PURBECK is becoming a hot spot for outstanding chamber music and vocal ensembles, with Purbeck Chamber Music Festival in the late summer, and the exciting series of concerts during Purbeck Art Weeks in May and June.
Some of the country’s leading classical musicians and singers, including cellist Natalie Clein, artistic director of the chamber music festival, regularly perform in churches and historic venues bringing the finest music, from medieval to contemporary to this beautiful part of Dorset.
The 2018 Purbeck Art Weeks programme included the Gabrieli Consort, Natalie Clein with mezzo soprano Olivia Ray, the Durufle Trio, I Fagiolini, and the peerless young vocal ensemble, Fieri Consort, who have become festival favourites.
Their programme, The Unknown Traveller, was an exploration of Musica Transalpina, a 1588 collection of early Italian madrigals that had been “Englished” by an unknown translator. The arrival in England of these exquisite works led to the development of the English madrigal style.
So this was not madrigals as we know them – the intricate and often intellectual musical delights that celebrate love and loss, the beauties of nature and stories from the classical myths. Rather, these were complex, profoundly moving polyphonic settings of biblical texts as well as laments of idealised love.
Wareham’s beautiful Priory church of Lady St Mary has an acoustic that is perfectly suited to this music, allowing the audience to hear every word and every layer of interwoven musical line from the eight singers.
The first half of the programme, mainly “Englished” Italian songs, included examples of late polyphony, such as Palestrina’s In Every Place I Find My Grief and Orlando di Lasso’s The Nightingale So Pleasant and So Gay, and ended with The Fair Young Virgin, a subtle praising of Queen Elizabeth I by their English contemporary William Byrd.
The second half moved back across the mountains to Italian song, exploring other cultural exchanges of the period. These included three madrigals by Philippe Verdelot, from a collection sent as a gift from the city-state of Florence to Henry VIII. One of these, O Dolce Nocte was written to be performed between the acts of his play La Mandragola (The Mandrake) by Machiavelli, who is rather better known for his political advice in The Prince!
Another cultural connection came in two madrigals by Luca Marenzio, Cruda Amarilli and Ombrose e Care Selve, part of a collection that draws on texts from a popular play, Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd), and is a significant step between madrigals and opera.
The concert ended on a perfect duet of songs, Philippo de Monte’s Super Flumina Babylonis (By the waters of Babylon) and Byrd’s answering setting, from the same psalm, of Quomodo Cantibimus? (How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?)
The purity of the Fieri Consort’s voices, singing this repertoire in this historic setting with its bell-like acoustic was simply sublime.