Archive for May 17, 2014

The Tempest in Musick

Posted in Brighton, Literature, Music with tags , , , , , , , on May 17, 2014 by telescoper

I haven’t done a music review type of thing on this blog for some time, for the simple reason that I haven’t had the time to go to many live music events recently. However, this being Festival time in Brighton I felt I should make an extra-special effort to take a bit of time out to take in a bit of culture. All work and no play and all that.

Anyway, yesterday evening found me in the Concert Hall of the Brighton Dome for a performance entitled The Tempest in Musick by the New London Consort. The programme for the show featured all the music written for the 17th and early 18th century revivals of William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. That in itself tells an interesting story. In 1667, after the Restoration of the Monarchy, John Dryden and Willian Davenant put together an enlarged and adapted version of Shakespeare’s play with a host of new characters and numerous musical interludes and additions. This piece was later revised further  aa number of times, each including even more music, a process which culminated in a semi-operatic version compiled by Thomas Shadwell in 1674. As if Shakespeare’s original tale were not exotic enough, these new versions had extra devils, Tritons, and Nereids along with spectacular stage effects and costumes. London audiences clearly wanted to let their hair down after the severe restrictions on popular entertainment imposed by Puritans during the Protectorate. The Shadwell version was the top show in London for over fifty years: it ran from 1674 until 1728, until it was eventually replaced in popularity by The Beggar’s Opera.

In the concert we heard most if not all of the music that survives from the multiple revivals and revisions of the Tempest, written by various composers over the period 1667 to 1712, including a setting of “Dear pretty youth” by Henry Purcell dated to 1695. There were two different versions of the most famous song from the original play, Full Fathom Five, sung by Ariel:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell

Of course the New London Consort play using period instruments, which gives me an excuse to post this again:


I’m not a fan of period instruments generally, but because of the historical interest in the music I thought I’d give it a go. I had grave misgivings when I saw that the musicians were to be directed by David Roblou from a harpsichord, but decided to grit my teeth and perservere instead of fleeing to the nearest pub.

As it happened, although it was good in parts, the concert basically just confirmed my prejudices. To start with, much of the music is very ordinary and the musicians for the most part failed to bring it to life. The strings, played without vibrato throughout and occasionally rather ragged to boot, didn’t produce much in the way of colour or dynamics; this way of playing also exposed their uncertain pitching. The recorders, a long way from the audience right at the back of the stage, found it difficult to project. They would have been much better off in a smaller venue, I think, especially because of the large gap between audience and stage left for standing customers (of whom there were very few). The dreaded harpsichord was barely audible too. Not that I’m complaining about that.

On the other hand there was some brilliant trumpet playing by Simon Munday on a period instrument. Also I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard a Serpent played and I really enjoyed hearing it. Apart from these highlights though I found the music rather undistinguished and the performance curiously flat.

The singing was much better: the three lovely female voices (Anna Dennis, Faye Newton and Penelope Appleyard) are worth mentioning and tenor Jorge Navarro-Colorado sang well and was a striking presence on stage during the occasional semi-staged pieces. I wasn’t that keen on any of the bass-baritones though.

I realise that there will probably be early music fans out there who would have loved last night’s performance. That’s fine of course. Les gouts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas.