Shakespeare in Song – choral settings by Cantoris conducted by Rachel Hyde

Songs from the plays; Sonnet No 18; and other songs by Gibbons and Ramsey

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Saturday 20 November 2.30pm

Here was a most interesting programme, introduced in an engaging manner by conductor Rachel Hyde, who attempted to demonstrate the essential musical quality of Shakespeare’s language and the way in which music permeated Shakespeare’s work and Tudor society in general. For example, she said that someone had counted some 300 musical stage directions in the plays.

To her credit, Hyde kept away from the most common settings of the songs, though many might have waited for them: the agenda was choral settings, so no Finzi or Quilter, no Schubert or Brahms or Mendelssohn; no Tippett and Britten; or less familiar names like Frank Martin, Amy Beach, William Mathias; New Zealanders David Farquhar and David Hamilton are just two who have set the songs – the latter for choir; instead, American and Finnish composers seemed to dominate.

There was nothing from the huge number of operas based on the plays.

One of the curious sidelights to which Rachel Hyde drew attention was that almost all the songs in the plays were written for minor characters, whose role it was to entertain or divert rather than to advance the story; and she expressed doubt, in the event justified, about the success of setting the blank verse of some of the great episodes. She mentioned Komulainen’s ‘To be or not to be’, and I agreed – it quite lacked Hamlet’s profound self-questioning anguish. The only one of that group of four that found tolerable musical setting was ‘O weary night’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

All but one of the songs (William Schuman’s ‘Orpheus with his lute’) were unaccompanied; the Schumann sounded distinctly more secure than some the others, and it made me wonder about the usefulness of denying such support to amateur singers, especially when the choir is small.

Schuman’s fine song set words from Henry VIII, believed to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher. The words struck me, indeed, as lacking Shakespeare’s verbal whimsy.

Many of the songs were either melodically devious with sequences of taxing intervals, or harmonically testing, all of which caused intonation difficulties and some less than precise ensemble and articulation, evident in songs like Lindberg’s ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ (Sonnet 18), or Vaughan Williams’s ‘Over hill, over dale’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The more successful setting of Sonnet 18 was by Robert Appelbaum, capturing a sunny spirit, the music interesting but not too difficult so the choir sounded comfortable.

I approved of the decision not to print the words in the programme, which leads to the prospect from the choir’s side of the tops of heads buried in programmes. Instead, choir members read the lyrics before the performance, some well, some not so well. But it was an excellent idea.

Hyde warned us about the John Rutter setting of ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from As You Like It; it was a good start, sounding barber-shop, using bass voices to simulate a string bass underlay, singing ‘Doo-wa-doo’, the modern equivalent of ‘Hey nonny nonny’.

There were two probably non-Shakespearean songs. The first was by Orlando Gibbons, ‘What is our life?’ After the somewhat superficial group by Komulainen, it came as a piece of genuine musical inspiration, though the reduced, and so more exposed, choir did it less than justice. ‘Sleep fleshly birth’ by Jacobean composer Robert Ramsey was again accorded to a smaller ensemble which made intonation less secure and the pulse more difficult to maintain.

There were two songs by American composer Matthew Harris, one of the three settings of ‘It was a lover and his lass’. It, and his other song, ‘Take, O, take those lips away’ from Measure for Measure which brought the concert to an end, were among the more successful as music, and the choir delivered full, confident sound.

There were a couple of other groups, as well as the aforementioned Komulainen’s: Vaughan Williams’s three settings and four by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. The Vaughan Williams songs did not generally impress me, though ‘The cloud-capped towers’ from The Tempest captured its misty gothic turrents. Another was ‘Full fathom five’, also from The Tempest, but I enjoyed more its setting by Mäntyjärvi – the penultimate song in the concert.

‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ from Macbeth was also in this Mäntyjärvi group; its words were recited by a French choir member whose accent lent it a curiously covenish effect; and the music, too, caught its atmosphere most effectively.

Such an imaginative undertaking deserved good support and the audience of perhaps a hundred responded well.

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