A world in a grain of sand – Pepe Becker and Stephen Pickett at Futuna



15th, 16th, and17th Century Songs of love and life,

from Italy, England, France and Spain

Pepe Becker (soprano)

Stephen Pickett (lute and chitarrino)

Futuna Chapel , Friend Street, Karori

Sunday 9th December 2012

All that was needed for perfection to be had in this concert was a more substantial audience – but for one reason or another, people stayed away. Perhaps it was the weather – when Wellington turns on a beautiful day, it’s a place to be out and about like no other, and the prospect of an indoor concert, however felicitous, becomes proportionally less inviting. Still, it was an event whose qualities led one to recall those reproving words from Henry V – “and Gentlemen of England now abed / shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here….”

True, there’s been a superabundance of great concerts in the Wellington region throughout the year, and faced with the delights of such weather, many otherwise committed concert-goers could well have reflected upon cups that “runneth over” and chosen something different this time round. But the much bandied-about “arts capital” epithet which Wellingtonians are certainly proud to own by dint of location did receive a dent, or at least a paintwork scratch in this case, in my opinion. Whatever may have been the alternatives, world-class performances such as what we handful of audience members present heard from Pepe Becker and Stephen Pickett deserved better support than this.

This was my second visit to Futuna Chapel for a concert of recent times, and the venue again worked its unique magic, helping to impart a timeless feeling to the musicians’ explorations of music from distant times and places, and bringing the sounds triumphantly to life for our twenty-first century ears. The acoustic and general ambience admirably suited Pepe Becker’s voice and Stephen Pickett’s accompaniments, catching all of us present up in the music’s world and allowing its full force and flavour, thanks in equal measure to the skills of these performers.

The concert began with a short instrumental solo played on the lute by Stephen Pickett, a Ricercar by Joan Ambrosio Dalza, whose was a composer-name new to me – the work was published in 1508, which goes some of the way towards explaining my ignorance. From this uncommonly elegant beginning we moved to the first song, by Antonio Caprioli, Quella Bella e Bianco Mano (“That fair white hand”), in which love is depicted as both a wounding and a healing experience – beautifully performed.

Pepe Becker welcomed us graciously to the concert, expressing pleasure and gratitude at our attendance (for our part, as an audience, I think we felt embarrassed at our lack of real numbers, but both musicians quickly put us at our ease!). In fact, we were treated like kings and queens throughout, with song following beautiful song as if in some kind of “dream-ritual”. Especially evocative was this first “Mediterranean” bracket, with the soft, musical Hispanic word-sounds in particular adding to the general romantic effect – the last two songs of the group presented different aspects of the Spanish character, the first, by Miguel de Fuenliana, Passevase ei rey moro, a lament for the “Alhambra” in Granada, declamatory and serious in intent; and the second energetic and celebratory, Juan Encina’s dance-like Hoy comamos y bebamos, (“Today we eat and drink”), a roistering song complete with clapping and dance movements.

Stephen Pickett changed from the guitar to the lute for the bracket of English songs, introduced by a piece for solo lute Go from My Window, and followed by John Dowland’s Flow My Tears, with Pepe Becker opening the vocal throttle and suffusing the ambience with glorious resonant tones. If the singer paid rather less attention to word-pointing and more to a sense of  flooding the listeners’ sensibilities with sorrowful sounds, the latter carried the day triumphantly. Robert Johnson’s Hark, hark ,the Lark was also splendidly delivered, with a trio of lovely bird-like ascents to the tops of the phrases, each better than the last. A stratospheric Willow Song from the Dallis Lute Book of 1583 completed the bracket in beautifully bell-like style.

“Charlatans and Mountebanks” was the intriguing title of the next bracket (courtesy of a description (1619) by Michael Praetorius of music made by comedians and clowns), beginning with a solo by Stephen Pickett on the guitar-like chitarrino, and then plunging us into the no-emotional-holds-barred world of Barbara Strozzi, with the singer declaiming wonderfully melismatic lines high and low, stressing different rhythm-points in a way that created occasional mini-tensions, all to a passacaglia-like accompaniment – like much of this fascinating composer-performer’s music, the lines wept, raged and just as quickly dissolved once again. An instrumental Fantasia terza by Melchior Barberiis nicely effected a contrast with the following dance-song, Amor ch’attendi by Giulio Caccini, the singer augmenting the music’s energy and colour with a drum.

With Music for a While by Henry Purcell the musicians concluded eponymously both the final bracket of items and the entire concert, a section which featured as well works for voice by Merula, Monteverdi and Strozzi (again). Some of these were the most overtly expressive of the afternoon, Tarquinio Merula’s Canzonetta sopra la nanna for one, an extraordinarily doom-laden and fate-ridden lament by a mother made over a sleeping child, to an insistently “sighing” lute accompaniment, singing and playing which I found riveting in its intensity. Another was Claudio Monteverdi’s Ohimè, ch’io cado, energetic and volatile, with Pepe Becker demonstrating an exhilarating combination of force and focus over a wide-ranging terrain of emotion. The third of the “trio of intensity” was Barbara Strozzi’s somewhat suggestively-titled L’eraclito Amoroso, a conceit for despairing lovers, with different rhythmic trajectories underlining the spontaneity of thought and impulse, and words like “piangere” brought out and beautifully coloured by the singer. Altogether, a real “tour de force” of vocal expression from Pepe Becker, alternating beautifully “held” lines, with passionately delivered recitative, and holding us in thrall throughout.

As well that Purcell came to the rescue of our somewhat tenderized sensibilities at the very end – here was emotion cleansed of all excess, and rarefied as a pure stream of melody. No wonder he was so esteemed by his contemporaries – his setting of Dryden’s and Nathaniel Lee’s words, presented here by singer and player, persuaded we listeners that , indeed, “beauty is truth, truth, beauty…” and seemed to soothe for a brief time in our lives the sea of the world’s troubles.






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