Hey, good lutin’

December 7, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Posted in music, reviews | 2 Comments
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animagicaWell, we know opera’s brilliant. You get to watch your favourites striding around the stage brandishing swords, singing gorgeously while lying on their backs, and being hoisted into the air in the middle of impossible arias. But it’s quite another thing to be up close and personal. A candle-lit church? Lute songs? With formidable lute star Liz Kenny and the incomparable Iestyn Davies?* Ah, go on.

This gig was part of Spitalfields Music Winter Festival. Mum and I loitered around Shoreditch for a bit, with her peering into galleries and me taking pictures of particularly risible bits of bike lane. We didn’t need to sharpen our elbows for the unreserved-seating scramble after all, as everyone was jolly friendly and shoved up and passed the Lockets, and we ended up with a very good view (though not quite as good as some audience members, who were bravely sitting on the ACTUAL STAGE next to the performers). Sanae, Founding President of the Iestyn Davies Appreciation Society, located me in my pew; we’ve chatted on FB for a while now and she turned out to be just as crackers and delightful in person.

Elizabeth KennyThe programme was Purcell, Dowland and Handel. I’ll admit I was mostly there for the Dowland, having had Iestyn’s CD on heavy rotation for months, and even crucifying bits of it myself in singing lessons. It was odd for me to go to a gig where I knew all the words; every time I recognised an opening bar or two, it was hard to resist going HOORAAAAY and singing along, like you might at Beyoncé (especially as the lyrics were helpfully printed in the programme).

One thing about knowing the CD backwards is spotting differences when you hear the songs live. (Mum asked me if the ornamentation in one song was the same as on the CD: it made me feel pleasantly nerdy to say ‘No’**.) Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now Invite was taken at a right old clip, the music’s bubbly optimism contrasting more than ever with its lovelorn message, and the passive-aggressive digs in Can She Excuse My Wrongs shone through clearly with Iestyn’s spirited delivery. Relatively unembellished singing in Now, Oh Now, I Needs Must Part gave space for some stunt ornamentation from Liz. Dowland’s at his best when he’s REALLY down in the dumps, though. In Darkness Let Me Dwell, with its sustained notes that grow and fade, was spine-tingling, and Iestyn brought a proper pathos to Sorrow, Stay with its descending refrain of ‘Down, down, down I fall.’ (I know this is the trailer for a different gig, but that’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell, on the soundtrack.)

There were some revelations in the repertoire I didn’t know so well, too. Purcell’s Music For A While was gorgeous, with some delicious high notes. I love Handel’s O Lord, Whose Mercies Numberless, with its gradually-building insistence and beautiful melody, but it was quite different transcribed for lute; with orchestra stripped away, it was inward-looking and contemplative, almost a lullaby. One encore saw Iestyn doing an aria from Rinaldo (remember Rinaldo? Of course you do) transcribed for lute; the other was Thomas Morley’s innuendo-soaked Will You Buy A Fine Dog?***

It all felt astonishingly intimate, despite the high ceilings and ringing church acoustic. Iestyn perched on a high stool, on a level with Liz, and the smoking candle behind him gave the whole thing a bit of a Jazz Club feel. I like concerts where the performers chat to us, and there were droll explanations of different types of lute, and personal anecdotes. Lutes are quiet, so the singing was often quiet, too; sounds from outside the building penetrated, but didn’t break the spell (even when Liz had to wait for a particularly Hawaii Five-O siren to fade before she started one song). Instead, the occasional reminder that 21st century London life was still going on outside made it all the more special to be immersed in this world of long-past beauty.

iestyn at signing by Sanae Takeyama 2

Iestyn, signing CDs so fast his hands are UTTERLY a blur. Yes, those are stocks behind him. Don’t give us ideas. (Picture (c) Sanae Takeyama, used with kind permission.)

Yes, yes, I know. What about the FANGIRLING? Iestyn set up shop in the foyer and signed CDs with gusto, his PR people charging out to the car at one point for more supplies. I had a chat with Liz, who seemed a bit surprised to be accosted but took it pretty well. Then I joined the end of Iestyn’s ENORMOUS queue, and we exchanged a few words in which I told him off for not doing I Saw My Lady Weep, completely forgot to say how utterly marvellous the gig was, and also failed to invite him for a drink. MUST CALM DOWN. Mum took me off to Pizza Express and bought me wine and listened patiently to me doing Venti, Turbini with all the actions, instead. Bless her.

* insert your favourite Fast Show line, here

** pleasantly nerdy. And maybe just a tiny bit obsessive

*** it’s heartening that serious classical music audiences still giggle helplessly when someone says ‘dildo’****

**** apparently music scholars argued for YONKS that ‘dildo’ was just a refrain along the lines of ‘fa la la, hey nonny no’ and ABSOLUTELY DIDN’T MEAN WHAT IT DOES TODAY. This is, of course, rubbish

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  1. Do you know “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” by the Dowland Project (aka John Surman, John Potter et al) on ECM?


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