Classical Music Review: Boston Early Music Festival — The King’s Singers and Ayreheart

Boston Early Music Festival tossed a bang-up evening of performances on Monday night.

The King's Singers.

The King’s Singers — their very British charm easily won over an already-smitten audience.

By Susan Miron

The Boston Early Music Festival had a banner evening on Monday. The 8 p.m. concert featured England’s renowned King’s Singers, crowd-pleasers for nearly fifty years. The group (made up of Patrick Dunachie and Timothy Wayne-Wright, countertenors; Julian Gregory, tenor; Christopher Breurton and Christopher Gabbitas, baritone; and Jonathan Howard, bass) is celebrated for a cappella performances built on what is termed the “Pyramid of Sound,” a strong blend of bass/baritone on which the other voices sit.

While they often perform with instruments in recordings, for its BEMF appearance the King’s Singers performed a cappella. The program was entitled Worlds Colliding: Renaissance Heavyweights and featured sacred and secular music by mostly well-known composers who lived in the 1500s. The evening’s program notes explained that the King’s Singers began with six choral scholars performing liturgical music at King’s College: “As we tour the world today, we try to bring at least a small part of this tradition to every audience, but tonight we have the treat of being able to immerse ourselves fully in the treasure trove of early choral music that sits at the group’s core.”

And immerse they do. The King’s Singers is one of the most polished ensembles around. Clad in natty blue suits and patent leather shoes, hands held together at the waist, the renowned sextet ran as smoothly as a spoiled Maserati. Yes, the intonation was perfect, but even more impressive was the  group’s breathtaking timing, especially the way they began and ended their pieces. Each of the singers was given a chance to deliver a short talk about the chosen composers. Their very British charm easily won over an already-smitten audience.

The concert’s first half was mostly dedicated to the settings of eight psalms: in Hebrew, English, French, Latin, Flemish, and German. (King’s Singers have a lovely recording, Sacred Bridges, that features many of these compositions.) Three of the most gorgeous settings (Psalm 124, 128, and 118) are by Solomone Rossi Hebreo (ca. 1570-ca. 1630); lovers of Jewish choral music hold him in the highest esteem. Sacred Bridges provides texts in Hebrew, but here they were transliterated, then translated. The group’s exacting pronunciation was a delight to hear, as were the sensitive psalm settings by William Byrd, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Heinrich Schütz, and Orlando Lassus — all heavy-hitters. Two pieces by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina — “Surge proper mica mea” and “Sicut lilium inter spins” — were ravishing. The vocal ensemble sounded like an organ in Schütz’s motet “Das ist je geisslich wahr.”

The second, secular half featured three well-known (to those who like or are familiar with music of this period, anyway) composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Flemish polymath Orlandus Lassus had been a child star, purportedly kidnapped (three times!) by choirmasters anxious to feature his beautiful singing voice. His compositions account for 60% of all music printed in Europe between 1555 and 1600. One of the King’s Singers noted, with a smile, that “we think we know” what Lassus’s madrigal “Dessus le marché d’Arras” concerns — “but we’re British so we’d rather not say.” In Lassus’s “Chi chichi” the group made funny antiphonal cuckoo calls and pinched their noses while spouting nonsense syllables. Composer Carlo Gesualdo’s infamous bouts of mental instability (lewdness, violence, and sadism), culminating in the brutal murder of his wife and her lover, snakes its way into the harmonic daring in his “Moro, lasso, al mil duolo.” Josquin des Prez was represented by “Baisez-moy, ma doulce amye.”

For its encores, The King’s Singers moved their music stands aside, switched gears once again, and delighted fans with two hits by Hoagy Carmichael — “Lazy Bones” and “Up the Lazy River.”

It’s easy to hear why the King’s Singers have enjoyed such world-wide success; they served up an awe-inspiring set of performances, proving they can generate joy singing in any language or genre.

Ayreheart at Market Street Music.

Ayreheart at Market Street Music.

For years I couldn’t help but wonder: who shows up at the Boston Early Music Festival’s 11 p.m. “Fringe” concerts?  An appearance by the group Ayreheart – three plucked instruments, voice, and percussion finally made this reviewer curious enough to postpone her bedtime. It was held in the Fenway Center at Northeastern University and the hall was almost full by 10:40 p.m. Everyone stayed until the last note was sounded. (If you are a night owl — I am not — this is probably no big deal.)

Founded in 2010 by the charismatic singer and lute player Brian Kay, Ayreheart was established to enrich the repertoire for lute, the most popular instrument of the Renaissance. The group’s repertoire falls somewhere between art song and folk song; the band of four often sounds like a lively rock band, though it is performing on 3 lutes rather than guitars. The program, entitled Will You Walk the Woods so Wild: Ayres of Albion, featured Renaissance music from the British Isles, old ballad tunes from England, Scotland, and Wales, and music by John Dowland and William Byrd.

The three lutenists are the charismatic singer Brian Kay, Ronn McFarlane, and Williard Morris (his instrument is a colascione, a lute-ish instrument with a very long neck). Mattias Rucht is the group’s heartbeat, performing on a variety of percussion instruments. Their first tune, the slowish “Lully, Lulle,” came with such a long instrumental introduction that I was surprised when Kay began to sing. Sung in Old Scottish, “In a Garden So Green” (“Elore, Elore, I love my lusty love, Elore lo”) was written in 1682. It became a hit after the Baltimore Consort sang it twenty-five years ago.

John Dowland (1563-1626), a contemporary of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I, is the finest of all Elizabethan composers; he was represented by instrumental pieces (“Mr. Dowland’s Midnight” — Kay remarked he never recalls playing this SO close to midnight!, “Lady Hudson’s Puffe,” “Solus cum Solo,” and “M. George Whitehead his Almand”) and a song, his famous “Come Again.” I adore Dowland’s dulcet treatment of heartbreak, and Ayreheart played this lachrymose music beautifully.

Kay sang “Ddoi di Dai (David)” (c. 13th century), a slow, plangent ballad, in the traditional Welsh. With his eyes closed, Kay gently performed “Nottamun Town,” a song that was passed down from the late American singer, musician, and folklorist Jean Ritchie. “That recording,” Kay recalled, “re-introduced this to the British Isles… Bob Dylan heard it and used the tune for his “Masters of War.” Here Kay played what looked like a tiny guitar; the percussionist sat on a small box on which he tapped with the backs of his fingers.

“Two Corbies” (by the ever-shy Anonymous) or “Twa Corbies” is the Scottish version of “The Three Ravens.” This Scottish adaptation was narrated by Kay with great charm. The tune is definitely a spellbinder, though a grim one. (Death pervades many of the songs of this era). “John Barleycorn” is the tale of the murder of the title figure: “They plowed, sowed, and harrowed him in… They let him lie for a very long time…” And then, after more grimness, the tune turns into the tale of — yes! — barley and how it’s harvested and made into Scotch whiskey.

BEMF certainly knows how to throw a delightful late night Monday bash! Bravo to Ayreheart from a new fan; the troupe performed so well I never felt tired in the slightest.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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