I Fagiolini, conductor Robert Hollingworth. Photo (c) Eric Richmond
Wigmore Hall, London, 11 April 2016
written by Ben Hogwood
Audio (open in a new window)
Available until 10 May
What’s the music?
Byrd This sweet and merry month of May (3 minutes)
Wilbye Adieu, sweet Amaryllis; Ye restless thoughts; Draw on a sweet night (9 minutes)
Tomkins Weep no more thou sorry boy; Too much I once lamented (12 minutes)
Gibbons The silver swanne (1 minute)
Ward If the deep sighs (8 minutes)
Janet Wheeler Music to hear (2015) (4 minutes)
William Brooks Oooh Will (2016) (world première)
Adrian Williams Love is a babe (2012) (4 minutes)
Most of the music in this concert is not available on Spotify. Where possible a few of the items have been included on the playlist below:
About the music
What is a madrigal? Wikipedia obliges with a good definition, calling it a ‘secular vocal composition, usually a partsong, of the Renaissance and early Baroque eras’. That means roughly speaking the 16th and 17th centuries. Usually the song is unaccompanied, as here.
It is still a relatively rare thing to get the opportunity to hear madrigals in concert, which is where I Fagiolini are so valuable. This richly varied program covers approximately 500 years of music, beginning with popular examples of the form from William Byrd, John Wilbye, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons and a descriptive epic from John Ward. Tomkins’ Too much I once lamented is described as ‘one of the great laments’ of the period.
Then the concert fast forwards to celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare through three new pieces setting his texts, each written for I Fagiolini themselves. These are responses from Janet Wheeler, William Brooks and Adrian Williams, each finding out for themselves how enjoyable the Bard’s texts remain!
A few props put the icing on the cake for this hour-long concert of great character and enthusiasm. As compere Robert Hollingworth was ideal, and it was a real education as the vocalists led us through classical English madrigals of old, before illustrating how today’s composers respond to the text of the time.
It would be churlish to criticise the performance, for it was full of energy, crisp and incredibly even, and some contributions – Hollingworth’s in William Brooks’ Oooh Will for instance – almost defied belief! This was the most memorable of the three new pieces, though Adrian Williams’ Love is a babe made a strong impact with its soft-hearted romance, and Janet Wheeler’s Music to hear was memorable especially for its whispered closing bars.
Yet ultimately it was the old classics that made the greatest impression, none more so than Ward’s remarkable If the deep sighs, a powerful and evocative portrait of despair.
What should I listen out for?
1:20 A bright sound from the six part ensemble, reflecting the ‘sweet and merry’ month. Short melodic figures are passed between each of the parts in the short song.
4:11 Adieu, sweet Amaryllis A slightly lower pitch for this madrigal, making the contributions of the male parts more audible. There is a lovely open harmonic progression at the end, which is more subdued with just the four parts.
6:16 Ye restless thoughts as though to represent the restless thoughts Wilbye bombards the listener with short fragments of melody. This madrigal is in just three parts.
8:32 Draw on a sweet night a slow and richly scored madrigal, reflective but also quite subtly passionate.
A spoken introduction from Robert Hollingworth follows…then leads to…
14:59 Weep no more thou sorry boy A poignant beginning to the song, which then begins to stress certain words and phrases in quicker figures (such as the phrase ‘if she chide’)
21:15 Too much I once lamented Some spicy harmonies and complex part writing for Tomkins’ lament, which proceeds with a slow and stately feel. Again Tomkins speeds up the music where he wants to stress certain words, but the madrigal proceeds with some beautiful layering of parts.
A second spoken introduction from Robert Hollingworth, paying tribute to recordings from the Consort of Musicke and the Deller Consort, and describing the Ward as ‘nine minutes of soaring pairs of lines and a thoroughly melancholic text’
28:56 The Silver Swanne is one of the best-loved early English madrigals. It is short but beautifully formed, with soaring soprano high notes and a surprisingly full sound for six parts.
30:26 Immediately it is clear If the deep sighs will be an expansive piece, with longer phrases and slow but beautiful high singing from the sopranos. Around 33:30 there is some striking singing from the male voices. Then there is a really strong finish from the ensemble as they sing of how ‘as new showers increase the rising flood’.
39:46 Music to hear This has some pretty spicy harmonies but the four voices stay quite close in rhythm and harmony throughout. Wheeler’s most original writing is saved for the end, and after a unison finish to the music the choir whisper, as though exhaling in musical form. You’ll have to strain to hear it on the broadcast though!
44:23 Oooh Will The quick part of the accompaniment for this song is just one voice – that of Robert Hollingworth, whose incredibly agile tones support the sonorous solo of Charles Gibbs. The style is bluegrass – not a common form for Shakespeare, but a mighty effective one!
48:16 Love is a babe A modern setting of modern-sounding words – what would Shakespeare have made of the frequent use of ‘babe’ I wonder? Williams’ response is romantic but the choir show great depth of feeling
53:33 – Thomas Morley’s Now is the month of May – given in an attempt to bring summer on apace, said Robert Hollingworth – and the bright performance of this most English of madrigals gives it the best possible opportunity. Unfortunately it was raining when I left the hall, so it didn’t quite work!
If you think of madrigals the name of Monteverdi will surely be one of the first composers who comes to mind. So here is a recent disc of his madrigals from Paul Agnew and Les Arts Florissants:
Meanwhile the new I Fagiolini album for Decca can be heard here: