IF, like me, you enjoy the arts and sport, you will have rejoiced in a bumper week. First, we had the
Government giving an unprecedented £1.57 billion fillip to the arts, thereby drawing a graceless murmur of thanks from the generally Tory-hating lefties that populate the arts sector.
Then, the cricket season resumed, to the familiar sound of England wickets tumbling. Finally, one of the world’s top three early music festivals, has returned, albeit online and in much-shortened form.
But we must be grateful for small mercies these days. Here we had a bunch of stalwart pros who refused to roll over and succumb to a mere virus. All had travelled to York and recorded musical offerings on the theme of Method and Madness; eight events – three of them talks – over three days.
First out of the blocks, on July 9, was York’s own countertenor Iestyn Davies, partnered by lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, a world-class pairing if ever there were. Their programme was devoted to that master of melancholy, John Dowland. If you want to be modern about it, you can class melancholia as an aspect of mental health. The Elizabethans called it a disease but made light of it too.
Melancholy was something to be enjoyed, even revelled in, and not excluding self-pity. We all know the feeling. Melancholy has been the counterpart in English song – though not the same – to the German Sehnsucht (yearning). Think of all those aching pastorals lamenting the passing of rural idylls, most of which were figments of the imagination anyway. We all enjoy a little angst.
We need not explore the many facets of Dowland’s melancholic psyche any further. Here we were reminded – by a letter he wrote from Nuremberg in 1595 – of his early exile, separated from the country, the queen and the family he loved by having to earn a living abroad, because his Catholic faith disqualified him from acceptance at court. Davies read this and other illuminating texts, mainly of the period, but including Leo Tolstoy and Rose Tremain too, to amplify Dowland’s many moods.
The music was not without technical shortcomings, not by the performers, but the technology: pictures that moved jerkily and occasional breaks in the sound. But a CD would not have been more satisfying.
It was a joy to get back to seeing live performers revelling in their art. Davies delivered reams of easy, liquid tone that underlined Dowland’s incomparable skill as a songwriter. His words were not especially clear, even with a text to hand, but that may have been due to insufficient ‘miking’.
Kenny’s pluckings not merely supplied a rhythmic foundation. She improvised magically in her intros and in the space between verses (ritornellos); she also contributed several mood-lightening dances.
It was hard not to feel that we were experiencing Dowland’s songs exactly as they would have sounded 400 years ago, not in a dusty, ancient way, but as a living art as relevant today as Shakespeare. We may remember that Dowland’s Third and Last Booke of Songs was published in 1603, the same year as Hamlet – that arch-melancholic – was first printed.
The last word goes to Dowland himself, from his dedication to Lachrimae, a book of dances: “Pleasant are the tears which music weeps”. Indeed.
Matthew Wadsworth continued the Dowland theme on lute and theorbo at lunchtime on Friday, alongside the music of other contemporaries. There was as a wide a range of moods here as there had been in the songs, with bolder declamation from the long-necked theorbo with its deeper resonance.
Wadsworth flowed fluently over the strings and the close camera work emphasised the music’s intimacy.
During the afternoon, Steven Devine played the second half of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the preludes and fugues Nos 13-24, on a two-manual Michael Johnson harpsichord built in Fontmell Magna in 1997. He proved a deft exponent, though on such a bright-toned instrument he might not have coupled the manuals quite so frequently. But at least we were able to marvel anew at the breadth of Bach’s ingenuity.
The evening brought in Richard Boothby playing a lyra viol, the smallest of the three kinds of bass viol. He began both halves with music by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, an Englishman of Italian descent who was especially prominent at the Jacobean court. Pairs of dances amply contrasted the gentler alman with the altogether friskier coranto, with its skipping rhythms.
Similar pairings from William Lawes and John Jenkins led into two brilliantly virtuosic variations by the little-known William Corkine and ‘divisions’ (variations) on Dowland’s famous Lachrime melody. Boothby introduced his music, which made the whole presentation much more personal.
We may be grateful to all these musicians for their labours in front of an unseen audience. The festival concluded with the ace choral group Stile Antico on Saturday evening. Watch this space for the review.
Review by Martin Dreyer