman recommends Linley’s The Song of Moses (CDA67038), which is “even finer.”

In terms of authenticity, Peter Holman is “interested in being informed by the best practice of the period, and I’m trying to renew our own performing traditions which have become debased and corrupt. I’m not just talking about early music. Previous centuries have a lot to tell us about all sorts of things.”

In his booklet note for Fairest Isle (CDA67115), Holman bemoans the fact that children today are not educated in traditional songs. “It’s because of political correctness. And it’s now happening in the church. Our marvellous hymns are being thrown out of the window because there’s a trend that says you have to be ’with it’.” I mention the intrusive and irritating infestation of pop music and electronic inanities into much broadcasting. “There’s a generation in the media who were brought up with pop music in the 60s who have never really grown up. As people who understand and love serious music, we should protest against this. One thing I’ve been trying to do is recover the masterpieces of our musical heritage. Tippett (his centenary next year) had a great sense of heritage; I got to know Purcell’s music through him.”

Holman pays tribute to Hyperion as “fantastic sponsors. We’re now looking to establish a trust to support the recordings. I’d love to record Samuel Wesley. There’s plenty more we can do.” The afore-mentioned latest release is appropriately of Shakespeare songs, from Purcell to Arne (CDA67450). “I’ve loved this repertoire ever since I was a schoolboy.” One composer is John Smith “who assisted Handel and was a fine composer in his own right; there are two lovely songs here. Approaches to Shakespeare tend to fasten onto those lyrics that bring out the mysterious and haunting aspects of Shakespeare. It’s a very important strand in 18th-century music, almost pre-romantic, the idea of creating a fairy or pastoral atmosphere and concentrating on nature and the supernatural. This is going to be the centrepiece of the Romantic Movement, and it’s happening in England fifty years before it’s happened elsewhere.”

On 21 May in the Wigmore Hall, there’s Biber and Muffat, “an anniversary coincidence; they both died in 1704. The Parley’s been associated with them right from the beginning. Biber is bizarre and extravagant, if old-fashioned in a 17th-century context, and represents the intense cultivation of a local musical tradition. Muffat is much more modern. They worked together and possibly didn’t get on. Two superb composers!” Meanwhile, here’s to Shakespeare and The Parley of Instruments – for one night only at Wigmore Hall and in a CD shop near you!

  • Wigmore Hall
  • Hyperion
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 21 April 2004 and is reproduced here with permission

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