Concert of rare 17th century instruments at New Zealand School of Music

New Zealand School of Music Te Koki

Sympathetic Strings

Music by Tobias Hume, Simon Ives, Geroge Loosemore, John Jenkins, Charles Colman, Thomas Ford, Christopher Simpson

Sarah Mead (lyra viols), Robert Oliver (bass viol), Kamala Bain (recorder), Erin Helyard (chamber organ and harpsichord)

Adam Concert Room

Wednesday, 18 March 2014, 8.15pm

Consisting entirely of English music from the seventeenth century, the concert brought unfamiliar sounds and compositions to light.  Sarah Mead is a visiting professor from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, while the other performers are well-known in Wellington for their advocacy and performance of early music.

Despite a programme note about the lyra viol and a brief explanation from Sarah Mead, I was left confused about this instrument, in view of the descriptions in the printed programme of which instruments were playing which pieces.

Perhaps it was assumed that the audience was made up of the cognoscenti, but I observed that this was not entirely the case.  The printed programme, both in the programme note and in the title of the concert, gave the impression that much of the music to be played would be on instruments with sympathetic strings; that was not the case.  There was no specific note about the lyra viol without these additional seven strings.

A brief conversation with Robert Oliver after the performance helped to clear some of the confusion: the lyra viol is not solely an instrument having sympathetic strings.  However, I observed Robert Oliver playing the same instrument in every piece, despite the designations “2 lyra viols”, “lyra viol, bass viol” after various pieces.

At home I resorted to Grove, where I learned that the lyra viol ‘differed little from the standard bass viol’. Elsewhere, ‘…nothing more than a bass viol of small dimensions with some quite minor peculiarities of adjustment.’  The lyra with sympathetic strings is dismissed: ‘There were some attempts to use sympathetic strings but with no lasting influence.’

A major difference from the music for most other instruments is that traditionally, tablature was used to indicate where the fingers should be placed to obtain the notes in a piece of music written for lyra viol, rather than conventional music notation being used. With movable gut frets, a great variety of tunings can be achieved – by this means as well as by use of the tuning pegs; thus tablature was found to be a means of coping not only with the number of strings (6), but also with variant tunings.  Several different tunings were utilised in the concert.

The instruments could be both bowed and plucked, including plucking with the left hand.  The bow hold was with the palm upwards, rather than the hand bearing down on the strings as is the case with the violin family (although some double bass players use the older method).  I noticed that Sarah Mead held the bow nearer to the frog (or nut) than did Robert Oliver.

The programme commenced with four pieces by Tobias Hume (c.1569-1645).  I found the sound of the instrument played by Sarah Mead rather grunty; she was playing the lower part.  The last of the short pieces was a song; Robert Oliver sang as well as playing.  This piece had a modest continuo part from the chamber organ.

Simon Ives (1600-1662) was the next composer; we heard his Almaine for solo lyra viol, and this time we had the lyra viol with sympathetic strings, and its interesting-looking scroll.
It featured plucking with the left hand as well as bowing; it was fascinating to watch Sarah Mead’s playing.  This instrument emitted more tone than the previous instrument, despite this one having a smaller body.

George Loosemore (?-1682) was represented by two dances: Pavan and Country Dance. The tenor recorder made a quite lovely sound in these, while the subdued harpsichord continuo nevertheless contributed splendidly.

John Jenkins (1592-1678) contributed an Ayre for solo lyra viol, followed by a Pavan Coranto for recorder and viols.  There was plenty of character in these dances, especially from the recorder;  Kamala Bain’s playing was beautifully phrased.

Another short solo for the lyra viol was a Coranto by Charles Colman (1605-1664).  In these solos we heard the higher pitched sounds of the instruments, and were able to observe more of the playing techniques in use.

Between several of the brackets, Erin Helyard played delightful little interludes on the harpsichord, improvised upon the music about to be played.  The ‘Sette’ for the music of Thomas Ford (d. 1648) was described as ‘Bandora Sette’, but this was not explained.
Once again, Grove came to my rescue later, concerning this instrument (also known as pandora).  ‘The Bagpipes’ was quite an intricate piece, but the next two pieces were troubled by some wonky intonation.  I found Ford’s writing lacking in inspiration; what was my surprise on consulting Grove to find the author of the article agreeing with me that some of his works were rather dull!

Christopher Simpson (c.1605-1669) was represented by three dances: Pavan, Allemande and Saraband, played by all four instruments.  The last was lively, featuring admirable phrasing.

John Jenkins returned with firstly, a solo Almain, ‘The Wagge’.  This was pretty demanding to play, and came off very well, as did the last piece, ‘Ecco Coranto’, for all the instruments.  It was bright and animated, with pleasing contrasts.  Again, the recorder playing was brilliant, whereas I often found the lyra viol tone harsh.

Altogether, however, this was an interesting and varied introduction to unfamiliar stringed instruments.

As a footnote: I enjoyed on the radio earlier the same day a concert from NZSM recorded in May 2012, featuring Erin Helyard (in one piece), but particularly Dutch visitor Bart van Oort, on fortepiano.  His playing was quite wonderful, with graded dynamics, beautiful phrasing and use of rubato another example of the commitment of NZSM to early music.