Monday, June 17, 2013

Vocal highs and lows at BEMF

Dame Emma Kirkby

I looked at my partner about halfway through Dame Emma Kirkby's concert at the Boston Early Music Festival last week and had to deadpan, "Are we sad yet?"

He could only chuckle; for rarely has an artist risked a set as downbeat as this one - devoted in its entirety to the lachrymose John Dowland, and what's more, skirting for the most part his early, lively stuff.  To be fair, we knew what we were getting into - Dowland is notorious for his dolor; his motto was actually "Semper Dowland, semer dolens" ("Always Dowland, always grieving") - and I don't think he was being ironic.

The composer, a close contemporary of Shakespeare, never achieved a post in Elizabeth I's court (he was Catholic, somewhat on the down low - and even a sometime spy), but his wildly popular music played heavily to the unique taste of the Elizabethan moment: the worship of virginity was at its height when he published his "First Book of Songs," and Elizabeth's subsequent death soon brought even a deeper note of mourning to the cult of love denied.  Dowland's output likewise tilted toward the funereal; his early lyrics hoped that his tears might "sweetly weepe into my Ladies brest"; but later songs command Time to actually stop, so that he may be "bedded to my Tombe;" centuries before Wagner's Liebestod, Dowland was obsessed with the idea of "Love-death."

It goes without saying that Kirkby, a beloved doyenne of the early music scene, at this point in her career can program anything she likes - and so virtually a full house showed up to hear a concert all but designed to make you want to open a vein (or at least live forever with the knife poised over your wrist).  The draw, of course, was the hand-in-glove fit between her voice and this material.  Kirkby doesn't boast a large sound, nor is she a particularly agile vocalist (in fact I believe she never trained to be a professional singer), but in its vibrato-free purity, her voice comes close to the early-music ideal, and her stage presence is open, frank, and sweetly appealing.

She approached the Dowland songbook as a source of comfort and solace - which worked quite well at first; Kirkby was moving, but never maudlin, in the heart-breaking "Flow my tears," and brought a rush of sweet immediacy to the imploring "Wilt thou unkind thus reave me."  And interspersed among her vocal selections were peerless lute solos (including the famous, foundational "Lachrimae") rendered delicately by Paul O'Dette.

Still, a program this repetitious demands some sense of exploration - or explication - but Kirkby didn't supply either; the first lament sounded much like the last. And perhaps there's a touch of stylistic naïveté to an approach that holds back from the underside of Dowland's obsessive erotic melancholy - that takes him at his own weepy word over and over and over again. His lyrics may not quite be Shakespearean sonnets, but their poetry has its own subtexts and intrigues, that purity alone cannot limn. Still, the concert did end on a paired note of devastatingly simple beauty, in Kirkby's take on "Thou mighty God," Dowland's heartfelt prayer for deliverance, and O'Dette's tender rendition of the haunting "Farewell."

The Hilliard Ensemble.
Another mainstay of the early music scene also made a visit to BEMF this year - but with far less satisfactory results.  Indeed, I confess I hesitated before writing anything at all about the Hilliard Ensemble (at left), as their performance at Emmanuel Church on Friday night was among the weakest I have ever heard on a professional stage. Given the group's illustrious history, this of course was startling; at first I couldn't quite believe my ears, in fact. Were they under-prepared? Were they exhausted? Ill? Energy and volume were low, intonation was insecure (countertenor David James missed some pitches completely), phrasing was tentative - as one acquaintance put it during intermission, it sounded more like a first rehearsal than a full performance.

This was really too bad, because the program was certainly of interest - it opened with a suite of obscure songs inspired by Petrarch's poems to the famous Laura, then segued into hymns to the Virgin Mary (an interesting curatorial idea).  Things did move slightly uphill as the concert progressed - a later set of songs by Pisano more or less hung together, and after intermission (during which the audience was audibly restive), the Hilliards came back with more power, at least, on three hymns by St. Godric of Finchale which are among the oldest surviving scores of vocal music.  These proved compelling, and there were further sparks of feeling, and some coherence, in the English song "Ah! Gentle Jesu," as well as "Otche nasch," an anonymous rendering of the Lord's Prayer.  Alas, things did begin to drift once more, even though a set of Armenian hymns, or "Sharakans," was quite intriguing harmonically; the final piece, however, Perotin's "Viderunt omnes" proved a disappointment.  Sigh. An encore by Arvo Pärt, written specially for the Ensemble some years ago, only gave a reminder of how high a profile they once enjoyed; but again, the music intrigued, the performance did not.

After these two concerts it was hard for me not to ponder the profound shift in professionalism, and the concomitant expansion in artistic scope, which the early music scene has enjoyed over the past few decades. Today the replication of a period style is not nearly enough to pass muster - and academic indulgence of inconsistent skill is completely a thing of a past. Indeed, the high points of the Boston Early Music Festival, such as Gilbert Blin's double bill of Charpentier, made fresh intellectual points about the music in question (and its period) while maintaining the highest technical standards in terms of performance.  Is it enough to say that "early music" has itself left its "early" phase?  These concerts made me think that might be the case.

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