Sunday afternoon, June 13, the Parthenia Consort gave us an ambitious amalgam of Elizabethan poetry, music, and song in the gorgeous new Shalin Liu performance center in Rockport. The concert title “When Music and Sweet Poetry Agree,” which comes from a Shakespeare sonnet, encapsulates the once close relationship between these art forms. The program by Parthenia players tenor viol Laurence Lipnik, treble viol Rosamund Morley, and bass viols Beverly Au and Lisa Terry, with special guests mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and actor Paul Hecht, alternated between verse, instruments, and song. The poetry, mostly of love, feminine beauty, and death, was echoed by the ravishingly beautiful sound of the viols. The concert was a single unit – no applause, no intermission.
Rosamund Morley pointed out in a program note that in Elizabethan times musical education required boy choristers like William Byrd to learn viola da gamba as well as keyboards. Byrd was appointed organist and choirmaster at Lincoln cathedral at the age of 20. He is credited with creating the consort song form, in which the parts may all be played by instruments or with one or more voices. The Parthenia Consort amply demonstrated the beauty of this form.
What a pleasure it was to hear these ancient instruments played so well! Unlike modern string instruments, viols have not been modernized with different necks, fingerboards, and strings. Years ago I worked with the fine luthier and gamba player Peter Tourin as he measured the dimensions and thickness profiles of viols in museums around the world. What a treat it was to hear one of his fine bass instruments in the capable hands of Lisa Terry. The sound we hear from these modern copies is the sound that Byrd, Dowland, Holborne, and Bull heard. To the best of modern scholarship the manner of playing is also the same. The viol is a fretted instrument, played mostly without vibrato. Through rigorous and frequent re-tuning, the pitches of the players align, creating in many cases harmonics of tones that sound like they come from a single instrument. The result is harmony both rich and penetrating, a sound sometimes heard in a modern string quartet, but seldom elsewhere.
But like the guitar, the pitch of a gamba can be bent a little. The high point of the concert for me was the solo lira viol piece “Harke, Harke,” by Tobias Hume, following a poem by John Donne about digging up his body after death. As played by Beverly Au on a small bass viol, the piece was transportingly expressive. The gamba was bowed with double and triple stops, plucked, strummed, and even played with the wooden part of the bow. Variations in tempo, loudness, and timing showed what vibrato-less playing can do. But at critical points vibrato suddenly appeared, and the hall sound came alive.
The playing by the Parthenia was uniformly superb. The guest artists were essential to the program, but slightly more problematic. Horner-Kwiatek has a fine voice, clear and well balanced with the instruments. The singing style was gentle – better for early music than one often hears from conservatory musicians – but the contrast between the modern vibrato and the penetrating, pure sound of the viols was sometimes awkward. It is also extremely difficult for a high voice to project the words in a song, as there are too few harmonics in the vowel formant range. The words in the first two songs were reasonably clear, but I could frequently not make them out in the songs that followed. (It may have been easier if I were sitting closer to the singer.) There was no problem hearing the words of the poems from the narrator. An experienced actor, he could project to the last row of a 2000 seat theater. In Rockport’s 330 seats the voice was a bit over the top.