sun 03/07/2022

Proms Chamber Music 8: Bostridge, Kenny, Fretwork | reviews, news & interviews

Proms Chamber Music 8: Bostridge, Kenny, Fretwork

Proms Chamber Music 8: Bostridge, Kenny, Fretwork

An anniversary celebration ends this year's cycle of Proms Chamber Music concerts

Fretwork: England's venerable viol consort shake the dust of early music with their energy and musicianship

And so it comes to an end. The final Proms Chamber Music concert of the season didn’t offer quite as grand a send-off as the Last Night of the Proms promises to, but arguably that’s no bad thing. These lunchtime events might be slight in size but they are by no means a poor relation to the Royal Albert Hall events, offering thoughtful, miniature programmes that send us all back to our desks in a better state than we left them.

Bidding us a tearful farewell (you can always rely on Dowland), Ian Bostridge, Elizabeth Kenny and viol consort Fretwork left us with a celebration of one of England’s greatest songwriters.

In any other year John Dowland’s 450th anniversary would be big news, but with Wagner, Verdi and of course Britten to compete with (not to mention Gesualdo), the composer has been a little neglected. Yesterday’s concert did its best to remedy this, offering a brief tour through the highlights of the composer’s songs and instrumental works.

Occasionally Bostridge risked sacrificing the simple clarity of the song as a whole for moment-to-moment vividness

Brief though it was, the concert did reveal a small problem with an all-Dowland programme however. The composer was more than unduly melancholy in his preoccupations, and as weeping gave way to brooding and brooding to sighing there’s no doubt that some of these masterpieces lost their impact. Bostridge (pictured below) has a way with words, and his animated diction did its best to sustain us through the gloomy narrative, playing freely with the familiar melodies of “In Darkness Let me Dwell” and “Come Again Sweet Love”, taking full advantage of the smaller space and the intimate flexibility of the lute-voice partnership.

While there’s no faulting Bostridge’s emotional conviction, I wonder through whether his is the best voice for this kind of programme. The singer of these songs must provide a foil to the intricate counterpoint of lute and viol consort, must offer a thread of continuity and even stillness through cloudy textures. While undeniably expressive, Bostridge’s highly animated approach occasionally jangled against its musical backdrop, sacrificing the simple clarity of the song as a whole for moment-to-moment vividness. There were also some odd choices of key – uncomfortably low both for “In Darkness Let me Dwell” and “Flow My Tears” – which may have been deliberate, but didn’t quite translate into the best musical result.

The concert also offered us a chance to hear both Kenny (pictured left) and Fretwork on their own. Kenny is an exquisite musician and it was heartening to hear the whole hall hushed and desperately silent for the chromatic stirrings of Dowland’s “Farewell Fancy”, lively with resonance and colour. In an afternoon of tears, Fretwork’s “Lacrimae amantis” and “Lacrimae tristes” were particularly poignant, allowing us to acclimatise properly to the characteristic husk of a viol consort and enjoy the tugging, grating pathos of its textures. Their interaction is beautiful to watch and translates into instinctive ensemble.

Who needs Unions Jacks and novelty bow-ties when you have quiet music-making of this quality? Each year the Chamber Music Proms produce some of my favourite concerts of the season, and 2013 will be no exception. Having heard Bostridge in the Royal Albert Hall for Les Illuminations just last week it’s lovely for audiences to get to see a different side of him, and good also for such a diverse Proms crowd to encounter a viol consort in such a high-profile context. Two more reasons to celebrate the Proms and to join Dowland in mournful contemplation as we say goodbye to them for another year.

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