Voices & Vyalls October 2011

October 17, 2011

I’ve been attending these sessions regularly this year on the basis that I can expect manageable sight-reading, as well as the support provided by more than one instrument on any given line. My big love is playing up to singers; the voice makes the string lines come alive.

What I keep underestimating is what I learn about the music and the sheer power of this specific type of musical experience. Every session always seems to far exceed expectations. Each session builds on the next, so it’s an ever more powerful hit or high.

While turning up is important and giving one’s best at the time works to the common good, I’ve been depriving myself of the full benefits on offer. They’ve become a minimal foot-in-the-door for my viol playing, but  I need to practice before the day, look more closely at the texts and think more about appropriate tempi and bowing – in a word, honouring what’s put before me a bit more.

I’m on Cloud Nine still, several days after the weekend’s run-through of works, on this occasion more from the Baroque. I’m re-living the moments by turning to clips on YouTube.

One of the wonderful things about this group is that it’s full of surprises, no two sessions are exactly the same, making it a wonderful kaleidoscope of musical experiences. I know that sounds like a cliche, but you’d think with more or less the same lineup each session, things would be predictable. Today’s three little wonders: lacking our lute, an organ was substituted (good for Baroque); in addition to our lineup of female singers, a countertenor (a whole new sound world), and thirdly no less than ten viols – a proper little viol orchestra (this happens, outside Easter Viol School, perhaps once a decade?).

While blessed with the singers who turn up to endure somewhat raggedy viol playing on occasion, the countertenor presented a totally different tone colour to the singing that we’ve been used to. Viol bowing changed dramatically depending on who was singing and how they sung.

John Bull, “Fraile man”, vocal overlay to his Dorick Fancy No.1

The ten viols provided a full, rolling sound which took me by surprise, made even more magnificent by the addition of voices. A somewhat faint and tricky viol piece (it’s hard to put John Bull’s style into words, apart from it being very much at odds with others like Byrd and Taverner or Tye) was transformed into something quite unexpected; a lot of the harmonic shifts became more pronounced and the full beauty of the writing became much more obvious.

Johnson, “Defiled is my name”

A change in style and mood obviously. Though lighter overall than the Bull, it had pointed moments of resignation and pathos.

Leopold I, Il virtu della cruce. Bass recit and aria, “Ah, peccato…” and Soprano aria, “Spera, spera”

I did take time to look briefly at the lyrics before the session: sinful, lethal monstrous Averno (entrance to the Underworld as indicated by Virgil) certainly sets the scene. The highly wrought poetry escapes me somewhat, apart from the hubris of Man trying to outshine God, Man stripping off Glory and God doing likewise, taking it off as well. A great introduction to the sepolcro style. Our singers took turns with the aria and this really allowed the viols to change their approach to fit each voice.

Vivaldi, Mundi rector and Somno profondo

Having spent a lot of time earlier this year looking at Juditha from a literary perspective (Anna Banti’s Artemisia and that circle of books written as part of her revival), visiting the drama in the musical dimension was very powerful for me.  The Mundi rector can appear easy, almost flippant. Taken too slowly or too fast and a lot of its subtlety gets lost. It comes across more as a player’s piece than one for the audience. We kept it reasonably slow and pensive which worked for me, though as someone suggested it has to go at one-in-the-bar. Too fast though and it becomes too fluffy. I thought we did well with it.

Our singers took turns with the Somno. Viols imitated and supported the different voices and their timbres in different ways: short and spikey and terrified for the soprano, mor growly/torn up/distracted/foreboding for the countertenor. The writing for the treble viols was in the stratosphere (including a single D) but was very manageable after two or three goes. You get the feeling Vivaldi wasn;’t challenging the viol players so much technically that the overall effect might suffer. A lot depends on the contrast everyone is able to make with the middle section of the da capo aria – not especially easy or obvious here. Creating colour around the octave leaps in the treble viols is very influential on the whole emotional impact.

Days after, I’m sitting here re-living the afternoon through YouTube filmclips: the Venice Baroque Orchestra (with cellos providing added fullness) and the Choeur de Chambre de Namur/Modo Antiquo (great middle section by soprano Anna Hallenberg), all true to the haunting (sometimes to the point of screeching, but nicely!) gambas.

A natural extension to the sepolcro and the Vivaldi would be his Cum dederit (Nisi Dominus). I know it unfortunately rubs hard up against the parameters and voices and viols, but I’d certainly like to hear viols substitute for viols and to hear our singers give it a go. On the YouTube performances, it’s interesting to compare the Malgloire and Alessandrini versions with Paul Dyer’s especially in the treatment of the string accompaniment.

Buxtehude, two sopranos and six viols. Laudate Pueri.

A move away from the Venetian, I really enjoyed playing Treble II especially in those bits where it breaks away from the first treble. The top string parts contrast gloriously well with the singers. There are several recordings on YouTube which demonstrate different approaches that can be taken: a nice one by the Ricercar Consort, another with Emma Kirkby and Fretwork (includes Great Dooble bass and organ, faster with more clipped dotted notes, a more golden sound in the viols and tuned higher than the Ricercar Consort’s). Our version came closest to the one given by the Buxtehude Consort (with organ and cello added to the viols) with its rich, full singing, and longer at 6min 42secs.

An exceptional afternoon’s music.


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