Anna Prohaska and Phantasm’s stunning Byrd and English Song at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Byrd Compared: Byrd and English Song: Anna Prohaska (soprano), Phantasm (Laurence Dreyfus [treble viol/director], Jonathan Manson, Emilia Benjamin [tenor viols], Markku Luolajan-Mikkola [bass viol]). Wigmore Hall, London, 10.01.2024. (CC)

Anna Prohaska (soprano) performs with Phantasm © The Wigmore Hall Trust, 2024

The Demise of Tallis
TallisA Solfing Song; O nata lux de lumine
ByrdTe lucis ante terminum
Tallis – Why fum’th in fight?
ByrdCome woeful Orpheus; Fantasia a4 No.1 in D minor; Ye sacred muses

Hints of the erotic
ByrdSusanna fair; Thou Amaryllis dance in green; In fields abroad; In Nomine a4 No.2; La virginella
GesualdoItene, o miei sospiri

Tears and Joys
DowlandFrom silent night; Flow, my tears; Shall I strive with words to move; My thoughts are wing’d with hopes; Sorrow, stay, lead true repentant tears

Devotion and Piety
ByrdMiserere. Lullaby; Fantasia a3 No.1 in F; O Lord, how vain

Fallen Heroes
ByrdFair British Isle; Fantasias a3: No.2 in F, No.3 in C; My mistress had a little dog

It is small wonder Anna Prohaska and Patricia Kopatchinskaja joined forces for a fabulous disc, Maria Mater Meretrix, on the Alpha label (which encompasses composers from Dufay to Crumb). Both are performers of vast repertoire, and both appear equally at ease in music ancient and modern. On this occasion it was Prohaska’s excellence in earlier music that shone and shone brightly.

This Wigmore Hall performance was one of a trio in which Phantasm presents the complete consort music of William Byrd (c.1540-1623). It began last year (celebrating the 400th anniversary of Byrd’s death). Here, consort songs were set against the vocal music of Tallis, Gesualdo and Dowland.

Byrd’s works for voice and viol consort formed the centre piece of this evening, which was comprised of a number of sections. The first, ‘The Demise of Tallis’, is offered as a reflection on the plight of Catholics in Elizabethan England. Tallis’s Solfing Song was heard with Prohaska very much as one of the contrapuntal lines (it is sometimes heard just on viols, as in the Rose Consort of Viol’s Naxos disc of Elizabethan Songs and Consort Music).

Clearly, there were no words as such for that piece, but when it came to O nata lux de lumine (edited by Allen Garvin), each phrase was perfectly sculpted, counterpoint a delight. Tallis’s Why fum’th in fight was heard in a transcription for voice and viols by Dreyfuss (Vaughan Williams used this for his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis), full of subtlety and contour and distinguished by Prohaska’s aptitude for storytelling. The Tallis pieces sandwiched Byrd’s Te lucis ante terminum on four viols (edited by Laurence Dreyfuss), its only fault it felt too short: one could listen to this for hours on end. A group of Byrd pieces rounded off this earliest part: Come, woeful Orpheus (edited Dreyfus), full of remarkable harmonies made all the more otherworldly and strange on viols (they are less impactful, say on recorder consort with voice, as in the bFIVE Recorder Consort’s recording). This was a transfixing performance. It should be noted that Prohaska’s English is perfect and would put many a native singer to shame. George Hunter’s edition of Byrd’s Fantasia a4 No.1 in D minor was used to create the most astonishing dolorous tapestry of four absolutely equal voices before Ye sacred muses (via Fretwork Editions) seemed to express the inexpressible. This is a tender farewell not only to Tallis, but a perceived farewell to music itself (‘Tallis is dead, and Music dies’), and this performance carried the weight of the World on its shoulders.

Anna Prohaska (soprano) performs with Phantasm © The Wigmore Hall Trust, 2024

Opening the ‘Hints of the Erotic’ part of the programme, and lightening the atmosphere considerably, Byrd’s Susanna fair might be familiar to some via Phantasm’s own recording on their Byrd song disc on Simax, there with Geraldine McGreevy. Prohaska was superior, beyond doubt. Heard edited by Ian Gammie, this was a sprightly performance, Prohaska’s diction natural and crystal clear, equalled by a light-on-its-feet Thou Amaryllis dance in green and a perfectly rhythmically-sprung In fields abroad (here edited by Gammie). How perfect, then, to provide contrast with another piece or viol consort, Byrd’s In Nomine a4 No.2, containing moments of huge Innigkeit. It was a plateau of clam, albeit a laden one, in between the characterful In fields abroad and Byrd’s glorious La virginella. Finally, some Gesualdo, and a trip to another world: the utterly remarkable harmonies of Itene, o miei sospiri (‘Go now, O my sighs’), its phenomenal chromaticism perfectly honoured by all concerned, Prohaska imbuing the words with incredible levels of meaning.

Post-interval, there were three sections, the first, ‘Tears and Joys’, an unforgettable Dowland sequence, with all pieces edited by Dreyfus. Somehow, Prohaska seemed even more aligned to this music. Given some of the melodic sleights of line, it was a stroke of genius to start with From silent night (arranged and edited by Dreyfuss) after the Gesualdo that closed the first part. The viol component simply added to the appreciation of dissonance; the final stanza of Dowland’s famous setting of Flow, my tears achieving real depth (‘Hark! You shadows that in darkness dwell’). Those who know Emma Kirkby’s unforgettable recording of Shall I strive with words to move will appreciate that to say Prohaska lost out not one jot in comparison is praise; indeed, Prohaska and Phantasm’s My thoughts are wing’d with hopes offered another rhythmic contrast. It was left to the world-weary strains of Sorrow, stay to segue into the final ‘Devotion and Piety’ segment. Byrd’s Miserere and Lullaby (edited Dreyfus and Gammie respectively) seemed inextricably linked, Prohaska truly touching in the latter (which also included the loveliest ‘dialogue’ between Prohaska and Dreyfus’s treble viol. If the Fantasia a3 No.1 in F offered a further contrast, O Lord, how vain are all our frail delights brought what might be termed radiant sadness, darkness with light behind it.

Finaly, ‘Fallen Heroes’. I wonder if it was wit or political comment to put Fair Britain Isle (‘Famous for wealth’, go the words) as the first song here. What was remarkable, though was the elaborate cadence heard here, a truly glorious extension of musical thought. Two contrasting Fantasias a3 – No.2 in F, intense and concentrated, and No.3 in C, more active – led to the final throwaway My mistress had a little dog, tripping along nicely until the sudden change of the third stanza, the near-exact midpoint (‘But out, alas! I’ll speak no more’) before reverting to the initial buoyancy.

One encore after this miracle of a concert: Scarborough Fair, for singer and viols. What more could one possibly ask? A stunning concert.

Colin Clarke

The final concert in this series is at Wigmore Hall on June 25, 2024

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