Sweet Dreams from The Song Company

The Song Company – Chamber Music New Zealand

English and Italian Madrigals: William Byrd, John Wilbye, Thomas Weelkes,

Thomas Vautour, Claudio Monteverdi

Horatio Vecchi – A Night in Siena

Peter Sculthorpe – Maranoa Lullaby

Jack Body – Five Lullabies/Three Dreams and A Nightmare

Anon. – Israeli Lullaby

The Song Company, directed by Roland Peelman

Anna Fraser, Louise Prickett – sopranos / Lanneke Wallace-Wells – mezzo-soprano / Richard Black – tenor / Mark Donnelly – baritone / Clive Birch – bass

Town Hall, Wellington

Saturday 16th October, 2010

I spent the first part of this concert luxuriating in some glorious madrigal singing from the talented Australian vocal ensemble The Song Company, touring the country under the auspices of Chamber Music New Zealand. The ensemble’s programming enabling me to enjoy and marvel at both the similarities and differences between the English and Italian schools of renaissance vocal composition. The English group, which began the programme, contained some exquisite gems, from the heartfelt immediacy and world-within-a-flower simplicity of John Wilbye’s Draw On, Sweet Night, to the virtuoso inventiveness of Thomas Weelkes’ Thule, the period of cosmography, the group encompassing and beautifully expressing both kinds of intensities and fluidities. Wilbye’s major-minor colourings and antiphonal dynamic variations were most sensitively given, readily evoking the chiaroscuro of both outer and inner worlds commented on in the excellent programme notes. By contrast, Thomas Weelkes’ writing suffused the soundscape with intricate dovetailings and overlappings of tones and rhythms, beguiling one’s ear with echo and contrast, the unbridled mock-satire of Ha!Ha!This world doth pass a kind of Dionysian jest on the opposite end of the see-saw from the idiosyncratic philosophy of Thule. And I loved the sharp-etched character of Sweet Suffolk Owl, with its “te whit, te whoo-ings”, the group’s articulation and dynamism making the most of Thomas Vautour’s vivid portraiture of an iconic bird.

It’s probably too simplistic to declare that the main difference between the two madrigal schools seems to be the actual sound of each language; but the liquidity and sonority of those Italian vowels seemed straightaway to add a whole tonal dimension to the music – a different kind of intensity, rather less subtle, but richer and darker-toned seemed to me to come across almost straight away. The gloriously declamatory Sfogava con le stelle, with its evocation of the beauties of the night sky, milks the rhetoric to stunning effect, the singers full-toned and committed throughout. No less heartfelt was the following Si, ch’io vorei morire (the text’s erotic suggestiveness adding to the emotional charge), ascending sequences and repetitions in thirds heightening the expressive power of it all. Momentary relief was at hand from the weather and its interplay with the rest of Creation, with Zefiro torna, though the initial gaiety and playfulness of the nature-descriptions suddenly gave way to darkness and despair as poet and composer bemoaned the loss of the beloved amid Springtime’s felicities – the setting’s final line stretched the music’s expressivity almost to its limit before the heart-stopping final resolution. Mercifully, Oimè, se tanto amate and Amorosa pupilletta were better-humoured, the first giving rise to amusement with its repeated mock-serious “Oh my!”s, and the second featuring a drum accompaniment and wordless Swingle Singers-like “do-do-do-dos” providing a rhythmic carriage for a sombre dance of longing, beginning with a solo, then a duet, and then the ensemble, the singing keeping the impulses of feeling nicely ebbing and flowing throughout.

The group’s director Roland Peelman introduced Horatio Vecchi’s entertainment A Night in Siena, composed in 1604, a kind of musical catalogue of instructions for people to follow a game of mimicry – as the programme note puts it, “a 16th-Century version of musical theatre-sports”. I found the spoken introduction difficult to properly hear, so the programme note and texts of the songs were life-savers. The sequences were most entertaining, poking gentle (and, topically, probably not-so-gentle) fun at different types of people, be they travellers from other lands or simple girls from the country. One didn’t have to “read between the lines” to glean prevailing native attitudes towards these people, the German imitation taking us remarkably close to Basil Fawlty’s “Don’t Mention the War!” by the end, and the introduction to the exotic Spaniard persona making naughty reference to his abilities “as a very cunning linguist”. It was all tremendously good-humoured fun, the quasi-Spanish “effects” to finish rousing the participants (and their audience) to great enthusiasm, and a warm reception at the end.

After the interval the focus shifted from nocturnal entertainments both amatory and theatrical to the earnest business of sleep itself, by way of lullabies, dreams and nightmares. Peter Sculthorpe’s arresting Maranoa Lullaby fully exploited the spacious ambiences of the Town Hall, with the singers stationed at various points around the gallery. Dramatic lighting heightened the impact of each voice, the opening single-voiced bell-accompanied lullaby (originally an indigenous melody collected in Queensland during the 1930s) counterpointed by the other voices, all taking turns to add their melodic strands to the tapestry. A plaintive, strident episode caught up these strands and pulled them tightly together, focusing and hardening the harmonies, before bringing the work back to the unison theme once again. The whole sequence created a dream-like inner world which, despite its short duration, cast a powerful and evocative spell.

More complex and discursive, but with comparable subconscious explorations in places was the clever fusion of two works by Jack Body, the older (1989) Five Lullabies now interspersed with the freshly-commissioned Three Dreams and a Nightmare. The “invented” word-sounds of each of the lullabies demonstrated the composer’s interest in different folk-idioms and traditions relating to chant, while the dream/nightmare sequences explored the subconscious realms of sleep itself, using poetry by authors such as Shakespeare and ee cummings set with marvellously-wrought accompaniments, both vocal and instrumental – I loved the wordless exhilaration of the first Dream, Flying, with its vertiginous lurching and gong-like tintinnabulations, the singers occasionally sounding warning sirens in close proximity to reefs on treacherous sea-coasts. This was followed by the impulsive and volatile Brain worm, involving endlessly inventive vocalisings, layered, multi-harmonied and seemingly tireless. Throughout, the Lullabies gave a continuing “fled is that music?” ambience to the work’s progressions, rather like arias between recitatives, so that the saucy eroticism of ee cummings’ poem may I feel had an extra element of fantasy which for me gave those somewhat outrageous Rochester-like physicalities a more poignant, escapist connection (then again, perhaps I was simply feeling my age!)….still, those glass harmonica-like sounds, together with the volatile seduction-vocalisings made the whole Erotique episode properly suggestive and delightful.

The Nightmare pulsated and palpitated appropriately, the performance virtuoso in its control of detail and atmosphere, with drums and woodblocks beating out obsessive rhythms, threatening inescapable and intransient anarchic realms familiar to all who have experienced such disturbances – the poetry, well-known from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, evoked that wondrous imagery of “the cloud-capp’d towers” yoked with the stuff of dreams, the ensuing vocal writing suggesting a similar wonderment at the words’ fusion of the timeless and the ephemeral. Interesting that a composer would come back to an existing work and augment it thus – though there was a lot going on both in an immediate and a cumulative way, the contrasts had the effect of refocusing the listeners’ attentions and drawing them ever onwards.

Both the anonymous Israeli lullaby which followed, and the Eurythmics-inspired encore, brought us back from the labyrinth-passages of the subconscious sufficiently to enable us to properly and whole-heartedly register our approval at the end of the concert – the Song Company gave us “Sweet Dreams” which were entertaining, enchanting and inspirational.

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