‘Tis Nature’s Voice: music for tenor and lute at Sherborne Abbey Festival

NOW in its 19th year, Sherborne Abbey Festival was founded in 2000 to celebrate music within the inspiring setting of local historic churches, schools and, of course, the Abbey itself. And as this year’s publicity tells us, with up to 70% of the performances being completely free, the festival can rightly claim to be one of the most accessible in the UK.

Cheap Street Church was the setting for one of the first concerts of the 2018 season – ‘Tis Nature’s Voice: music for tenor and lute. Not as inspiring as the Abbey itself maybe, but with its warm acoustic and good sight lines it was the perfect venue, while the concert itself was a real treat and enjoyed by a large and enthusiastic audience. The programme was, for the most part, a sequence of English, French and Italian songs written for the various European courts. It was given by Kieran White and Elizabeth Kenny, and featured some of the most exquisite music of the 17th century – songs which not only well suited the technique, quality and range of the singer’s voice but enabled us to appreciate something refreshingly different as an accompanying instrument as well. Purcell and Monteverdi were, of course, well represented, but there were some less familiar names too including, I must confess, a couple that I had never heard of.

Tenor Kieran White, a native of Dorset and former head chorister at Wells Cathedral, recently gained his masters at the Royal Academy of Music where he studied with Neil Mackie and Iain Ledingham.   He was joined by Elizabeth Kenny, one of Europe’s leading lutenists.   Head of Early Music and Professor of Musical Performance at the University of Southampton, she has played with many of the world’s greatest period instrument groups and has a wealth of experience in a wide variety of approaches to music making.   This is something which came across not only in her sensitive accompanying but also in her informative and often humorous spoken introductions.

The recital began with Thomas Morley’s familiar setting of “It was a Lover and his Lass”.  With impeccable diction and a consummate sense of performance, soloist and accompanist captured completely the ardour and spirit of the song which came across with the bright, light freshness of early spring.  It led seamlessly into another lyrical piece from the English court, Anthony Holborne’s “The Fairy Round” – a solo for the lute.  This, in fact was one of the notable features of the afternoon.  The use of the lute not only to accompany the singer but to link together groups of pieces, often in a semi-improvisatory way, helped maintain the atmosphere throughout and significantly added to our overall enjoyment. John Wilbye’s “Weep, Weep Mine Eyes” which followed, was a fitting contrast to the Morley and the Holborne.  One of the very few melancholy songs of the afternoon, Kieran White maintained a beautiful legato line in a piece that was filled with drama and sombre intensity.

We then made the first of two visits to the French court with pieces by Guédron and Charpentier, two airs de cour – a type of secular vocal music popular during the reign of Louis XIII.  As one might have expected, both were filled with typical French passion and, incidentally were every bit as good to watch as they were to listen to – the singer delivering his words with fervour and the accompanist dazzling us with her dexterity!

Following our brief stopover in France, Elizabeth Kenny moved to a rather impressive theorbo, a large lute with the neck extended to carry several long bass strings.  This was used to accompany two Purcell songs: “Tis Nature’s Voice” and “If Music be the Food of Love”.  The first was, of course, the title of the afternoon’s programme and a real tour de force for both singer and instrumentalist.  Kieran White’s delivery of the composer’s florid melisma (when a group of notes are sung to a single syllable) and all-important word painting came across quite effortlessly while the richer timbre of the theorbo provided a suitably stirring accompaniment and added considerably to the power of the performance. The theorbo as a solo instrument was then featured in a beautiful Chaconne.  Written by Robert de Visée, Elizabeth Kenny introduced the repeating bass figure, one of the distinguishing features of a chaconne, by means of some exploratory improvisation that demonstrated the depth and sonority of the instrument.  The performance was mesmerising, never more so than when the music was at its very quietest.

More exquisite Charpentier and Purcell followed, “Tristes Déserts, Sombre Retraite” and “I Attempt from Love’s Sickness” the former in particular being given a truly heart-breaking performance by Kieran White whose phrasing, especially in the higher passages, came across with an easy beauty.   The recital concluded with pieces by the Italian Monteverdi; pieces which covered the same emotional range as those heard in the hitherto entirely secular programme but two of which were settings of sacred texts.  I am sure I cannot have been the only one completely bewitched by the striking delivery of the vocal line in “Nigra Sum”, for me the highlight of the afternoon, while the quasi-antiphonal alleluias and joyous dancing rhythms of “Laudate Dominum” certainly praised the Lord for all they were worth.

It was privilege to see and hear a young soloist at the beginning of what promises to be an exciting career enjoying such a close rapport with such an experienced and versatile accompanist.  With luck we can look forward to a return visit from both in the not too distant future.


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