Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Nicholas Lanier’s Grand Tour revisited by Academy of Ancient Music

18 February 2022

A voyage across Europe in music at Milton Court Concert Hall.

Milton Court

Milton Court (Photo: Em Davis)

Polymath Nicholas Lanier (1588–1666) was a well-travelled man, whether touring Italy on an art buying spree for Charles I, or sequestering himself in Antwerp away from the horrors of the Civil War. A composer and performer himself, he was clearly influenced by the music he heard. Travelogue, Laurence Cummings’ intelligently (if slightly donnishly) assembled programme of music performed by Academy of Ancient Music on Friday not only showcased the kind of music that Lanier was exposed to, but explored that magical Italian period where the old polyphonic style of writing (prima pratica) was being replaced by seconda pratica – in which primacy was given to text sung by a solo voice accompanied by continuo. Not quite opera yet, as these solo passages of stile rappresentativo were more declamatory than lyrical (they were eventually to develop into recitative), albeit that their performers were encouraged to add plenty of decoration, and the underlying continuo was textured through the use of different instruments.

AAM gave us some well-studied performances, and demonstrated their consummate understanding of both styles. Representative of prima pratica were madrigals by Dowland (Come away, sweet love), Monterverdi (Cruda Amarilli), Lassus (Un jour vis un foulon) and Sweelinck (Poi che voi non volete) and an organ Recercar by Frescobaldi, repeated in an instrumental version by Leonora Duarte. The choral blend in the madrigals was adroitly managed, with Monteverdi’s daring harmonies suitably leant on, and Lassus’ witty tongue twister given a playful rendering; the string ensemble work was precise and mannered – all with a minimum of direction from Cummings. The Recercar and its adaptation, though, perhaps served to exemplify why a new style might have been attractive; the counterpoint was cleverly constructed, but one felt, notwithstanding the excellent performances, that here were exercises for the sake of it, on a meagre four note theme.

“AAM gave us some well-studied performances, and demonstrated their consummate understanding of both styles”

Seconda pratica was represented by not just Italians (Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna and Tirsi e Clori; Francesca Caccini’s Lasciatemi qui solo) but by composers elsewhere who were experimenting with the style, albeit in a less florid way: Scottish born Robert Ramsey’s In guilty night (a brief setting of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor), for example, and Hero’s complaint to Leander by Lanier himself (arguably the first piece of recitative in English). The continuo under these pieces was lavishly varied (two harpsichords, two theorboes, an organ a cello, a viola da gamba and a lirone contributed to the changing textures) and elegantly expressive, the singing being divided between soprano Anna Dennis and Tenor Thomas Walker.

It used to be that such material (e.g. in Monteverdi operas) was given to ‘straight’ clear voices, but the fashion has changed – presumably to hint at grand opera’s roots. Dennis has a lovely sweet tone at the top of her range, together with an impressive selection of solid chest-voice notes, and her mid-range has just the right touch of fruitiness to it that brought presence and interest, especially to Arianna’s lament. Much of Thomas Walker’s material required him to deploy a baritone register but he still produced a pleasant, rounded tone that was enlivened by (in Lanier’s No more shall meads) the occasional floated head-voice note.

Plaudits must also go to two instrumental soloists: Persephone Gibbs for her brilliant demonstration of violin double stopping in Biagio Marini’s Sonata Quarta per sonar con due corde, and Reiko Ichise for her breathtaking exposition of solo viola da gamba playing in Tobias Hume’s Harke, Harke and Captaine Humes Pavane, these latter two pieces demonstrating to the full Hume’s contention that, in the right hands, the instrument could surpass a lute for interest.

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