Impressive Performances of 17th Century Music from Blaze and Kenny

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Dowland, Campion, Purcell, Kapsberger, Lawes, de Visée:  Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), Elizabeth Kenny (lute & theorbo), Great Hall, Dartington. 6.6.2015 (PRB)

Elizabeth Kenny & Robin Blaze Photo Credit: Philip
Elizabeth Kenny & Robin Blaze Photo Credit: Philip R. Buttall


‘Tis Nature’s Voice: Solo Song in Seventeenth-Century England


Dowland: Clear or Cloudy
The King of Denmark’s Galliard
Can she excuse my wrongs?
Captain Digorie Piper’s Galliard
Me, me and none but me
Campion: Author of Light
The Cypress Curtain of the Night
Dowland: Forlorn Hope Fancy
In darkness let me dwell
Purcell: Be welcome then great sir
Kapsberger: Bergamasca
Purcell: Music for a while
Henry Lawes: Amaryllis by a stream
Purcell arr. Kenny: Theatre Ayres for theorbo
Purcell: By beauteous softness
de Visée: Suite in D
Purcell: ‘Tis Nature’s Voice
Evening Hymn


Totnes is a market town at the head of the estuary of the River Dart in South Devon in South West England some twenty or so miles south of the county town of Exeter. It has a long recorded history dating back to AD 907, and today is a thriving centre for music, art, theatre – and natural health.

In 1999 Totnes Early Music Society (TEMS) was set up to offer historically-informed recitals in the genre, regularly bringing leading exponents and ensembles to the area. The town is also close to Dartington where the Great Hall forms part of the original manor house built in 1388, but which, when Leonard and Dorothy Elmhurst purchased the Dartington Hall Estate in 1925, was in ruins – just four walls without a roof. It was then restored for use as a performance space from 1926 to 1937, and now features in the international Summer School which opens there this August. TEMS concerts are given in association with The Arts at Dartington, which often hosts at least event each season.

It was a great disappointment when this final recital in the current season was postponed in April due to the singer’s indisposition. But, as if by divine intervention, the rescheduled date happened on a glorious summer evening, and thus it would have been even harder to imagine a more fitting venue for this charming programme of music largely from seventeenth-century England than the Great Hall. Acoustically it proved ideal for the essentially delicate strains of such often intimate and personal writing, but, as dusk approached, even this seemed to mirror and heighten some of the darker sentiments heard in the music, too.

Counter-tenor Robin Blaze was on splendid form, with a voice absolutely tailor-made for music of this period .There was no operatic gesturing, even though virtuosity was there when needed, but simply singing of unfettered sincerity, where the sense of every word and sometimes every syllable was so carefully considered, and conveyed so faithfully.

From the very opening, there was a truly impressive clarity of diction, and such easy delivery. Facial gestures and body movements perfectly complemented the spirit of the text – never overdone for mere effect, but still always in place to heighten the overall impact. Blaze sang the most of the programme from memory, but even where the score was to hand, it never once intruded or compromised the vital bond between singer and audience.

Programme notes gave a wealth of useful information and background to every item heard, but both performers still took time out to introduce items, often injecting some occasional light-hearted humour or anecdote, and not falling into the time-honoured trap of merely repeating what could otherwise be just as easily read. Blaze reviewed the content and design of the programme, pointing out that, come the interval, the mood would certainly be a lot more serious than at the start, with such vocal treasures as Dowland’s Forlorn Hope Fancy, and In darkness let me dwell. It was a piece of astute planning to mix vocal and instrumental items in such a way as to provide the voice with sufficient points of repose, while never impeding the clear sense of onward progression. Indeed, one of the additional delights was merely to watch Blaze visibly responding to the superb lute playing while ostensibly resting – something which would have been completely missed, had he felt the need to vacate the stage each time – and much more in the spirit in which this music would originally have been delivered, rather than as any kind of formal recital as such.

Elizabeth Kenny matched Blaze to sheer perfection, accompanying with the greatest empathy, as well as balancing total technical control with such poignant expression in her lute and theorbo solos. The ornamentations always flowed seamlessly, never excessive or in any way intrusive, yet always sufficiently varied to maintain interest from start to finish. Kenny’s choice of programme proved equally effective, from Dowland’s somewhat more intellectually-conceived Preludium and Fantasia, stylised dance music like The King of Denmark’s, or Captain Digorie Piper’s Galliards, the more rumbustious  Theatre Ayres for theorbo, where the extra bass strings were heard to great effect, or arguably the evening’s instrumental highlight – Robert de Visée’s impressive Suite in D.

Indeed, there could hardly have been a more fitting close to the current TEMS season than this superlative recital by two such eminently-gifted, yet unassuming artists, who enjoyed such a wonderfully relaxed rapport with their riveted audience throughout.

Philip R Buttall

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