Octogenarians make a splendid 17th-century pair

Baroque Voices and Palliser Viols present:
17th Century Octogenarians
Music by Heinrich Schütz and John Jenkins

HEINRICH SCHÜTZ  (1585-1672)
(from the Symphoniae Sacrae III 1650)
Wo der Herr nicht das Haus bauet (Unless the Lord build the house)
Was mein Gott will (What my God wills)
Mein Sohn warum hast du uns das getan?
(My Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?)
(from the Geistiche Chormusik 1648)
Auf dem Gebirge (From the mountains)
Sehet an den Feigenbaum
(Look upon the fig tree)
Ich Wei
β, dass mein Erlöser lebt (I know that my Redeemer lives)

JOHN JENKINS (1592-1678)
Pavan à 5 No.2 in G minor
Duet in D minor, No.3, for 2 Bass Viols
Fantasy à 4  No.6 in F “All in a garden green”
Fantasy à 5  No.3 in G minor
Fantasy à 3 for treble, two bass viols and organ
Fantasy à 5 No.5 in G minor

Baroque Voices – Pepe Becker, Rowena Simpson (sopranos)
Hazel Fenemor, Milla Dickens (altos)
Peter Liley (tenor)
Will King, David Morriss (basses)

Palliser Viols – Rebecca Struthers, CJ Macfarlane, violins
Sophia Acheson, Will King, treble viols
Kevin Wilkinson, tenor viol,
Robert Oliver, tenor and bass viols
Imogen Granwal, bass viol,
Malcolm Struthers, double bass,
Douglas Mews, organ

St.Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott St., Wellington

Sunday, 20th June 2021

This concert gave cause for joy on a number of counts, not the least in providing a dry and relatively comfortable place in which to spend a couple of hours on a more-than-usually inclement Sunday evening – though not particularly warm temperature-wise, the interior of St.Mary’s Church worked its usual visual and atmospheric magic over the duration, adding to the beauty and variety of the sounds recreated for our pleasure by the two ensembles, Baroque Voices and Palliser Viols.  We were treated to a marked contrast of genres between the music of each of the two “Octogenarian” composers represented – though they were contemporaries, Heinrich Schütz and John Jenkins created vastly different sound-worlds by dint of their respective preoccupations. Schütz wrote practically no stand-alone instrumental music, and Jenkins no vocal music to speak of. And finally, augmenting the pleasure of our hearing such a variety of sounds, there were the informative programme notes written by Palliser Viols director, Robert Oliver.

Through Oliver’s notes we learned of the connections between Schütz and two of the other “greats” of his time, Gabrieli, and then Monteverdi, whose influences truly “informed” his own music. The notes concerning Jenkins are more to do with his upright character and complaisance as a human being, though his maintenance of the tradition of polyphony was fostered indirectly through Monteverdi’s example via various of the latter’s vocal works transcribed for viols by Jenkins’ colleagues, John (Giovanni) Coprario and William Lawes. Oliver remarked at the conclusion of his notes upon the overall achievement of both of the evenings’ composers, thus – “masters of counterpoint, sublime control of complex textures and structures, producing music of great integrity and beauty”…..

Opening the programme was one of three works from Schütz’s Symphonia Sacrae III of 1650 to be performed this evening, the first being Wo der Herr nicht das Haus bauet (Unless the Lord build the house), a setting of Psalm 127. A beautiful instrumental introduction heralded the singers’ opening, the sopranos entering in canonic imitation, Pepe Becker’s and Rowena Simpson’s lines resonating gratefully and vibrantly. Beginning in the low register bass David Morriss’s voice gradually blossomed at “Es ist umsonst” (It is vain) as the line rose, to sterling effect. Throughout , the contrasting  timbres of the two soprano voices were delightfully ear-catching, the ensemble bringing fruition at the final “Wohl den”, with the watcher secure, the citadel held against the enemy. A consort song from Geistiche Chormusik, Was mein Gott will (What my God wills) followed, for alto and tenor, the voices singing alternately rather than together, making an attractive blend in cross-patch places though with tenor Peter Liley’s voice predominant and sounding more engaged with the text, alto Hazel Fenemor’s delivery somewhat more contained than I would have wished. Beautifully rounded string-playing and organ continuum gave splendid support throughout.

Came the first of John Jenkins’ works of the evening, the Pavan No.2 in g minor. Involving 5 instrumentalists – including Will King, to my surprise, as a treble viol player! – the instrument propped up on the player’s lap, rather like a miniature bass viol! The Pavan made a gorgeously “layered” sound, the church’s acoustical “bloom” giving the sound an unearthly resonance, as if the gods were making music in Elysium. It all seemed bejewelled, kaleidoscopic and exquisite. Then we heard a Duet (No.3 in d minor) for 2 bass viols – an “Air and Variations”, the theme stately and melancholy, the three variations featuring both running figures and sombre variants of the theme, Robert Oliver’s and Imogen Granwal’s instruments expertly running the gamut of pleasingly- contrasted figurations.

