The Boston Early Music Festival’s 2011-2012 season opened on October 21st with one of its perennial favorites, British soprano Emma Kirby, now a Dame, and her current lutenist, the excellent Jakob Lindberg. The First Church in Cambridge, Congregational was full of Early Music aficionados who showed up to hear a singer who has become synonymous with Early English music, especially that of Henry Purcell and John Dowland. But, having programmed these two composers honored with the accolade of “Orpheus” just two years ago, Ms. Kirkby and Mr. Lindberg chose a program with far lesser-known British and Italian composers (John Danyel, Robert Johnson, Thomas Morley, Henry Lawes, Claudio Monteverdi, Sigismondo d’India and Barbara Strozzi). “It was time to give other composers a chance,” Dame Emma explained.
At this point in her thirty-year long career, Dame Emma can sing what she darn well pleases and can make a convincing case for the merits of any song. The audience was here, in full force, to hear her and no one was disappointed. It was clear in the post-concert talk that Dame Emma felt strongly about the repertoire that she and Mr. Lindberg had chosen. “Barbara Strozzi had “. . . a fantastic composer’s imagination,” while Henry Lawes has been “deeply underrated.” She has sung John Danyel all of her life and her love of his music was clear in the first three songs. While most of the BEMF’s concerts feature pre-concert lectures, this concert had its question and answer session after the concert, which proved to be much more interesting than I had anticipated.
The evening’s theme was the alliterative: “Love songs, Lute solos, and Laments.” The wrenching texts were as harrowing, song after song, as any in the vast repertoire for voice and lute. Minor keys, descending chromatic scale passages, and heartbreaking melismas abounded. We heard tales of dark melancholy, of grace withdrawn, joy that weeps, love that breaks heavy hearts, harsh fates, pining woe, and sobs going into the shadows. Sigismondo D’India’s Torna il sereno Zefiro (The Peaceful West Wind Returns) begins merrily, then quickly descends into “Only I, With sad heart turned, As if Entombed, To dark horror…. Dry and stripped of my most tender hopes, Sing my sad songs; Springtime will never come for me.” Even the lute pieces by Robert Johnson (ca. 1583-1633) and Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger (1580-1651) were on the slow side, despite the latter’s including a Toccata and Corrente.
If love has disappointed you, made a wreck of your soul and your sanity, this repertoire will assuredly let you know you are not alone. What is so striking in song after song is the elegant word painting—you can feel the pain without ever consulting the texts, each one of which is more beautiful than the next. Dame Emma (the Anti-Diva with her sensible brown shoes and comfortable clothes) and Jakob Lindberg were a good team. He knew exactly what she wanted to hear, and delivered his accompaniments with understated elegance. His instrument, a 10-course Renaissance lute by Sixtus Rauwolf, was made in Augsburg around 1590; its sound was quieter than other lutes I’ve heard, yet it projected a lovely sweet tone.
After all this wrenching melancholy, it was a delight to have the lively encore, John Dowland’s Shall I Strive. Things really picked up (in mood) in the question and answer session that lasted about a half hour after the artists changed into street clothes (same comfy brown shoes). Mr. Lindberg, who appeared rather dour during the concert, became an extroverted enthusiast when asked about his lute, which he found at Sotheby’s. Here finally was love without loss: enchantment upon first encounter and laying on of devoted hands during the restoration. The trees from which it was made, he boasted, would have been planted in 1418. “Emma loves singing with it,” he smiled proudly. How does he keep the humidity up in winter so it’s close to forty percent? “I take a mop and a bucket of water and get the floor wet.”
Dame Emma’s incisive comments about singing were, for me, the highlights of the evening. It was like a great master class and even non-singers (people who pluck, like myself) could appreciate singing better after hearing her comments. “I try to embody the song,” she mused. When she was young, she was annoyed to be known by what she didn’t do—never singing out of tune or wobbling. Singers tried to copy her, with disastrous effects. “It’s hard to clone a voice that changes all the time… I think I’d be quite worried if my voice didn’t change,” she replied to a questioner who wondered why she didn’t sound like her early recordings.
Dame Emma’s is not a big operatic voice, rather more a delicate chamber instrument. “Words and diction keep me inspired. I am always looking for ways to get a syllable to ‘dance’ better. I’ve always felt that consonants are my friends. . . They give you good vowels, which give you a good legato. Then, a line will just leap into focus.” She tells young singers: Be good speakers. For me the spoken word and the sung word have about the same volume.”
In this program, she added, most of the composers had been singing boys—they knew how to write for voice. Mr. Lindberg added that most of the great lute composers also played the lute, therefore bequeathing to later performers both the opportunities and problems of doing ornaments and grace notes; lute music is full of trills. You try different things, Dame Emma shrugged. “You have to risk getting egg on your face.”