Baroque Voices’ “Bingen to Becker” a harmonious celebration

Baroque Voices presents:
BINGEN TO BECKER (Vocal music from the 12th to the 21st Century)

A Concert of Music by Hildegard von Bingen, Morley, Dowland, Hume, Monteverdi, Poulenc, Durufle, Pepe Becker, Jack Body, Constantini, Handel, Annea Lockwood, and Anon/Trad…..

Baroque Voices: Pepe Becker (director), Anna Sedcole, Jane McKinlay, Rowena Simpson, Andrea Cochrane, Katherine Hodge (with Robert Oliver – bass viol)

The Third Eye – Tuatara’s Temple of Taste, Arthur St., Te Aro, Wellington

Sunday 16th August, 2020

Thanks to a newly-emerged Covid-19 chapter in Auckland we were a precautionary “restricted” audience for this concert, but of good cheer, nevertheless, with convivial company and food and drink available at the venue, the evocatively-named “The Third Eye – Tuatara’s Temple of Taste”, from out of which scenario “emerged” the musicians, informally dressed and congregating at the platform end of the listening-space, six singers and a bass violist, all as relaxed as if spontaneously inspired to entertain the company! By way of settling both the ensemble and its audience in, we were treated straightaway to the programme’s first two items, the first something of a “Pepe Becker Special”, Hildegard of Bingen’s O ignis spiritus, the soprano having made Hildegard’s resonant, ecstatic vocal lines music very much her own of late in these parts, and deservedly so – this was followed by an anonymous 14th-Century 3-part Canon “O Virgo Splendens” whose catchy dance-rhythms combined sacred worship and secular energy in a wholly delightful way, the ensemble’s six voices imitating a flowing river of streamlets intertwining and separating within the irresistible flow of the whole.

The introduction having “cleared” all throat and nasal (singers) and auricular (listeners) passages, Becker officially welcomed us to the concert, intended as a 25th Birthday affair for the ensemble, but “extended” to being closer to a 26th  celebration by dint of the aforementioned worldwide events exerting their influence to within Aotearoa’s shores. She talked about the concert’s themes, the items prominently figuring both love and death, and suggesting that, with humanity still in the grip of an on-going ailment, the music was expressing something of where we all were at present. Thomas Morley’s Arise, get up, my dear appropriately “revitalised” the programme from this point onwards, the singing confidently resounding through the range of tones from the altos’ beginning phrases to the silvery utterances of the sopranos at the top. “Semper Dowland semper dolens” went the name of one of the composer’s songs, and came to characterize Dowland’s oeuvre in the public’s mind – and Can she excuse my wrongs? proved no exception to this mood, Pepe Becker’s plaintive tones given a sure trajectory by Robert Oliver’s nimble accompaniments.  The changes were further rung by Oliver’s sure-fingered solo rendition of Tobias Hume’s A Pavin, featuring some extremely deft double-stopping enlivening the second part of the dance’s ritual of elegant sobriety!

Again Dowland figured with a characteristically-titled song Flow my tears, the Becker/Oliver combination suitably sombre in effect, the soprano doing well in a vocal range I wouldn’t have associated with her natural gifts, achieving dignity and clarity – the second half of the song brought forth a degree of liberation into the light, with phrases such as “Hark! – you shadows!” ringing out clearly. What a difference in every way was wrought by Monteverdi’s Madrigal Come dolce hoggi (How sweet is the breeze!) from the composer’s Book 9, the singers’ tones appropriately bright and outdoors-ish at the beginning, the vocal expression thrown widely and exploringly, the vocal ornamentations strengthening on repetition as the voices accustomed themselves to each frisson of energy, the piece’s ending expansive and resonantly lingering in the silences – lovely! The unaccompanied Poulenc Ave Verum Corpus bore an attractive, melancholy colour,  the “open” harmonies occasionally adding a medieval-sounding touch – and while the Durufle piece Tota pulchra es shared some features with the Poulenc, a pleasing melancholy, and “older” touches of harmony, the piece had a livelier, more insistent and declamatory texture, kept airborne by a lovely rocking rhythm, here beautifully regulated by the singers.

