Bringing viols to life: the BBC Singers and Fretwork at Cadogan Hall

Orlando Gibbons     O clap your hands together
William Byrd            Christ rising again; Fantasia a5 (canon 2 in 1)
Christopher Tye       Christ is rising again from the dead
Thea Musgrave        Wild Winter
Orlando Gibbons     The cries of London; What is our life?; In Nomine a5, No. 2; Behold, thou hast made my days
Nico Muhly               My days

The BBC Singers
Fretwork
Andrew Carwood
conductor

A concert at Cadogan Hall could never replicate the Tudor setting for the consort songs composed by English composers William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. But this performance by the BBC Singers and the viol consort Fretwork did at least allow us to imagine (however inaccurately) what listening to this music in its original context might have been like.

Fretwork

Viol consort Fretwork

However, this was not a concert trapped in the past. Fretwork showed that their viols were not mere predecessors to our modern strings, but instruments with their own distinctive sound. This was  evident in the two purely instrumental works: Byrd’s Fantasia a 5 and Gibbons’ In Nomine a 5, No. 2. They offered a precious glimpse of a musical practice now lost: of courtly friends gathering to make music for the sheer pleasure of it. This was what gave their performance such a wonderful intimate quality, as if one were eavesdropping on their private social affair.

The BBC Singers alone were given the task of opening the concert. Their sound was full, but they were too quiet to capture of the joyfulness of Gibbons’ O clap your hands together. There was some nervous rushing too. Though this piece should be brisk, it requires space for its intricacies to be heard. It took until Christopher Tye’s anthem Christ is rising again from the dead for the BBC Singers to enjoy sinking into their sound. The tenors and basses creeping in for the words ‘For as by Adam all men do die’ was particularly sumptuous.

By the second half, the BBC Singers were more at ease. Gibbons’ Cries of London is an amusing mix of the composer’s own high academic style and the sound London street criers. The soloists had excellent declamation and captured the quirky accents from the London streets. I only wish that the singers had been brought in front of the viols for a more direct line of communication, ensuring none of the jokes were lost.

Gibbons’ madrigal What is our life? returned to bleaker themes. It sets words by Sir Walter Raleigh, written in the Tower of London on the eve of his execution. Conductor Andrew Carwood carefully built up the texture, from a few voices to the whole choir in many parts, gently enticing each new part in. Yet he had no qualms over bringing the singers back down for the poignant words ‘Our graves that hide us from the searching sun’. It was a reminder that Gibbons was not only an expert sacred composer, but could also produce some of the most poetic settings of English text.

These considered performances brought these Tudor consort songs to life. Yet Fretwork were equally comfortable with the contemporary. In Thea Musgrave’s Wild Winter, viols were no longer blended smoothly with voices but were an unnerving presence, writhing beneath. But out of the two contemporary works, Nico Muhly’s My Days embraced the sonic possibilities of voices and viols most effectively. Wild Winter is reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. It shares a similar topic in commemorating the Siege of Lichfield, and using lines from Wilfred Owen’s poetry makes analogies unavoidable. With My Days, however, Muhly’s sympathetic treatment of the medium allows him to create his own voice. The entrance of the voices for the first time was a special moment. After a spikey opening from the treble and alto viols, the voices entered with the lower viols mirroring them. It produced an extraordinarily warm sound. Voices and viols blended becoming a single voice with a beautiful resonance from the added layer of viols.

My Days was first performed in 2012 and it has yet to be recorded. I would listen to it now whilst this performance is still available on iplayer. Lets hope it is captured on disc soon.

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