Emma Kirkby and Fretwork

Classical Music Review

Arts Review

Emma Kirkby and Fretwork

First Presbyterian Church, Oct. 8

Soprano Emma Kirkby and the English viol consort Fretwork drew audiences from around the state to the cozy setting of First Presbyterian Church last Friday. On another night these celebrated early musicians would have filled a much larger space, but this was the night of a presidential debate, which left many seats empty but created an intriguing context for an evening of music from an especially tumultuous time in English history. The three-way tug-of-war among Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans accounts for political messages secreted into the courtly arts between the reigns of the two Marys, and the program notes connected this intrigue with frustrations that so many Britons and Americans share about the current political situation.

Fretwork's efforts to reintroduce the endangered fretted viol into a new habitat are abetted by commissions from folks like Elvis Costello, Gavin Bryars, and Tan Dun, and the ensemble's egalitarianism has them resisting a homogenized timbral blend in the way that Kirkby sings without the Romantic gingerbread of vibrato. Modern string quartets play matched Stradivarii or Amatis and strive for a blended sound, not unlike received pronunciation. For the sake of this very polyphonic music, Fretwork's viol players don't succumb to that pressure: The physiognomies of the viols, forebears of the standard classical four-pack, are as distinctive from one another as the people playing them.

Out of this emerges a focus on musical dialogue that brings to mind the personalities of commedia dell'arte or popular music, where Stratocasters, Les Pauls, Rickenbackers, and Martins mingle freely. Richard Boothby plays closer to the bridge, bringing out the treble, while William Hunt plays away from it, eliciting a rounder, more grandfatherly sound.

This individuality of voices befits this very contrapuntal music. In the "In Nomines," the part of the plainchant "Gloria Tibi Trinita" becomes a lattice upon which the counterpoint weaves its vining patterns: all necessarily similar but all distinct. While voices industriously follow one another down imitative musical paths, they almost never travel side by side, making those rare moments when they come to rest on a shared chord, as in Orlando Gibbons' setting, something that unfrets your brow – momentarily still waters that can't, and don't, last long.

Kirkby, who came to the profession not as a trained singer who chose early music but as an Oxford-trained classicist and chorister immensely sensitive to words and able to bring out their sense and feeling with the smallest nuance, brought a lamblike simplicity to "My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is," to which Fretwork gave reassuring, clockwork accompaniment. The song's exercise in wishful positive imagery is of the sort that Dorothy Parker might have amended with " ... and I am Marie of Romania."

First Presbyterian was the right sort of venue not just to appreciate the lightness of Kirkby's voice but for the power her performance gained from her individual contact with members of the audience. If her simplicity could be as sweet as a lamb, it could also be as sharp as Occam's razor, as she showed in the cryptic "My Mistress Had a Little Dog," an elegy/broadside that might be about the execution of Elizabeth I's favorite, Robert Devereux. Although its secret remains safe from us, Kirkby sang this with pointed fervency. Where the music trembled to color the words "my heart with grief doth shake," she let the shaking possess her.

Because so many of the songs left us at the precipice of death, there was perhaps an unfortunate sameness to the wide-eyed foreboding that returned to her face at songs' ends, making her appear like a tender, pious supplicant from a pre-Raphaelite painting.

There was more to admire than Kirkby's beautiful singing. She admitted to never being sure about the meanings of two Walter Raleigh texts, and leaving the ambiguity unresolved made this music harder to just tuck away, something to ponder more closely.

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Emma Kirkby, Fretwork, First Presbyterian Church, Richard Boothby, William Hunt, William Byrd, "Browning", "My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is", "My Mistress Had a Little Do"

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