The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall stage was bare, but for an upholstered adjustable piano stool, an orchestra chair, and between them a waist-high plinth. The near capacity audience applauded enthusiastically as our evening’s Great Performers took their places, Jakob Lindberg with his lute on the piano stool on stage right, and Dame Emma Kirkby to his left on the chair.
With her unique voice and stylish interpretation of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music known and loved throughout the world, she has been unofficial Queen of Early Music since the early 1980s. Created a Dame of the British Empire in 2007, this formalised her already legendary status, and Emma has demonstrated that to be a great soprano one can be both a brilliant soloist and fine ensemble singer, and can achieve pure musical magic, valuing “clarity and stillness above volume and display”, as the program biography noted.
Swedish lutenist Jakob Lindberg is also a star in his own right. Linberg studied in London and has extensive experience with the various instruments of the lute and guitar families. He has made many significant recordings including the complete solo lute repertoires of John Dowland and J S Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and Boccherini on period instruments, and Scottish lute music. While still performing as a continuo player and accompanist, Jakob is highly regarded internationally for his live solo lute performances.
Dappled light on the stage was warm and intimate, the wood looking particularly beautiful, and there was just enough light in the auditorium to be able to read the extensive program notes and follow the texts. But could the small sound of lute and voice project to the whole auditorium? Ears strained at first, but very quickly adjusted. Once you reduce your field of listening, everything becomes clear. Placing the lute to the right of the singer allows its body to project the sound into the space, and with both performers seated, the sound all emanates from very close quarters. The plinth revealed itself as the stand for the iPad used by Lindberg.
The first half of the program was devoted to the English lute song, reaching the great John Dowland via some of his contemporaries. A group of four lute songs by John Danyel (1564-c.1626) began the program. In his only book of songs, he sets his poet brother Samuel’s beautiful texts. Like as the Lute, a song of word play about music and love, gave Kirkby the opportunity to sing to the lute. In the following three songs, she also used minimal but effective hand gestures, and particularly in He whose desires are still abroad I see, some well-articulated ornamentation. The lute accompaniment here was also clear, beautifully fluent, and completely in sync with every breath of this galliard, a beautiful but quiet celebration of life. With Eyes, look no more, in full pavan form, stately and calm, yet rhythmically inventive, we were back in the territory of the darkness of despair. Kirkby knows how to use text to its maximum effect, the line “But Sorrow, Griefe, Affliction and Despair” giving her great opportunity to use consonants and vowels to colour her voice. This beautiful piece is a reworking of Dowland’s famous Flow my tears.
Throughout 16th century Europe the lute was an important instrument. In the Tudor Court both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I learned the instrument, and there were five lutenists in the Queen’s royal service. One of them, Edward Collard composed the next two pieces on the program, a setting of the popular tune Go from my window, and A ground, a recurring bass theme over which the lutenist wrote variations. In these solo works, we heard some stunning playing from Lindberg, the exquisitely shaped effortlessness of the melody singing freely above a lacework accompaniment of increasing complexity.
Three charming songs by Robert Jones (c.1577 – 1617) followed. Although contrasting musically, the first two again dwelt on themes of despair, the first Lie down poor heart, with the melancholic refrain to each verse “Lie down and die, and then thou shalt do well”, and the second slightly more hopeful, though eventually deciding that love in our world is only fake news. The final song of the group Farewell dear love was a lighter look at love and despair, from which Shakepeare misquoted to comic effect in Twelfth Night. Reminiscent of Jones’ Sweet Kate, the repeated sections at the end of each verse permitted Kirkby to embroider the melody with some very beautiful ornamentation, accompanied superbly by Lindberg.
To begin the Dowland bracket, Lindberg played a pavan and galliard. His superb playing always gave rise to the sweetest melodies, and the substantial embellishment was always in keeping with the overall structure. A rhapsodic Fantasie concluded this substantial and very beautiful solo bracket.
Kirkby must have sung these Dowland songs a great many times, and she approached them with great poetic insight. The music, and the music-making increased a few notches at this point. Repeated sections in The lowest trees have tops gave her the opportunity to demonstrate exquisite use of English language. “Seas have their source, and so have shallowe springs, and love is love in beggars and in kings” was exquisitely sung, then she surpassed herself with “True hearts have eyes and eares, no tongue to speake: they heare, and see, and sigh, and then they breake”.
