Apollo’s Fire conjures up the Renaissance in Akron

United StatesUnited States ‘Scarborough Fayre’ – works by Dowland, Baltzar, Purcell and others: Amanda Powell (soprano), Brian Kay (tenor, lute), Parker Ramsay (tenor, harp), Peter Walker (bass, harp), Apollo’s Fire / Jeannette Sorrell (director), First United Methodist Church, Akron, Ohio, 21.11.2019. (MSJ)

Alan Choo (baroque violin) and Brian Kay (lute) in a pre-concert talk
(c) Mark Jordan

Shrewdly, Apollo’s Fire continually develops key repertory, parts of which can be used again in different contexts. Last summer, for instance, they presented English Renaissance works in Far Beyond the Sea, alongside guests The Early Folk Band. Here, in Scarborough Fayre: Music from Merry Old England, they revisited a couple of those, but within a context of more sophistication.

The centerpiece was a set by Henry Purcell and John Dowland featuring the entire ensemble, with solos by the pellucid soprano Amanda Powell (‘Sweeter than Roses’ and ‘If Music be the Food of Love’) and the probing lutenist Brian Kay (in Dowland’s Fantasia in G). Kay compellingly captures that old-fashioned sense of speaking through the instrument, like an Artur Schnabel or an Andres Segovia. Even in the technically formidable Dowland, Kay was never about achieving the correct notes. That is a given, and his concentration sought to explore why the composer ever bothered writing the notes down in the first place, ultimately making the listener grateful he did.

Likewise, Powell is a formidable interpreter, with an almost epic theatricality. A fairly small-scale ballad like the traditional ‘Scarborough Fayre’ can seem initially overburdened by Powell’s voice, but such is her level of commitment, she convinced by pure intensity. More perfectly suited to her power was one of the carry overs from last summer, ‘The Four Maries’, a Scottish ballad that tells of the tragic end of a lady-in-waiting seduced by the king. With palace gossip assigned to assisting vocalists Brian Kay and Peter Walker, the song was a theatrical tour de force as Powell sunk deep into the persona of the doomed girl. It was impressive last summer, but it was even more powerful here.

Speaking of Peter Walker, he has a grand and robust bass voice used with flair in the opening ‘Cries of London’ (the Durfey set, not the more famous Gibbons) as the singers entered through the audience. He was also enjoyably indignant in ‘The Cutpurse’, using ‘Packington’s Pound’ as the melody for the Ben Jonson text, while Brian Kay played the part of a thief, stealing a planted purse in the audience. Kay, Walker, and harpist Parker Ramsay joined together for a boisterous romp through Thomas Ravenscroft’s ‘We be Soldiers Three’.

Ramsay had a star moment as the man regarded as the last of the great bardic harpers, Turlough O’Carolan (or Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin for those who prefer the original Gaelic). ‘O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music’ was liltingly done in authentic Celtic style — harp strings sounded with fingernails instead of the flesh of the finger — as modern harps are plucked. This gives the instrument a piercing poignancy, balancing O’Carolan’s brilliance with resonance of the British bardic tradition.

Alan Choo was lively and engaging on both the baroque violin and the older medieval vielle, eagerly joined by Susanna P. Gilmore for Thomas Baltzar’s variations on ‘John Come Kiss Me Now’. Gilmore joined with Tina Bergmann’s buoyant hammered dulcimer for a pair of Scottish songs arranged by cellist René Schiffer and music director Jeannette Sorrell who presided over the evening at the harpsichord, and it was Sorrell who arranged everything else heard in this concert. She and traverso flautist Kathie Stewart were featured on a joining of ‘Flowers of the Forest’ and ‘The Flower Rownde’.

Schiffer provided rock-solid basso continuo throughout the evening. In doing so, he gave a textbook lesson in the importance of the continuo, by effectively driving the engine provoking his fellow players to new levels of vigor. He also had his moment with more melodic material in a pair of hornpipes from Purcell’s King Arthur.

The entire show had a tongue-in-cheek conceit of taking the audience on a trip through the English countryside of the late 1500s through the early 1600s. But the program gave listeners a new level of engagement with the music of this period and place. In decades of listening, I have heard the traditional ‘Watkins Ale’ any number of times without being impressed. Here, presented unvarnished, with its original bawdy lyrics and an unstoppable band, it became evident why it was a hit — it rocked.

 Mark Sebastian Jordan

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