MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications
Early Music, January 1971
Historians of the future are undoubtedly going to have to put on record the pre-classical music cult that took root here in the sixties. Nowadays, it is a thriving concern. An astonishingly wide cross-section of the public attends, especially at concerts of medieaval music, whos impact could only be compared to the arrival of the Kama Sutra in a nation brought up on the works of Eustace Chesser, MD. At any single concert of 'old' music you can expect to encounter scholars and antiquarians, wide-eyed and ecstatic at hearing played the instruments they have catalogued for museums and written about for 40 years; cathedral- trained counter-tenors eager to learn how not to be mistaken for castrati; jazz-types and orientals, intuitively aware of improvisational territory shared with the mediaevalists; leather-clad avantgarde composers looking for material for dadaistic parody; TV pop-music producers in search of with-it new sounds and images; recorder groups from girls' convent-schools, carefully chaperoned by Mothers Superior, and a whole Chaucerian band of laymen pilgrims (squares who failed to get into the Festival Hall for a Leinsdorf concert); uni-sex students; priests and politicians; bishops and actresses; dukes, duchesses and hippy children; individuals one hadn't met since far-off Oxbridge days; and even critics straying furtively from the well trodden Brahmsian paths.
But do they invariably get such a beano? It is certainly something worth considering, especially now that we are more accustomed to the sight and sound of crumhorn, curtal and nakers. The presentation and performance of early music are never issues: all the more important to get them right, where the audience includes so many uninitiated.
The mode of presentation can alone determine whether an audience is likely to appreciate many of the subtleties or just the broad patterns. Too often, it is the case that an audience has to respond like a Juke Box Jury team, notching up hits and misses in an uninformed, completely arbitrary fashion. Musica Reservata concerts have frequently, to my mind, fallen into this trap. Most of their programmes begin and end in lively fashion, but what we get in between is a some-what haphazard selection of items, whose impact seems to have been considered in isolation from each other, leaving aside basic contrasts of slow and fast, vocal and instrumental. Their concert of German and Spanish Music of the early 16th century at the Elizabeth Hall on October 27 was particularly unsatisfying. Here we had a series of pieces from the two countries, during very fertile periods, The audience was supplied with erudite programme note: but these were really inadequate. There was some splendid music by Ludwig Senfl, for instance, but its effect was hampered by having too many works of the same type in a row.
On presentation, the Early Music Conzort are particularly strong. Their recital of mediaeval French music, in the same hall on November 15, was among their very best, simply because it had a theme to it. One left with a clear sound-impression of French musical life in the l4th century, with its diversity of styles and bold experiments with rhythm and melodic ornamentation. This programme showed how conservative the leading poet-composer, Guillaume de Machaut, was beside some of his contemporaries, like Philipoctus de Caserta. The attention focused on the fascinating use of hocket and other rhythmic complexity in part-writing, for example in Caserta's ballade En rémirant, took one's mind off the repetitive aspect of the musical structures. it happens often that the Consort's director, David Munrow, provides verbal introductions and comment, but at this concert, he relied entirely on programme notes that were succinct, informative, witty and just the right length.
Verbal comment was more in place in the Consort's Homage to Henry Purcell recital in the Purcell Room on November 4. And again, it was a perfectly constructed programme, giving one the complete gamut of the composer's creative work, set against the musical background of figures like James Paisible, Charles Frederick Lampe and William Lawes, with the apt choice of Blow's Ode on the death of Mr Henry Purcell to end. The recital struck a balance between sophisticated trio sonatas, vocal music from the stage works and Odes, and the more lightweight, bawdy rounds and catches (sung by three of the King's Singers).
The Early Music Consort - more than any other group - makes bawdiness an integral feature of their recitals. Not only, here, did the singers consume wine between each catch; not only did they introduce extra repetition (accidental, of course) of key-phrases like kiss'd his ARSE, and extra emphasis on key-words, as in pulled out his BUDGET, at which one of the singers also produced a banana. Munrow was at pains to emphasise that there was no intended innuendo in the title of the succeeding item, the Chaconne, Two in one upon a ground.
While it is obvious that real artistry is needed to give an untutored audience a deep insight into music of a remote period, it is all too often assumed that later music, in a more familiar vein, can be dealt with in cavalier fashion. This is noticeably the case with music for masques and other dramatic presentations in which the relationships between contributory art-forms are quite loose. One can accept Peter Pears' arrangement of Purcell's The Fairy Queen as an acceptable transformation of the work into series of four cantatas, which can be performed independently or together. It does at least have a viable format, even if it omits much glorious music. However, the version of Purcell's Dioclesian, conducted by Andrew Davis in the Elizabeth Hall on November 13 hardly did it justice. The first four acts were condensed into a 45-minute medley that made a very muted impression. It was almost a version for Grand Hotel on a Sunday night. Only the pastoral masque of Act V (occupying another 45 minutes) survived virtually intact.
