Dame Emma Kirkby and Friends beautifully perform a programme of high imagination and distinction

United KingdomUnited Kingdom LIVE from London SpringAbiding Love: Dame Emma Kirkby and Friends (Dame Emma Kirkby [soprano] with Toby Carr [lute/theorbo/guitar], Helen Charlston, Patricia Hammond [mezzo], Christopher Glynn [piano], Aileen Henry [baroque harp], Matt Redman [accordion, banjo, guitar, organ]). Livestreamed from the VOCES8 Centre, London, 14.3.2021. (CC)

Dame Emma Kirkby and Friends

Hildegard of BingenDe Sancta Maria
MonteverdiVenite, sitientes, ad aquas Domini
MerulaCanzonetta spirituale sopra La Nanna
Strozzi – O Maria, per la Madonna
PurcellThe Blessed Virgin’s expostulation
CastaldiCapriccio detto Buschizzolo
HindemithDas Marienleben: No. 4, Mariä Heimschung
Clémence de GrandvalStabat Mater: Iuxta Crucem
CoplandNature, the gentlest mother
Juliana HallTo Mother
Ilse WeberWiegala
George Frederick Root – Just before the battle, mother
Julia Ward HoweAppeal to Womanhood throughout the World
Al PiantodosiI didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier
Margarita Mimi Fariña – Bread and Roses

Curated by Dame Emma Kirkby, this was a Mothering Sunday celebration that, in Kirkby’s own words, allows for ‘a broader and deeper meanings of the word mother’; it also reminds us that our Sunday in Lent is mirrored by the American Mother’s Day in May. In the pre-concert discussion, Emma Kirkby referenced Constance Smith (1878-1938), responsible for the reinstatement of Mother’s Day in the UK; but also suggested that there is a fourfold distinction to be made between maternalities: mother church, mothers in earthly homes, Mary, Mother of Jesus and Mother Nature.

Wonderful to hear some Hildegard, sung here by Kirkby, Charlston and Patricia Hammond with the drone performed (remarkably convincingly) on accordion. Charlston’s pure mezzo was beautifully modulated; interesting to hear how much drama Kirkby in particular found in Hildegard’s lines.

The Monteverdi is a duet for Kirkby and Charlston: Venite, sitientes, ad aquas Domini (Come, you thirsty, to the breast of God) with a continuo of harp and theorbo. The performance had just that sense of spring in its step that benefits Monteverdi so superbly.

Lullabies inevitably play a part in the mother-child relationship; and it is through the mother-son of Mary and Jesus that the words of Merula’s Canzonetta spirituale sopra La Nanna come about. Helen Charlston was the soloist. It is a lullaby tinged with angst, as Mary realises that she is ‘bidding him rest his little limbs that will be bound in chains’; and Charlston conveyed just this dichotomy of innocence combined with foreboding. An extended scena, Charlston made it riveting throughout.

The piece by Barbara Strozzi, O Maria, per la Madonna was sung by Kirkby; a paean to the Virgin Mary, this is a gracious, gallant piece that was performed with a great sense of joy. Fascinating how Purcell’s The Blessed Virgin’s expostulation presents another aspect of the story; that of doubt. With particularly clear diction plus a heightened sense of harmonic awareness, Charlston ensured we lived very different territory indeed. This meditation on doubt, full of questions, appeared as a clear highlight of the concert; the protagonist’s cries to the Archangel Gabriel – who fails to show – were heartfelt indeed. Charlston’s voice is miraculously free, enabling the most powerful cadence at ‘Whilst Faith and Doubt my lab’ring Soul divide’.

It’s quite a way to Hindemith; whose arrival led to the introduction of the resident Blüthner piano at the VOCES8 Centre. Hindemith’s song, from the cycle Marienleben, tells of the miraculously pregnant Mary about to tell her cousin (also miraculously pregnant!) the good news. Kirkby and Christopher Glynn (on piano) made a fabulous case for Hindemith’s lovely, spicy harmonies, Kirkby at times close to Sprechgesang.

The next step was the Crucifixion, and Clémence de Grandval’s Stabat Mater, a piece that premiered in 1870, in Paris (Saint-Saëns played the organ on that occasion). This was Patricia Hammond’s chance to shine, and she presented the best possible case for de Grandval (who wrote a number of operas). In fact, her catalogue is large (sadly her one symphony is lost). Chamber organ met piano for the instrumental parts; the piece contains moments of great beauty. The Stabat Mater is clearly a beautiful piece, the harmonies soft yet fervent in their projection of belief in a Christian ethos.

Three songs from Helen Charlston followed, words by Emily Dickinson, music by Copland: what could be a finer coupling? Nature, the gentlest mother revels in those wonderfully open intervals so characteristic of Copland, implying the infinitude of Nature’s wisdom. Charlston’s clear ability to project not only each word but the meaning made this a transfixing experience, the tricky piano part well negotiated by Glynn. Juliana Hall’s To Mother is a touching poem of a daughter’s love for her mother, the setting simple and effective. Charlston lives the songs she sings, from every vocal inflection to each facial expression. Ilse Weber died in Auschwitz; her Wiegala is a cradle song sung by Charlston in German with guitar accompaniment.

Over to America, and the American Civil War. George Frederick Root wrote some of the most famous songs of this period (regarding his forenames, his parents named him after Handel); Patricia Hammond was joined by Matt Redman on a zither banjo dating from the 1880s. The Root exhibited a lovely melodic flow (with a second line charmingly added at one point vocally by Redman); a reading of the Proclamation by Julia Ward Howe, central to the idea of this programme, led to Al Piantadosi’s I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier, finding Redman on a Gibson guitar. That song sold 360,000 copies when first printed in 1914, in its first three months.

Bread and Roses came from a specific speech in 1910 by the activist Helen Todd. Bread equates to security and home, roses to Nature, and thence to the balance between work and freedom. It was heard initially on a single voice (Hammond), before being joined by all present in as rousing a performance as one is liable to hear.

A programme of high imagination and distinction, beautifully and memorably performed.

Colin Clarke

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