Wit, theatricality and food for thought from Affetto, in Lower Hutt

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents:
AFFETTO – early music ensemble
“A Play Upon Words” – settings of texts with music of various kinds…..

Jane Tankersley (soprano), with Polly Sussex (viols, baroque ‘cello),
Rachael Griffiths-Hughes (harpsichord)
Philip Grifin (theorbo/baroque guitar),  Peter Reid (cornetto, baroque trumpet)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 8th July 2015

An unexpected “bonus” for me, during this enterprising and innovative concert by the early music ensemble Affetto in St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, came midway through – just before the interval, actually – when the ensemble played Henry Purcell’s rousing Lilliburlero. I hadn’t heard the tune for years (the last time was when I went to see Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1975 film “Barry Lyndon” which used the melody as a rousing ceremonial marching tune). But I remembered it from much earlier days –  from the radio back in my childhood – when it was used as an advertising ditty, to the words, “Make your floors and furniture clean / always use Tanol Polishing Cream!” (see below)…….

I mention this as only one of the many (and varied) delights of the group’s presentation, all of which sprang to life with considerable élan for the enjoyment and pleasure of those of us who had braved the elements to get to the concert. Despite occasional bouts of ambient noise-background from a roof rattling from the southerly wind-gusts, the evening’s “ballads, songs and snatches” came across to us with plenty of feeling, colour and excitement.

Drawing from music written and well-known during the 17th Century, the programme featured a mixture of vocal and instrumental pieces, the choices designed to show how composers of that time were inspired by ideas stemming from the new art-form of opera, creating word-settings with considerable dramatic and theatrical emphasis to convey specific feelings or paint particular pictures or scenes.

The composers’ names were a mixture of the well-known – Henry Purcell, John Dowland, William Byrd, Jeremiah Clarke, John Blow and the great George Friedrich Handel – along with a number I’d never heard of – Diego Ortiz, Farbritio Caroso de Sermoneta, Andrea Falconieri, and Gaspar Sanz, plus one or two whose names were known to me but whose music I had little idea of – Tarquinio Merula, William Young, and Henry Eccles. And amidst all of “the old” was a “new” piece by New Zealand composer Janet Jennings, a setting of words spoken by Lady Macbeth (in Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”) with the title Exultation.

Well, we were well-and-truly taken upon a journey, one whose many and varied stages were simply too numerous and wide-ranging to catalogue in full, and therefore requiring a certain “highlighting” selection process from me, the hapless critic! That said, it was the variety of presentation which struck me most forcibly and memorably throughout the evening – and a friend whom I’d taken with me to the concert agreed that it was all “rich and strange and ever-changing”!

Central to the enterprise was soprano Jayne Tankersley, well-known to Wellington audiences for her voice’s brilliance and beauty in repertoire such as Monteverdi’s Vespers and his sets of madrigals, as well as Faure’s Requiem. Here she seemed just as truly in her element as a performer, displaying similar qualities of total involvement in the music and engagement with the various texts.

Whether conveying the implaccable arrival of the Day of Judgement with stentorian tones (Awake, awake, O England!), the sweetness and despair of a lover’s sorrow in the guitar-accompanied Dowland song I saw my Lady weep, or the fury and scorn of a drunkard’s wife in Henry Eccles’ Drunken Dialogue (sung as a riotous duet with Philip Grifin), her voice “carried” all of the different qualities needed to make words and music come alive in each case. Only in Henry Purcell’s Bess of Bedlam was the singer’s impact blunted by too far-back a placement on the platform.

So she was able to convey a good deal of Queen Dido’s tragic stature in the character’s final aria from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the lament forward-moving, dignified and graceful as befits a monarch – some might have felt the performance perhaps a shade TOO forward-moving. But, a few minutes afterwards, she was duetting with cornettist Peter Reid in a rendition of happier music from Purcell, “Sound the Trumpet” from Come Ye Sons of Art – originally for two counter-tenors, the arrangement of voice and cornetto worked splendidly, the “other voice” effectively worked into an instrumental rendition.

An additional delight were the instruments on display by dint of their sounds as well as their appearance – we heard a range of tones and timbres throughout the evening which were far removed from the relatively manicured sounds made by their modern equivalents. I’ve already mentioned the cornetto, a straight, clarinet-length conical-shaped horn, whose notes were made by a combination of finger-holes and lip-pressure (its sound in my mind forever associated with music accompanying performances of Elizabethan drama, Shakespeare first and foremost of them).

Peter Reid also sported a “baroque trumpet”, another instrument relying on lip-pressure exerted by the player, splendid in effect but obviously treacherous to try and play accurately! We enjoyed a cobbled-together assemblage called the “English Trumpet Suite”, including a couple of Baroque “pops” such as the Trumpet Voluntary (long attributed to Purcell, but more recently to Jeremiah Clarke, as The Prince of Denmark’s March), as well as Handel’s stirring “La Rejouissance” from his Royal Fireworks Music. Thrills and spills there were aplenty, but it was a throughly invigorating listening experience.

If the other instruments were less “prominent” it was because their function was largely to support the continuo (figured bass) part of each item, though in some of the instrumental pieces prominence in some sequences was allowed instruments like the harpsichord, the bass viol and the baroque guitar. Philip Grifin, the guitarist, also played the theorbo, a kind of “extended” lute (the instrument was actually made in this country), its extended bass notes needing a fretboard of considerable (and even alarming!) length, the player having to bear in mind the risk of unexpectedly decapitating any of his fellow-musicians who wandered too close during excitable moments!

Together with Polly Sussex’s bass viol and baroque ‘cello, and Rachael Griffiths-Hughes’ harpsichord, the musicians brought their innate grace, charm and vigour to things like the Ciaconna L’Eroica (whose composer, Andrea Falconieri, I’d never head of) with its fascinatingly interlocking lines, and in their interactions with the voice throughout parts of Purcell’s Of All the Instruments – incidentally, I wonder if Jayne Tankersley knows John Bartlett’s Sweete Birdes deprive us never, an “entertainment” for soprano voice and lute that would have “sat” beautifully in this programme…….

A brief word concerning the one piece of contemporary music in the programme, written for the group by Waikato-based Janet Jennings – a work for soprano and ensemble exploring the character of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. The group performed the opening movement of this five-part work, one depicting Lady Macbeth’s ruthless determination to make her husband King of Scotland. The music’s ceremonial, cornetto-led opening cleverly took our sensibilities back in time, before reflecting the character’s murderous, determined intent with haunting, close-knit harmonies and convolted chromatic lines for both singer and the ensemble, the music chillingly underlining the strength of the text’s concluding statement “We’ll not fail”. On this evidence, what a compelling entertainment the whole work promised to be!

During the interval we were invited to “inspect the goods” at closer quarters, and so had a lovely time examining the intricacies of the theory and the simplicities of the cornet and baroque trumpet, the experience giving more girth to our appreciate of the sounds wrought for us by this talented ensemble. Afterwards, we felt pleased and delighted that the wishes of the group, as expressed in the accompanying notes – to create “a very entertaining program of lively, poignant, and uplifting music” – had been so satisfyingly realized.

P.S. Appendix 1. (I had to search for this, to make sure my memory wasn’t playing me false…….!)

 Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XLVIII, 3 March 1913, Page 2

“Wise grocers everywhere stock TANOL – the polish of polishers!
It makes bright homes, happy wives,  and contented husbands. 
Order a tin today! – Liquid 1s, Paste 6d “




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