Standards of performance are always affected by the success of the presentatian. There was a quite remarkable difference between the singing of the Saltarello Choir in the performance of Dioclesian, between the first and second half. The dramatic continuity in the masque really brought them to life and the contributions of choir and orchestra (London Mozart Players) were capped by ravishing solo singing, especially from Felicity Palmer and David Beavan in the extended, climactic dialogue, Tell me why. There was a cohesiveness about each half of the Scuola di Chiesa programme in the Elizabeth Hall on November 14 consisting of first English then Spanish sacred and secular choral music of the 16th and 17th centuries, interspersed with harpsichord music (played by George Malcolm), that again benefited both listeners and performers.
More telling still was a programme devised for the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra in the same hall on November 21 that contrasted settings of Dixit Dominus by Monteverdi and Handel - both dramatically powerful, but the former using smaller structural units than the latter, who needed eight extended movements for his setting. In addition, there was equally operatic treatment of secular texts in Monteverdi's three-part scena Lamento della ninfa, and the five-part madrigal-cycle Lagrime d'Amante. The conductor John Eliot Gardiner seems to have built his Monteverdi forces from as many excellent soloists as he could find, knowing that they would respond to the challenge of very unpredictable and dramatical ly expressive music. It was astonishing that they blended so well together - the best choirs tend to consist of amateurs with not very individual voices - and thrilling that Gardiner should tax them with fast tempi (as in the final section of the Gloria in the Handel) and demand a)most limitless variations in tone-co]our and attack. Their virtuosity had artistic purpose.
The actual manner of performance in earlier music is more controversial than in Handel or Monteverdi. Musica Reservata singers tend, to my way of thinking, to over-indulge the folk-style coarseness of timbre which Jantina Noorman seems to have been the first to introduce some years back, It loses its unusual freshness when the same singers are unable to produce a style and timbre suited to less earthy pieces. Here again, the Early Music Consort singers score. James Bowman is outstandingly successful in mediaeval music. He is not only one of the most powerful counter-tenors this country can have produced. He performs with tremendous rhythmic vitality, and brings much detailed characterisation into his singing that one misses with most others. The tenor Nigel Rogers combines similar skill with a more incisive articulation of words. Bowman is not as consistently successful in renaissance and baroque music. In the Consort's Homage to Purcell recital he took a long time to warm up, and only in Sound the trumpet did we hear what he really could do; but here he was slightly ill-matched with counter-tenor Charles Brett. Bowman was on much better form in a programme of consort songs and instrumental pieces with the English Consort of Viols in the Purcell Room on November 19, where he was somewhat better partnered with Paul Esswood.
Instrumentation in mediaeval music is another stumbling-block in performance. Munrow tends more and more to concentrate on scoring that uses a selection of the available instruments, rather than putting the whole lot on show. This is a better policy because so often it relates to other elements in the masic. The 14th-century French recital referred to above is a case in point. Munrow's scoring actually assisted the pungent harmonies, made more obvious the rhythmic independence of the lines in some of the more complicated pieces. Occasionally, in the past Munrow has tended to allow his improvisatory enthusiasm to run riot, so that the basic structure of a piece has been blotted out. He is now more selective, more capable of choosing the exact moment to dazzle. By contrast, Musica Reservata still seem to me at the fun-stage: except that it is often more fun for the players than for the audience. The instrumentation of pieces in a Musica Reservata programme can give the impression of having been cooked up at the last moment to fulfil a quirky notion or fantasy of their director, Michael Morrow. To the audience it can just sound badly prepared. Direction of an ensemble of assorted mediaevalists is a tricky business also. Munrow seems to spread a contagion for high standards among his colleagues. John Beckett, in the Musica Reservata concerts, seems as out of place as a hippopotamus in a goldfish tank: as a keyboard-player he is very neat, but his presence on the rostrum inhibits. Rhythm and tempo become comatose, and ensemble frequently goes awry.
Summing up, it is the case, I think, that fools are rushing on to the early-music scene where angels tread with caution. The repertory of mediaeval music is not so large that one doesn't soon get the impression that one is hearing the same piece yet again on yet a clumsier combination of shawms and crumhorns. Instrumental performances are frequently amateurish. Singers often sound as if someone behind is sticking a finger in them. It is easy to win applause from the large majority by going through the motions of authenticity, For many it is still just a joke: witness the recent television film on mediaeval music, introduced by that great authority on musicological matters, Clement Freud. The fact is, however, that many listeners will get as far with pre-classical music as they have with sitar improvisations: they will quite enjoy the sound, but rarely get inside it. Many will ultimately find it boring, like public simulations of sexual intercourse. To ensure that listeners' attention is engaged at the deepest level takes a lot of thought and preparation. Munrow is among the few who have demonstrated that it can be done.