in: Reviews

July 2, 2011

England, Be Glad! Music of Henry VIII’s Court

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Aston Magna’s period chamber ensemble gently teamed a quartet of violas da gamba, Sarah Cunningham, Jane Hershey, Laura Jeppesen, and Emily Walhout, with tenor voice in a cunning tapestry of two dozen brief pieces (in seven five-to-ten-minute sets) from the Court of Henry VIII. Henry himself composed five cheerful (likely dance) ditties that frame Jeppesen’s blithely curated program: four busy ones are set for her mellow viol consort, and a final rouser as tenor Aaron Sheehan declaimed the profligate monarch’s joyous dictum “Pastime with good company, I love and shall unto I die.” Henry’s all-consuming pastimes favored a wide musical entourage and varied tastes, so we heard deft settings of Renaissance hits by Franco-Flemish Josquin des Prez (“De Tous Bein Pleyne”, a devout if morose paean to his mistress) and Swiss-German Ludwig Senfl (a complex, call-and-response treatment of “Tandernacken,” as overheard girls discuss their amours). “Jay Pryse Amours” (“Love is my Motto”) benefited from contrasting versions: a lively trio for viols, then the candlelit croon of a reflective roué.

Another facet of Josquin’s art (equally removed from his formal masses) opened the second half: “Faulte d’Argent,” a poignantly fierce plaint sung by a lover too broke to pay his hooker. Equally salty in content, if smooth in delivery, is Hampton Court star Philip van Wilder’s “Une nonnain refaite” (“A Lapsed Nun”); Sheehan’s treatment of the period’s glancing attacks (brisk crescendo and diminuendo on single notes, a bit like hocketing sandpapered) takes getting used to but often heightens dramatic impact. William Cornysh, prestigious Master of Children of the Court Royal, wrote lovely songs: “My love, she mourn’th” with the gambists doubling on bass, tenor and treble, interludes and pizzicato variants, the mournful “Ah Robyn, gentle Robyn,” and “Blow thy horn, Hunter” with derring-do equally fit for drawing room or the royal hunt. The small, attentive audience at soft-lit Slosberg Auditorium, crowned by its neo-Gothic organ, clapped well, but neither demanded nor received an encore. Ah, so often is less more!

The program repeats this weekend with concerts at The Olin Auditorium, Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY and June 25 at, The Daniel Arts Center, Simon’s Rock College, Great Barrington, MA. Aston Magna and Aston Magna’s summer season ends next weekend (same locations) with a program enticingly titled “The Italian Madrigal and its Legacy.”

Aston Magna, founded in 1972 with Daniel Stepner (also Lydian Quartet and concertmaster of Handel-Haydn) as Artistic Director, is America’s oldest annual summer festival dedicated to music performed with proper technique on period instru­ments and inter­preted as the composers might.

Fred Bouchard writes about music for Downbeat Magazine (Chicago) and New York City Jazz Record, and about wine for Beverage Business (Boston); he teaches journalism and literature at Berklee College of Music, and occasionally lectures on jazz history at Boston University.

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