The Parley of Instruments – Wigmore Hall (23 April)

Orpheus with his Lute: Music for Shakespeare from Purcell to Arne

Catherine Bott (soprano)

Rachel Brown (flute)

The Parley of Instruments:
Judy Tarling and Theresa Caudle (violins)
Katherine McGillivray (viola)
Mark Caudle (cello)
Peter Holman (harpsichord and direction)


Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 23 April, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Tonight’s concert was special for many reasons: it landed on St. George’s Day (and what better way to celebrate that day than with an evening of English song?); it formed part of The Parley of Instruments’ 25th-birthday celebrations; and it effectively launched the 50th instalment in Hyperion’s “The English Orpheus” CD series. All the more pity that there were many empty seats in the house.

The concert was divided into four sets, each prefaced by an instrumental work. The first set consisted of an overture by Jeremiah Clark and songs written five years either side of 1700 by Eccles, Weldon (Purcell’s pupil) and Purcell himself. Jeremiah Clark’s overture (in the French style, with double-dotting and a lively fugato) and pendant minuet revealed the spicy, pungent string tone and forthright continuo playing for which The Parley of Instruments is famous. The group was then joined by soprano Catherine Bott for a wonderfully folk-inflected performance of Eccles’s “Can Life be a Blessing or Worth the Possessing” (“Troilus and Cressida”), a highly embellished “Take, O Take those Lips Away” by John Weldon (“Measure for Measure”) and a superbly characterised “Dear Pretty Youth” by Henry Purcell (“The Tempest”). And all this despite Bott’s voice taking some time to settle.

The second set largely comprised songs by Thomas Chilcot. These were written for concert performance and not for the stage, hence the substantial accompaniments and virtuoso writing for the voice. Chilcot was organist at Bath Abbey; he was a good friend of both Handel and Gainsborough, even teaching the latter music. The flute concerto by Robert Woodcock, which introduced this section, was performed by Rachel Brown on the transverse flute; throughout her tone was warm and rounded, her embellishments fluent and tasteful, her short cadenza leading from the Handelian Largo into the Allegro a model of elegance. Following which Catherine Bott sung a sparkling “Hark, Hark the Lark” (“Cymbeline”); a haunting “Pardon, Goddess of the Night” (“Much Ado about Nothing”); a setting by Maurice Greene of “Orpheus with his Lute” (“Henry VIII”), the second section of which changes to triple metre, recalling the shifting metres of the English madrigal; and, to close, a wonderful Chilcot setting of the same words, in which Bott’s voice was echoed by Brown’s flute against a backdrop of pizzicato strings, with the occasional harpsichord interjection.

Following a short interval, the third part began with a lively performance of William Corbett’s Suite in D, which originally served as an overture to a 1703 adaptation of “Twelfth Night”. I could have imagined the original audience talking openly amongst themselves while this charming music was being played, impatient for the show to begin. There followed two songs by Handel’s pupil John Christopher Smith, “You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongue” (from an adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and “Full Fathom Five” from a 1756 production of “The Tempest”. These were wonderfully evocative settings, with the former sounding like something from Purcell’s Fairie Queen and “Full Fathom” replete with pizzicato imitations of tolling bells. Bott’s voice was here at its most pure and resonant. This group ended with another Weldon setting, this time “Dry those Eyes which are o’er Flowing” from a 1712 “The Tempest”.

The final set, featuring some well-known and not-so-well-known settings by Thomas Arne, was prefaced by John Frederick Lampe’s ’Cuckoo’ Concerto in G. Here the bell-like purity of Rachel Brown’s flute came to the fore, most evident in the cuckoo motif, which was also echoed by the strings while Brown played extended trills, warbling away to her heart’s content. And there was plenty more work for her to do, her flute again echoing and duetting with Bott’s voice in Arne’s famous “When Daisies Pied and Violets Blue” from “Love’s Labour’s Lost”, the ’cuckoo’ elements executed with precision and to great comic effect by both performers. Three more Arne-settings followed, the last of which was “Where the Bee sucks there suck I”; this song was reprised as an encore.

This concert formed a vignette of post-Restoration theatre-music in London, giving some idea of the enormous variety of ways in which Shakespeare’s texts were adapted and embellished. The Parley of Instruments virtually brought the ghost of Garrick before our eyes by bringing alive the instrumental timbres of his time; Bott was thoroughly comfortable with the idiom, though her voice did tire (this was particularly noticeable in the lower register); Brown’s flute was sweetness itself. The Parley return to the Wigmore Hall on 21 May.

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