Voices & Viols – mid-winter session

July 5, 2009

An afternoon’s reading through a variety of works, grounded normally in the 16th century repertoire, but today chosen with a nod (where possible) to the UN Year of Astronomy. The playlist for the five singers (three upper women’s voices and two tenors) and seven viols (trTTTTTB), the mid-winter cold having played havoc with the bass viol and theorbo contingent, was as below. One tenor viol became a baroque violin on occasion, which worked well for the Monteverdi and Byrd. Another tenor viol became a tenor voice on occasion. As is normal in these sessions, the singers worked with notes best suited to their vocal registers; the viol players worked mainly on ‘freeing up’ in order to work with faster tempi – with slight increases in tempo at each playing, the music went from blurred and vague to focussed and strong. One of our experienced tenors conducted – quite necessary with this strength of numbers. And as in all things, especially in changes to 6/2 and at cadences and codas, watch the conductor when all else fails!  I particularly love working with a singer beside me: I slipstream into the singer’s energies and my whole demeanour changes – I sit up straight, I ‘sing’ with the bow… I feel as if I’m performing and declaiming, unlike the ‘philsopher’s conversation’ which is the tenor of viol consort playing.

* Pedro Bermudez, Versos 13/14 (chanted) and 15 (sung with instruments).

South American (Guatemala) baroque. Chanting got us in the mood and helped come to grips with the church acoustics. The sung/instrumental verse 15, Clamabit ad me, bright in its clamour, sounded lumpy till we cranked up the speed.

* Orlando Lassus, Erythraea from the Sybilline Prophecies.

This collection isn’t spectacular viol consort music, but certainly ‘makes sense’ when performed with singers.  With an increase in tempo, the music went from lumpen and directionless to almost Gesualdian in parts, where F naturals move to F sharps. Doubling the soprano singing next to me for this and the previous, I couldn’t hear myself play – but I think we rocked the church in the process.

* Monteverdi, Madrigals Book III: Perfidissimo volto

With an instrumental canzona or viol consort tempo in mind for the opening phrase, this works extremely well. It’s hard on the singers, but has all the best qualities of a true Monteverdi experience. Not having played this before or knowing it, it took me a while to settle in to it, what with the long gap in bars 15-22 for example, but the carefully delineated vocal lines make it a lot easier than the average complex viol consort piece for example with its much more fragmented play of instrumental phrases.

* Edward Johnson, Come again

Five-part, rollicking English song, quite of the period.

* William Byrd, Christ rising again

As a treble player on these occasions, I would normally have played the top line of the instrumental accompaniment (quite involved writing) but today the four lines were spread across the many tenors and bass viols. This left the baroque violin on the second vocal part and me doubling the top soprano’s line, somewhat soaring above the others. Is this is a viol consort piece with supplementary singing, or is a vocal piece with additional voices as instruments? I come to Byrd from the five- and six-part viol consorts, so this felt like home territory: the drama of “In Christ” from the soprano, b.54, the ‘galliard’ of the Secunda pars with its splendid bell-like motifs among the top two vocal lines, the splendid final three bars. In all, the wonders of Byrd’s special compositional style – a great joy! The singers were at some distance from me physically, so I was able to play against the baroque violin’s articulation and harmony beside me, with ‘echoes’ from the vocal lines at some distance off. Playing from a vocal score helped me ‘see’ the work as a whole.

 Unusually, the playing required the full use of the thumb pressure on the bow. I know this is supposed be ‘normal’, but only seems to really happen when volume in a big acoustic space is called for. In a tiny room of four-part viols, this pressure would be disproportionate. Who would have thought playing Byrd consort songs that I’d be acutely aware of a playing style more relevant to the French baroque?

* Michael East, Meaner beauties

Like the Johnson, a great piece for singers and viols – but even more so.

* William Byrd, In fields abroad

A consort song here dressed up in almost symphonic proportions, but not unsuited to its overt character. A fair clip is required, but unlike the earlier Byrd, it’s all over in a single page (of part music) which rather diminishes the sense of foreboding of being technically up to the mark. Viol players only feel exposed for the first few bars (which obviously mustn’t sound scrambled), after which the singers take over. I’m led to believe this piece has an association with the original Globe Theatre in London – vocal underlay having been discovered there, as opposed to the printed publication.

* Orlandus Lassus, In me transierunt irae tuae

A somewhat more sober piece. For me, again some wonderful playing against a baroque violin until we realised the altus line was also being played by two or three tenor viols, after which I was upgraded to Cantus with the violin. Links to Keppler’s unsuccessful commissioning music for the spheres, apparently.

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