Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Fretwork / Elizabeth Kenny @ Wigmore Hall, London

14 October 2020

Barry Creasy reviews Fretwork’s live streamed concert from the Wigmore.


Fretwork & Elizabeth Kenny (Photo: Wigmore Hall)

It’s probably musical heresy to suggest it, but arguably, the instrumental works of John Dowland and Johann Strauss II share a common feature: dancing. Indubitably, unlike a Viennese waltz, a galliard is unlikely to feature on Strictly, but the point stands: this is music to facilitate another activity, not really to be listened to intently in a concert hall (with apologies to fans of the Neujahrskonzert). Dowland’s consort music, of course, presents an additional challenge for listeners: in contrast to the athletically upbeat sparkle of Strauss’ compositions, it is largely slow-moving and frequently mournful. Dowland, in the self-effacing title of one of his pavans wryly acknowledges this: Semper Dowland, semper dolens (loosely translated: “if it’s gloomy, it must be Dowland”).

Fretwork’s 90 minute presentation of the contents of Dowland’s 1604 collection Lachrimae or Seaven Teares, then, would seem to throw down a gauntlet to those sensitive to a sedentary ‘bread and bread’ programme, but this is to discount the ensemble’s brilliant ability to point up even the smallest flourishes, and to bring out the nuances of shading in the music. It is true that, by the end of Wednesday evening’s concert, one wanted an encore of something like Fine Knacks for Ladies to provide a little impetus to depart (albeit virtually), but the playing throughout displayed richness, warmth, articulation and well-established communication between players. Fretwork’s five part viol consort were joined, for the evening, by the lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, and the presence of a plucked instrument (played with casual expertise and a complete familiarity with the style) further prevented the sound from becoming too clinical.

The ‘celebrities’ in Dowland’s dances are in their dedicatees – Sir John Langton; The Earl of Essex; Mrs Nichols; Giles Hobby and so on – and one longs to know who they were and why Dowland used them in his titles. But some of their characters come through in the music: The Earl of Essex his Galliard, for example, is full of rhythmic play – hops, skips, jumps and missing beats – Mrs Nichols Almond (the inconsistency of Dowland’s spelling of Allemande merely adds to the period charm) was one of the few jolly pieces of the evening, and its briskness suggests someone who’s fond of a party; one imagines she got on well with Mr Nicholas Gryffith, whose galliard is also full of clever syncopations, depicted with precision by Fretwork.

“…the playing throughout displayed richness, warmth, articulation and well-established communication between players”

The ‘Seaven Teares’ core of Lachrimae – Dowland’s pavan variations on his song Flow my tears – was given a textbook performance. Again, the contrasts in the variations are subtle, but the players drew them to our attention: the occasional slow ‘heaves’ in Lachrimae gementes (‘sighing tears’), the reduction in dynamic for Lachrimae tristes (‘sad tears’) and the increase in tempo for Lachrimae coacte (‘forced tears’). Elizabeth Kenny’s lute solos (Piper’s Pavan and Fantasia in G) were full of effortless and agile decoration; in both pieces the precisely managed overlapping echo passages between high and low strings were particularly praiseworthy.

In keeping with Fretwork’s interest in promoting new music for early instruments, the concert also included Adrian Williams’ 2004 homage to Lachrimae, Teares to Dreames. Scored for viol quintet and lute, it’s an affecting work that melds Dowland’s sound world with an almost minimalist approach. A descending, soulful, almost filmic phrase begins in the lute and transfers to the strings; it undergoes harmonic mutation as well as choked interruptions to end as a final whisper from the lute. These early modern fusions promoted by Fretwork are always interesting to hear for the more modern string techniques that the viol players display: in this case some impressive agitato work on two semitones.

The concert is available to stream on the Wigmore Hall website


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