Burst forth my tears, and Sweet stay awhile the final songs before interval presented more opportunities to display Kirkby’s wonderful use of consonants in the text, placing the voice for colouring the vowels that follow, the bloom of the voice in sustained notes, and the superb collaboration of singer and lutenist.
The interval gave many in the audience a chance to catch up and reminisce about performances and recordings they’d heard in past decades. Kirkby is in the autumn of her performing career. So what has changed? While the sparkling top notes are no longer evident – she didn’t need to put them on display for this repertoire – there is a maturity and richness in the lower part of the voice, and a large palette of vocal colours. Her ability to articulate text is better than ever, and the clarity of her ornamentation is still brilliant. When she sings, her gestures, body language, voice and facial expressions are compelling, and while she doesn’t sing fortissimo, there is still a huge dynamic range at the other end of the scale.
The man next to me complained that the music had been too gloomy, and I did notice some empty seats after interval. Perhaps they hadn’t been told that Renaissance audiences expected to be subjected to a full range of emotions. It was through experiencing the phlegmatic, the choleric, sanguine and melancholic that the humours were revived and rebalanced.
Anyone who didn’t return missed the best part of the concert. Beginning with Francois Richard’s (1580-1650) Ruisseau qui cours après toi-même – another sad piece, an elegy for the drowned Sylvie – then Antoine Boesset’s (1586 – 1643) N’esperez plus mes yeux, another lament with superb distinctly French style ornamentation, my neighbour was possibly feeling more despairing. But Kirkby’s singing had come up a few notches further, she was more animated, and the audience was even more focused. Pierre Guédron (1564-1620) certainly had a connection with the Dowland family, and his love declaration Si jamais mon âme blessée was more positive in message, if still haunting.
Kirkby’s old French pronunciation was beautifully clear, and all that she did in using language in English was used to equal effect in French, Latin and Italian, as the program unfolded.
Following a couple of superb Robert Ballard (c.1575-1650+) lute solos, the second more rustic and very much less morose, Alonso Mudarra’s (1510 – 1580) Dulces exuvice returned the mood to dark, with Kirkby’s voice exhibiting a much darker quality to sing Dido’s dying words in a setting of lines from Virgil’s Aeneid. Sung in Latin pronunciation of the period, classics scholar Kirkby brought real drama to this monologue.
Three instrumental pieces by Spanish vihuelistas Narvaez, Milan and Mudarra were performed by Lindberg on the lute rather than vihuela. An outstanding player, an excellent instrument, a very sympathetic acoustic and an acutely attentive audience allow this sort of performance to fly. Brilliant florid passages, always tastefully within the framework of the piece frantically ascended in the passages leading to a final glorious cadence.
Giulio Caccini’s (1552-1618) Dovrò dunque morire with its early Baroque cadential decoration, and an anonymous little gem of florid ornamentation O bella più led to the highlight of the evening, Tarquino Merula’s (1594-1665) Canzonetta spirituale sopra La Nanna. Using just two notes a semitone apart as a bass ostinato to represent the rocking of the cradle at Bethlehem, the Virgin sings to her child in a haunting natural minor. The hypnotic accompaniment anchors the musings of the Virgin as she sees the Christ child, feeds him and comforts him but harbours deep concerns for his future. The lullaby for the baby is also recognition that they will eventually be together in Paradise. Kirkby excelled here. One cannot imagine a voice more tender or more poignant.
Greeted with rapturous applause, a seemingly reluctant short lute song was presented as an encore. No words were spoken by either performer during the evening. The presentation was simple, but very rich and needed no more. They had lived up to their Great Performers label.
As always, Emma and Jakob have engaged generously with students during their brief time in Melbourne, with a capacity masterclass the day before the concert. I was unable to attend this time, though I have been very fortunate to have experienced the generosity of Emma Kirkby in her role as a teacher thirty years ago. Her performance this evening remains the embodiment of the advice she was giving all those years ago.
Emma Kirkby and Jacob Lindberg were at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Wednesday, November 15, as part of the Great Performers Concert Series 2017.