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Performance Review: The Cries of London

“All in all, this was a rewarding evening of music making. The Victoria Children’s Choir maintains its high standard, in large part, no doubt, to the efforts of Madeleine Humer.”

PERFORMERS: Concert Choir singers Fretwork St. Christopher Singers

October 24, 2016

(This is a shared post of a review by James Young)

Every so often, February comes early. The Pacific Baroque Festival, normally flowering in February, occasionally puts forth a shoot in the autumn. Like an early Christmas present, these autumnal flourishings of the Festival are always welcome. In recent years, these fall sprouts have been doubly welcome because they have featured Fretwork, the renowned viol consort. (Richard Boothby is now the only active founding member of the consort, but its standards have never waivered.)

Several seventeenth-century English composers were inspired by the cacophonous cries of the street vendors of the period. In the time of Elizabeth I and James I, the streets of London and the country lanes of England were full of itinerant vendors, each flogging his wares, each trying to out-shout the others. Judging by the music to which these hawkers gave rise, the sound must have been a clamorous and incessant racket.

I first heard a recording of Orlando Gibbons’ Cries of London perhaps thirty years ago and I have not been moved to listen to them again since. These works (together with similar works by Thomas Ravenscroft and Richard Deering) are, however, well worth hearing once — or every thirty or so years, as the opportunity presents. They were the avant-garde music of the seventeenth century. Like a good deal of avant-garde music, they don’t make for easy listening but, in a good performance, they can be quite striking. (Imagine, if you will, lyrics such as “Oysters, oysters, oysters, three-pence a peck at Bridewell dock, new Wallfleet oysters”. Thomas Campion or John Donne it ain’t.) Settings of seventeenth-century cries give singers and choirs an opportunity to surmount an unusual challenge. The St. Christopher Singers and the Victoria Children’s Choir comfortably met the challenge. (To my certain knowledge, the children’s choir that was to participate in the Vancouver performance of this music could not rise to the challenge and the programme had to be changed to include easier works.)

The concert began with a performance of Thomas Ravenscroft’s The Cryer’s Song of Cheape-Side, which gave the St. Christopher Singers only a few bars of work, the bulk of the action being handled by Claire Butterfield, a scion of Victoria’s musical Butterfield family. Butterfield showed the sort of native musical talent for which her family is known. Her singing was clear and stylish and the diction good.

Fretwork was showcased in the next two pieces, a pair of fantasias by John Jenkins. Jenkins lived through the distracted times of the English Civil War and was associated with the Royalist cause. His work is often introspective and moody, though the second of the two fantasias performed on this occasion was a little more cheerful and dance-like. Fretwork’s performance was ideally suited to the music. There were few grand gestures, but the music was given subtly detailed and expressively nuanced performances.

I never thought that I would hear a performance where the new music on the programme was more accessible than the early music on tap, but such was the case on this occasion. That the new music was by Gavin Bryars made this all the more remarkable. (His signature piece is the challenging Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.)

The first two works by Bryars were Tops and Deer poem in monosyllables. Both works evoked a strong feeling of nostalgia. The Victoria Children’s Choir perfectly captured this wistfulness with a shimmering performance. Fretwork provided the perfect complement with its delicate dynamic contrasts.

The Bryars pieces were followed by Orlando Gibbons’ “What is our life?” for which the St. Christopher Singers joined the viol consort. The choir negotiated with ease the demanding counterpoint. In this piece I was struck by an advantage a consort of viols has over an ensemble of violin family instruments. Instruments in the violin family produce a more homogeneous sound while the timbres of Fretwork’s viols ranged from the reedy treble viols to the sonorous bass instruments. Fretwork, it goes without saying, are past masters of fully exploiting the full pallet of colours at their disposal.

The first half of the concert concluded with another setting of London cries, this one by Richard Deering. The piece demands a good deal of one-to-a-part singing and the members of the St. Christopher Singers took turns with the heterogeneous cries. This had the effect of exposing some of the weaker voices in the choir, and ones that did not fit comfortably in the range of the parts they were assigned. On the other hand, the use of a choir to sing the piece had the advantage of reinforcing the impression of a large and diverse group of vendors competing for the attention of a busy concourse.

The second half of the concert began with Gibbons’ take on London cries. For this piece, the children returned to the stage. Again, they took most of the cries one to a part. I was impressed by the confidence and skill with which the individual singers took on their solo parts. On the whole, I preferred the children’s take on street cries to that of the adult choristers. Once again, the use of a choir instead of a small number of soloists gave the impression of a large number of street merchants.

Robert White’s In Nomine came as a bit of a relief after incessant peddling of wares. The in nomine was a popular musical form in sixteenth and early seventeenth century England. An in nomine involves the use of a fragment of plainchant from John Taverner’s mass, Gloria tibi trinitas, chant that set the words “in nomine Domine”. This piece of chant is played in long notes by one of the voices, often the second from the top, while the other voices play more complex melodies. White’s In Nomine proved, in the hands of Fretwork, to be a lovely miniature of timeless beauty.

Another piece by Bryars had all of the virtues of the first half pieces by this composer. The consort and children’s choir gave a lovely representation of a feeling of isolation, almost of desolation.

The penultimate set of the evening was a pair of pieces from John Dowland’s Lachrimae or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans, with divers other pavans, galliards and allemands, set forth for the lute, viols, or violons, in five parts. This monumental collection begins with an arrangement of Dowland’s famous Lachrimae Pavan (also familiar from the song, “Flow my tears”). Fretwork, however, essayed one of the variations on this pavan, Lachrimae Tristes. This work, as its name suggests, is the very epitome of sad music and left me feeling gutted — in the best possible way, of course.

The other Dowland piece, The Earl of Essex Galliard, is also a version of a Dowland song, this time “Can She Excuse my Wrongs”. This piece is somewhat more upbeat than the pavans that it follows, but still not exactly cheery. Again, however, it was, in the hands of Fretwork, heart-breakingly lovely.

The evening concluded with Deering’s Country Cries. The highlight of this piece was certainly the representation of a cacophonous farmyard. It was the best thing of this sort I have heard since Ensemble Clement Janequin, coincidentally on the same stage, gave a musical depiction of some dogs howling. It was all good fun.

All in all, this was a rewarding evening of music making. The Victoria Children’s Choir maintains its high standard, in large part, no doubt, to the efforts of Madeleine Humer. The current edition of the St. Christopher Singers is also strong. And Fretwork, of course, is incomparable.


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