To finish the half, Becker introduced her Taurus 1: Night and Morning, a setting of Robert Browning’s pair of poems “Meeting at Night” and “Parting at Morning”, wryly mentioning to us the piece was now twenty years old (an “excesses of youth” commentary, perhaps?)  – the singers’ mingling of exhalations of breath, charged utterances and harmonic tensions, with the darkness lit by occasionally soprano soarings, all established the “romantic tryst” mood, the brief (and presumably heartbreaking) epilogue of the morning’s parting encapsulating the experience as a recalled moment in time.

On to the concert’s second half, then it was, beginning with two “Nowel/Nowell” settings (though unseasonal, it hardly matters, as each Christmas comes so quickly on the heels of another in any case, these days!) – both lively, “ringing” kinds of evocations in their different ways, the first revolving the joyous message in an infectious “back-and-forth” way, with acclamation-like cries at the end. Jack Body’s “Lithuanian manner” Nowell began with characteristically crunchy harmonies exchanged by two pairs of singers facing one another, something Mussorgsky (of “Pictures from and Exhibition” fame) would have, I think, relished, in memory of his similarly sequenced dialogues between voices in “The Market Place at Limoges” – here, the singers  built on the earthy figurations’ growing excitement and accumulations of joy and certainty as the exchanges reached a plateau of exhilaration, humanity enlivened by tidings from on high!

Alessandro Constantini’s Confitemini Domino continued the festive mood, resounding with joyous and angelic utterances, Oliver’s accompaniments reinforcing the Alleluia’s dancing rhythms with gusto. A remarkable and contradictory precursor of a similar mood evoked by the great Handel was the following duet No, di voi no vo’fidarmi, here sung superbly by Becker and Rowena Simpson, with Oliver’s assured bass viol accompaniment,  the familiar lines of “For unto us a Child in Born” from Messiah  used in the service of a completely different text, one of accusation and dismissal of love – Handel had written this (and another duet Quel fior che all’alba ride similarly re-used) a matter of weeks before beginning work on Messiah, and duly incorporating the music into the larger work! – what a delight to encounter the “original” version of such well-known music, and to hear such a committed and assured performance!

Gentler, with longer-breathed lines, and tensions of a different kind brought into play was another work by Handel, Amor, gioie mi porge, a somewhat calmer portrayal of the hardships of love, one which gathered weight and darkness as it proceeded, taking in a central, more energetic section allowing the sopranos to soar, but returning to beseechment and despair at the end, the two singers, Anna Sedcole and Becker sustaining their lines throughout with great spirit! The prospect of hearing any of Annea Lockwood’s music always excites interest, though I was disarmed by the simplicity of her 1983 work Malolo, (Rest), a Samoan lullaby using hypnotically repeating sounds, the singers “terracing” their utterances to enable all kinds of echoes and resonances, the lower voices finishing the piece as hauntingly as  it began.

Three traditionally Irish folk-song settings arranged by Pepe Becker were filled with drollery, melancholy and gentle wit, my favourite being “The Galbally Farmer”, with its rhythmic “snap”, earthy, drone-like accompaniment, and wryly-sounding vocal reinforcements of some of the text’s phrases, concluding with the tried-and-true existentialist lament “I wish I had never seen Galbally Town!”. Becker’s compositional skills were again evoked by When will we know?, a gentle balled-like setting whose closely-worked harmonies had a cool, even bluesy colouring from the viol’s plucked-string accompaniments and wind-blown vocal abandonments at the song’s end. We thought at first the evening’s music would finish by circling back to its opening, with another of Hildegard’s hymns, O viridissima Virga – this one a long-breathed unison for all the voices, ambiently accompanied by Becker’s shruti box and Oliver’s viol, the whole a kind of ritualized “bringing together” of elements presented in a flexible, organic, very human manner, the voices not perfectly together, but in expressive purpose acting as one – to our surprise and delight, we were treated to a brief encore, which deserves its own paragraph……

Once attributed to Henry Purcell, How Great is the Pleasure – Canon for Three Voices was actually written by Dr. Henry Harington (1727-1816) an English physician, composer and author, and was published around 1780 with the title Love and Music – a Favourite Catch for Three Voices. Beginning in unison, with accompaniment from the viol, the melody soared like a Shaker Hymn, then divided among three parts, finishing with words that could have described the evening’s music-making – “When harmony, sweet harmony, and love do unite!” Most satisfying!…….




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