‘My Sweetest Choice’
A Recital of English Music from the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Rowena Simpson (soprano), Kamala Bain (recorders), Douglas Mews (harpsichord)
St. Andrew’s on The Terrace
Thursday, 9 February 2017, 5pm
When on Wednesday after the lunchtime concert someone drew my attention to a poster in St Andrew’s Church foyer, advertising a concert the following early evening, I was unaware of its provenance. It transpired that it was in association with the 11th Biennial Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Therefore the substantial audience was largely made up of delegates to this conference. It proved to be an intriguing sampler of unfamiliar music, beautifully performed, thanks in part to subtle rubati and tempi that were not too strict. For nearly an hour we were treated to delights not usually heard.
Each musician gave clear but brief introductions to the music they were about to perform, and the nicely produced printed programme included words of the songs and biographies of the performers. It was a pity that such a small typeface was used, but fitting everything into the space available, including a few artistic illustrations, was probably quite a feat.
Most of the pieces were quite short, giving the audience plenty of variety in a relatively short time. First was one for unaccompanied descant recorder by Jacob van Eyck (1590-1657) on the tune of The English Nightingale. There were certainly plenty of bird sounds in it. It made a great introit to the concert. Next was ‘The Primerose’ and ‘The Fall of the Leafe’ by Martin Peerson (c. 1571-1651), pieces for harpsichord, decorated by the recorder, in the second piece that was the tenor recorder. The contrast in timbres was most pleasing.
Moving forward in time, we encountered Henry Purcell (1659-95). Here were two ‘Grounds’, based on music and poems by others. The first, for harpsichord only, was delicate and charming, while the second, on ‘O Solitude’, the translation of the French words being by Katherine Philips (1632-1664). Rowena Simpson’s fine singing was enhanced by the splendid acoustic of St, Andrew’s Church, which was in part responsible for the clarity of the words and for this being the best I have heard her sing, in numbers of times and venues.
Some sprightly pieces followed, all accompanied by harpsichord, the first by John Adson with descant recorder, one by William Brade using the tenor instrument, then voice and tenor recorder in ‘I prithee send me back my heart’ by Henry Lawes, and finally an anonymous ‘Second Witches Dance’, a jolly quick and even quirky dance employing the descant recorder.
Godfrey Finger (1660-1730) I had never heard of, but his ‘Ground’ was well traversed by the quick fingers of Kamala Bain on the treble recorder. A familiar melody followed, in ‘Divisions on The Drunken Sailor’, an anonymous composition. Douglas Mews informed us that it predated publication of the well-known song., so perhaps the music was written before the words were. Its jollity lived up to the title.
Handel was the most celebrated composer represented in the concert and justly contributed the most music to the programme. Settings of extracts from Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso were sung. All were performed with great finesse, but also style and panache. The music never sounded ‘precious’. ‘Far from all resort of mirth’ was more intricate than the earlier songs by other composers. The treble recorder and the voice both had opportunity for melisma. The composer’s Suite in D minor (HWV 428) was played by Douglas Mews. He explained that its Prelude had an improvisatory style, while the Allegro was a lovely fugue in French style and the Air and Variations was a fast piece in this form. Mews’s articulation at the keyboard gave the Prelude life, lightness and vigour, while the Allegro was indeed lovely, and the final movement was fast and exciting.
Two more Milton poetry settings ended the concert in fine style. Simpson’s voice was throughout clear and absolutely accurate. ‘May at last my weary age’ was for voice and harpsichord only, and covered a wide range, but all was well managed. The last ‘Or let the merry bells ring round’, where the sopranino recorder joined in, was a suitably bell-like and happy conclusion to the concert.