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Lovely Airs

November 5, 2005

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We Appreciate

By Anna Carol Dudley

From opposite ends of the 17th century in England, John Dowland and Henry Purcell met in a concert Saturday night at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. The San Francisco Early Music Society presented a trio of viol players called Wildcat Viols — Joanna Blendulf on treble, Julie Jeffrey on tenor, and Elisabeth Reed on bass. They were joined by Catherine Webster, soprano, and Michael Leopold, lute (for Dowland) and theorbo (for Purcell).

The first half of the concert was given to Dowland, combining lute songs with instrumental pieces in pleasing combinations and alternations of sonic texture. A song became a piece for three viols, e.g. the Earl of Essex Galliard in place of Can she excuse my wrongs. Lachrimae — Flow my tears — was played as a lute solo rather than sung, and the Frog Galliard was heard first on the lute before it transmogrified into Now o now I needs must part. The combination of three viols worked beautifully: Blendulf playing the treble tunes, Reed providing both melodic and harmonic underpinning on bass, and Jeffrey expressively playing the inner voices on tenor.

Webster was particularly effective in the gorgeous Time stands still, singing the opening lines with beautiful tone and a kind of timeless feeling. Elizabethan songs are primarily poems, and when they are verse poems can be difficult to bring off — partly because the language is often convoluted, and partly because the singer needs to find some variety from verse to verse. The program opened with the charming, erotic Come again, accompanied by all four instruments and musically varied by Webster from verse to verse with tasteful ornamentation and a particularly lovely moment as the last verse began on "Gentle Love," the voice lingering on the phrase and accompanied momentarily only by lute. On the other hand, listeners became acutely aware of the fact that they found the words easy to understand in the verses they already knew, and incomprehensible in the others. This poetry is not easily understood in one hearing, and Webster needs to pay much more attention to verbal phrase structure and articulation. She is more comfortable with the grammar of music than with the grammar of words.

Some disparities

Sometimes a later verse would not fit the music as well as the first verse, particularly in Come heavy sleep, in which Webster's decisions about the word-underlay in the second verse were not particularly felicitous. The phrasing of Now o now I needs must part should have given more rhythmic emphasis to every fourth line, both in the voice and in the lute version which preceded it. It's a good thing that Can she excuse my wrongs? was only played, not sung, because its phrasing is completely obscured by modern bar lines.

Historically, the concert began in Elizabethan England. The intermission provided the audience with time to imagine the Puritan Commonwealth silencing church music and closing the theatres, driving music underground into people's houses, and the Restoration bringing music back into court, church and theatre. The second half of the concert presented Henry Purcell, born on the eve of the Restoration. Heavily influenced by Italian and French Baroque music, Purcell adapted the new style brilliantly to the English language and English instruments. The Wildcat Viols played three intricate, wonderfully crafted Fantasias. Adding theorbo to the mix, they expressed their wildness most fully in an extraordinary Pavan. Purcell gave Webster extra scope — some lively passagework, as in Strike the viol, and a splendid song in Purcell's best recitative style, O fair Cedaria. In the latter song, Purcell's music transforms a rather pedestrian text, and Webster made the most of it, nicely supported by theorbo at the beginning with the addition of bass viol continuo as it proceeded.

An apt closure

The concert ended with a particularly appropriate song from King Arthur, Fairest Isle, first played then with voice added. There is a controversial high A in the opening phrase; some earlier editions made it A flat and others later omitted the flat. The problem with Purcell is that so much of his music, including this song, was published after his death. Timothy Roberts, in his carefully researched edition for Oxford, makes a convincing case for the A flat. Webster sang the A natural, which gave the song a rather shrill sound, convincing me that Roberts is right.

An encore was Silver Dagger, an Appalachian folk song with roots in Elizabethan times, arranged for this ensemble. True to form, Webster could not make her words understood, but she sang with such a striking change of sound and style and such musical expression that the large, attentive, enthusiastic audience loved it.

(Anna Carol Dudley is a singer, teacher, member of the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State University, lecturer emerita and director emerita of the San Francisco Early Music Society's Baroque Music Workshop.)

©2005 Anna Carol Dudley, all rights reserved