Grisly stuff next, with Schutz’s Consort Song Auf dem Gebirge (From the mountains), the subject matter being the massacre of the “Holy Innocents”(male children under two years of age) ordered by King Herod in the wake of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. A false start meant we heard the opening twice before the voices came in, the two altos, Hazel Fenemor and Milla Dickens, both with soft voices, though with tones that seemed to suit the sombre nature of the text, and the music. Again the instrumental consort gave a rich bed of sound for the singers,  the words Viel Klagens, Weinens und Heulens” (Much Sorrow, crying and howling) more restrained and hollowed-out than strongly emoted. “Rahel beweinete ihre Kinder” (Rachel is weeping for her children) was similarly inward with a stark beauty, the voices almost instrumental-sounding in their blending – only the rising line at “den es war aus” (that it was over) animated the expression briefly at the end.

Two more Fantasies by Jenkins followed, the first enticingly titled “All in a garden green”, described by Oliver as “a catchy folk-tune”, played by four instruments, the second with a fifth player joining the group. The first of these in F major was the “lighter” of the two, the second by comparison far more melancholic and ritualistic, seeming to tap endless possibilities in its permutations of melody and harmonies, moving from minor to major mode in variously “shaded” ways, and often in unexpectedly fashion. By this time, with the concert’s interval upon us. we seemed to have come a long way from the weather we had left behind at the church door when first arriving.

A comely pastoral air greeted us by way of beginning the second half, sung in canon-like fashion to begin with by soprano (Pepe Becker) and tenor (Peter Liley), both voices forthright and winning, the dancing rhythms at “Das jetzt der Sommer nahe ist” (Summer is close) offset by the long lines and ensuing silence during and after “Himmel und Erde vergehen” (Heaven and Earth will pass), the voices imitating and echoing one another so very evocatively.

Up until encountering the first instrumental Fantasy that followed I hadn’t particularly registered the organ-playing of Douglas Mews in any way but with a predictable kind of enjoyment of the instrument’s “presence” in such tried-and-true hands – then, for some reason these distinctive sounds drew particular attention to themselves throughout the next two pieces – both at the opening and within the course of the Fantasy à 3 for treble, two bass viols and organ, Mews coaxed a particularly delightful figuration from his instrument, giving us glimpses of the “heavenly and Divine Influences” spoken of by one Thomas Mace, quoted in the programme notes. Curiously, I formed the impression that the following Fantasy à 5 No.5 in G minor was taking us on a particularly adventurous and even improvisatory course courtesy of the players, when suddenly the music was halted, the lines having gotten themselves temporarily jangled! – a case of spontaneity gone astray? – the lines of music certainly seemed for a few moments more-than-usually unpredictable as to their course, re their exploratory urgings and coalescent-points! – fascinating!

Robert Oliver mentioned in his notes, in relation to the dramatic nature of the concert’s next item, Schutz’s  Mein Sohn warum hast du uns das getan? (My Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?), how music had acquired increasing expressive possibilities at the time due to the rise of opera, exemplified by the composer’s setting of the passage from St.Luke’s Gospel describing the aftermath of the twelve year-old Jesus’ disappearance of the during a visit to Jerusalem and the anxiety of his parents, Mary and Joseph. The dark and serious sounds of the opening set the tone before two violins enlivened the textures, opening up the spaces for the two voices, soprano and bass, to voice their anxieties, Rowena Simpson’s Mary leading off with “Mein Sohn”, followed canonically by David Morriss’s Joseph, the lines following some lovely downwardly chromatic figures on “Schmerzen gesucht”, the sorrow palpable and affecting. The mood lightened with Pepe Becker’s entrance as Jesus, the vocal line lively and the tones sunny, the instruments echoing the singer’s energies! – the two violins echoed her guileless explanation “Wisset ihr nicht?” with great satisfaction!

Schutz “rounded off” this piece with a setting of Psalm 84, “Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen” (How lovely are Thy dwellings), the ensembled voices relishing sequences such as “Mein Leib und Seele freuet sich” My body and soul are joyful”, with energetic and smiling tones, concluding with the richly-laden warmth of “Die dich loben immerdar” (They will praise Thee forever).

Concluding the concert as scheduled was Schutz’s setting of the well-known text, Ich Weiβ, dass mein Erlöser lebt (I know that my Redeemer lives), joyously dancing music, with the whole ensemble following on from the womens’ voices. At “Un er wird mich hernach” (And he will awaken me) the dancing rhythms gave way momentarily to declamation, the ensuing contrasts here and in other places enchanting! At the end of the piece the alternation of the declamatory “Und meine Augen warden ihn schauen” (And my eyes will behold Him), and the more excitable and joyous “Ich und kein Fremde” (I and no other) made for a both grand and excitable conclusion to a lovely piece. The ensemble, incidentally, encored the “Wie lieblich” section of “Mein Sohn, warum hast du”, at the concert’s end, bringing out the contrasting characters of the sections even more markedly and smilingly.

In all, a richly rewarding concert experience!



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