Palliser Viols and Pepe Becker enjoyed at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

‘Curious Fancies’; pieces for viols, and viols and voices by Pierre Phalèse, Orlando Gibbons, Alfonso Ferrabosco, Tobias Hume, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Jenkins

Palliser Viols (Lisa Beech, Sophia Acheson, Jane Brown, Andrea Oliver, Robert Oliver), with Pepe Becker (soprano)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday, 9 December 2015, 12.15pm

I find that I reviewed Palliser Viols at St. Andrew’s as recently as September. However, although some of the composers were the same, the music was not duplicated, and we had this time the addition of a singer, not named in the programme.

This time the programme was not clearly set out, so it was not always easy to tell which piece we were on. The interesting programme notes did not discuss the composers in the order in which we heard them, which was a little confusing. Nevertheless, it was good to have the words of most of the songs printed.

The opening Pavane Lesquercarde and La Roque Gailliard were the only pieces not by English-born or resident composers (Alfonso Ferrabosco coming into the latter category). Phalèse was Flemish, and these dances were from Antwerpener Tanzbuch, published in 1583. They were very pleasing pieces, and although there were one or two flaws in the playing, the ensemble was well-balanced and skilful.

Gibbons’s song The Silver Swan is perhaps his best-known secular song today, and its simple beauty never fails to delight. It followed another of his songs: O that the Learned Poets, whose amusing words included the following, wishing that poets ‘Would not consume good wit in hateful rhyme’.

A Fantasy for four viols by Ferrabosco was followed by further songs by Gibbons, from Hymns and Songs for the Church, published by George Wither in 1623. A straightforward ‘Song III’ had the words ‘Blest be the God of Israel, For he his people bought…’   while the next, ‘Song IIII’ began ‘Now in the Lord my heart doth pleasure take…’ This was very engaging, both melodically and harmonically. As the programme note pointed oiut, the language of these hymns and songs is not highly poetic, but rather ‘deliberately ‘common’ in its expression’.   The third, ‘Song XXXIV’ is titled ‘The Song of Angels. While the words are not used today, the tune is frequently used in churches, with its original number and title, to Charles Wesley’s words ‘Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go’; there are other words set to it, too.

(Pedants like me note that the words said ‘Thus angels sung and thus sing we’, and ‘If angels sung at Jesus’ birth’ whereas we would consider this a misuse, and that the word should be ‘sang’.)

This last song particularly was a demonstration of the skill of Robert Oliver; accompanying these melodies on the bass viol, there is the difficulty of playing the chords on a six-stringed instrument. The instrument came into its own in two pieces by Tobias Hume, from Captain Humes Musicall Humors, of 1605. The first was ‘A Humorous Pavan’. Robert Oliver’s programme note says ‘all puns intended’. The Pavan roamed through different moods, with lots of tricky work for fingers and bow. Specifically, it introduced pizzicato and col legno (hitting the strings with the back of the bow), as instructed by Hume. The four Humors (melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric and sanguine) were traversed, and the piece had humour in the other sense as well.

The other consort members returned for a solemn In Nomine by Thomas Tallis, and a lively Fantasy a 4 by William Byrd.

Two more Gibbons songs followed, the first a setting of a poem by John Donne (though considerable liberties were taken with the text): ‘Ah, dear heart’, which was short and sweet, and ‘What is our Life?’ written by Sir Walter Raleigh as he sat in his condemned cell. The latter was, understandably, mournful. A final song, with mainly bass viol accompaniment was an anonymous ballad to the tune of ‘All in a garden green’, and then Fantasy no.6 by John Jenkins on that tune, employing all the instruments.

The songs all revealed a wonderful marriage of words and music, and the concert was one of delights as well as of Curious Fancies.