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Review of Travelogue: A voyage across 17th century Europe

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The Academy of Ancient Music took the Italian Jesuit missionary Domenico Zipoli as the focus of their New Worlds South America concert in Cambridge last November. Their follow-up concert in the series, Travelogue, returned us on Thursday evening to Europe, where this time their central figure was the English traveller and composer Nicholas Lanier, first Master of the King’s Music, and an emissary of Charles 1 in his acquisition of European art.

Lanier’s travels through Italy and the Low Countries brought him into contact with some of the incredibly rich musical worlds that were only beginning to develop at the turn of the seventeenth century. His purpose was to bring home examples of what was happening in continental Europe, and where the conventional Grand Tour tradition is usually associated with literary travellers, Lanier allows us to experience the tour through music. We were reminded of this golden age both of music and literature when AAM performed one of Orlando Di Lasso’s drinking songs, a snatch of which is sung by Justice Silence in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2.

Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Patrick Allen (54957923)
Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Patrick Allen (54957923)

Director Laurence Cummings’ purpose in shaping concerts such as Travelogue was to bring, as he has said, something of the music as it was originally written, to make the listener feel gripped with emotion and create a sense of participation in an audience rather than leave it in a passive role. The logic of the programme was to illustrate the different styles arising from older compositional methods and the developing new ones

The first two pieces were a demonstration of the concert’s intended procedure. John Dowland’s ‘Come away, sweet love’ was wonderfully delivered by the leading soprano Anna Dennis who gave an exquisite nuancing of the poem’s anonymous lyrics to reveal how they could be enhanced by the beauty of a musical setting. She was joined by the outstanding tenor Thomas Walker, and the three accomplished singers who would accompany them, soprano, Jessica Gillingwater, alto, Martha McClorinan and bass, Jimmy Holliday.

Anna Dennis then performed the first of three expressive laments, Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna in which music and text combined to produce a wholly different experience through emotional highlighting and dissonances, in striking contrast to what we’d just heard but to contemporaries probably much more radical.

The Academy of Ancient Music. (54957917)
The Academy of Ancient Music. (54957917)

Deployed throughout the concert were many superb instrumental presentations. Stephen Farr, reflecting the Italian leg of Lanier’s journey, performed a short piece by Girolamo Frescobaldi, organist at St Peter’s in Rome. Reiko Ichise gave a breathtaking performance on the viola da gamba of two works by the soldier, Tobias Hume, followed by violinist Persephone Gibbs’ equally virtuosic delivery of a work by the Italian violinist Biagio Marini.

Travelogue gave prominence also to women composers and musicians, such as Antwerp-born Leonora Duarte, host in her family musical evenings to travelling diplomats and literati, including Lanier himself; the conventual Claudia Francesca Rusca whose instrumental La Borrmea was delivered by AAM’s impressive strings, and Francesca Caccini, singer, lutenist and earliest female composer of an opera, her Lasciatemi qui solo powerfully and affectively performed by Thomas Walker to Emilia Benjamin’s beautiful lirone accompaniment.

Anna Dennis stepped forward as the performance drew to its conclusion, and sang Lanier’s Hero’s complaint to Leander, her voice perfect for the high drama and emotion of this early English recitative. Thomas Walker then joined her in a dialogue from Monteverdi’s dance-based Clori e Tirsi where, joined by the whole band of instrumentalists and singers, the range of instruments and musical styles we’d witnessed came together in joy and high spirits.

The role of the musician, as Laurence Cummings has remarked, is to move the very soul of the listener. And nowhere more than in this one could any historically informed performance have been more true to the ancient concept that all art should (docere et delectare) teach by delighting.


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