PCM2: Tenebrae [Gibbons, Philips & Martland]

The Cryes of London
First Set of Madrigals and Motets of Five Parts [selections: The Silver Swan; O, that the learned poets; Fair is the rose]
Julian Philips
Sorowfull Songes [BBC commission: world premiere]
Steve Martland
Street Songs [selections: Oranges and Lemons; Green Gravel; Jenny Jones; Poor Roger]

Grace Davidson (soprano) [Gibbons madrigals]
Rob Farrer (marimba) [Martland]
The Rose Consort of Viols
Nigel Short

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 23 July, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Nigel ShortThe theme connecting this second recital in the Proms Chamber Music series was London Town, bearing in mind the opening of the Olympics later this same week. The link was not always so obvious, whether in the Gibbons madrigals or in the new piece by Julian Philips. One wonders if some English folksongs, as arranged by Vaughan Williams or Holst, might not have represented the capital more exactly. That said the line-up could not be faulted for its imagination.

The music of Orlando Gibbons is now four hundred years old and counting in the case of The Cryes of London, published approximately between 1610 and 1616. The text given in the programme did not match the order of that given in the performance, however. It took the ear, accustomed as it is to modern language and its pitfalls, a while to adjust to the text, which is essentially a collection of calls and answers as if heard across a market. Tenebrae characterised these nicely, the different timbres of their voices relating to individual stallholders, though some had notably more projection than others, with Richard Savage a fulsome bass voice. The Rose Consort of Viols in accompaniment were controlled and graceful, though overall the performance did not always represent the bustling activity described in the copy.

Soprano Grace Davidson then gave three madrigals, published in 1612, beginning with Gibbons’s most famous, The silver swan. She presented these with a purity of tone that was rather fetching, and her control of vibrato was a helpful expressive device, though she could have projected a little more above the consort, whose delicately woven counterpoint was a highlight of Fair is the rose.

Julian Philips (born 1969) gave a helpful introduction to Sorowfull Songes as a study of “the fragility of human happiness”. His objective was to explore connections to Gibbons, doing so with settings of texts from the 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt. The harmonies in ‘The lover hopeth of better chance’ were close but clear, the treble sonorities of Tenebrae particularly attractive, the whole choir then drawing out the final sentence to great effect. Philips’s response to the text is vivid throughout, though there was a similar soundworld between each of the six songs, largely middle to upper register.

The texts for four of Steve Martland’s Street Songs also expressed the macabre, this time through nursery rhymes. The almost constant reference to the dead or dying became a little off-putting; this particular vision of London is shot through with downward phrases. However, Martland’s setting of the familiar ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is striking and original, hewing the words in a reference to the “chopper to chop off your head”. The effect, when combined with the bright tone of Rob Farrer’s marimba, was akin to listening to music through a keyhole, with the fragility of children’s verse thrown into incisive context by jerky rhythms. Farrer used the lower register of the marimba to good effect in the following ‘Green Gravel’, though there was less rhythmic definition here, a result of Martland blurring the edges. Again the delivery of bad news was unceremonious, the words “Mary your true love is dead” given out matter of fact. ‘Jenny Jones’ was still more inward-looking and downtrodden, the extended lament heading for its inevitable conclusion with a slow and stately progression of motifs – moving indeed in a performance as accomplished as this. Thankfully ‘Poor Roger’ – another dead man – was on hand to add much-needed humour.

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