The Sorrows of Love in a Dominican Priory

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mazzochi, Luzzaschi, Monteverdi, Caccini, Frescobaldi, Draghi, Campkin, Piccinini, Doni, Carissimi, Lanier, Rossi: Galàn (Alison Hill, Katy Hill, Lucy Page), Christopher Bucknall (harpsichord), Manuel Minguillion (theorbo), Three Choirs Festival, Blackfriars Priory, Gloucester, 28.7.2013. (RJ)

Back in the 16th century if you were lucky and distinguished enough, Duke Alfonso II of Ferrara might have invited you to one of his concerts at which his concerto delle donne (consort of ladies) would provide the entertainment. This was an ensemble of professional female singers who were paid a salary and contributed greatly to the revolution that was taking place in Italian secular music where words were becoming just as important as the notes – or perhaps more so.

Galàn are, so to speak, the modern-day equivalent of the concerto delle donne – three sopranos who recreated the music of that era in a building which would have existed then – even if Henry VIII had recently dissolved it. Blackfriars Priory has recently been turned into a hall suitable for recitals, and this was the first Three Choirs Festival event to take place within its walls. I’m pleased to report that its acoustics are excellent – far better than those of its grander cousin St Peter’s Abbey, now Gloucester Cathedral.

The recital began with Folle cor, Mazzochi’s warning not to be enticed by the splendour of beautiful faces (lo splendor dei bei sembianti), and was followed by the languid O dolcezze amarissime d’amore by Don Alfonso’s court organist, Luzzasco Luzzaschi which considers the bitter sweetness of love. Two items – by Monteverdi and Caccini – addressed birds and compared human sorrows to theirs ….. at which point some light relief was provided in the Toccata decima by Frescobaldi played with vigour by harpsichordist Christopher Bucknall.

The most interesting piece – and also the longest – was Lo specchio (The Mirror) a dramatic concerto by Antoni Draghi to celebrate the birthday of Lady Leonora, presumably his patron. It extols the virtues of a mirror, which is an image of the truth – neither a flatterer nor an admirer – and of justice, purity, prudence and constancy. This proved to be a particularly joyful cantata – no hint of melancholy here – and full of complex decorated passages sung with panache by the trio.

The audience was transported briefly into the 21st century with Alexander Campkin’s I saw Eternity sung a capella from the back of the hall – a mysterious motet with appealing dissonances. I was glad that sacred music was not squeezed out entirely as Alessandro Grandi’s motet O beata Virgo, beautifully sung, sounded just right in this once sacred place with a particularly fervent plea for intercession at the end.

Manuel Minguillion performed a sequence of solos on his theorbo. Piccinini’s Toccata VI sounded rather gentle and subdued compared to the earlier harpsichord toccata, but the two correnti by Giuseppe Antonio Doni sparkled with life. Lucy Page’s bouncy solo Si dia bando alla speranza byCarissimi, advising lovers to banish all hope, began a section devoted to the problems love brings with it. Luzzaschi’s No sa che sia dolore wasa much more heartfelt and serious affair in which the three voices blended well together.

Nicholas Lanier’s Love and I of late did part,nicely sung by Katy Hill, brought a refreshingly English feel to the recital after so much Italian languour, and the afternoon ended on a martial note with Luigi Rossi’s Fan battaglia, an emotional battle which seemed like the real thing. This was a fascinating and varied afternoon supplemented with poems by Donne, Herbert and Sir John Suckling.

There are many smaller recitals of high quality like this one taking place alongside the large concerts in the Cathedral, and the Three Choirs Festival organisers deserve praise for attracting such a diversity of talent.

Roger Jones