Bach Players – The Food of Love: Music for Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems Back

The Bach Players made a welcome return to Edinburgh to begin the Georgian Concert Society’s 2017/18 season. Tonight’s performance focused on the music intended to accompany Shakespeare’s plays. The programme incorporated the research interest of harpsichordist, Silas Woolston, who has reconstructed incidental suites from several manuscripts. Following the piety of the Civil War and Commonwealth under Cromwell’s restrictive government, newly reopened theatres were keen to make their productions visually impressive as well as musically attractive to audiences. Innovations in technical theatre and set design gave theatre a new dimension in the possibilities of framing the dramatic action, but also allowing Shakespeare’s fantastical worlds to be realised. Macbeth’s witches could now convincingly fly (although probably not too gracefully!) accompanied by impressive thunder and lightning effects. To further heighten the atmosphere, music was employed to aid the storytelling, as well as providing useful ‘filler’ during scene changes.

Theatre has always been rewritten or interpreted to reflect the requirements of the time and, due to popularity and universal appeal, Shakespeare has possibly been the greatest victim of this editing. Restoration poets used lines as a touchstone for their own writing, elaborating and extending upon a single idea of the Bard, producing ‘Shakespearian-inspired text’. Many of the words set to these arias are not by Shakespeare, but likely composed with similar sentiments and in tribute to the great writer’s style. Sometimes, the original verses were adjusted to make them more rhythmically suitable for setting to music.

Leading the performance, Woolston presented from the harpsichord, with arias sung by soprano Rachel Elliott who performed with purity of diction and dramatic sensitivity. String players, led by Artistic Director Nicolette Moonen, performed on the extended violin family. Alto, tenor (viola) and bass violins were played by Anna Curzon, Rachel Scott and Robert Smith. The softer tone of these older, now rare, instruments compared to their modern-day counterparts really helped mellow the ensemble’s timbre. Each work demanded the use of all five players throughout the programme and maybe a fluctuation in the size of the instrumental ensemble would have helped to further shape the programme.

The programme’s centre pieces were suites for The Tempest, Matthew Locke’s Macbeth and selections from Purcell’s setting of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Fairy Queen. Around these were performances of smaller instrumental and vocal works by the featured composers. These brief chaconnes and arias slightly interrupted the overall pace of the concert, but were very well performed individually.

A suite for The Tempest collated by Woolston interweaves several fragments of surviving movements by Henry Purcell, John Weldon, Matthew Locke, Robert Smith and Pelham Humfrey. Although originating from different productions of the play, they are presented in a cohesive narrative that proved effective. Not only does it allow for a comparison of each composer’s individual treatment of text, but also their different approaches towards melodic-harmonic tension and programmatic devices, such as tremolo, to reflect elemental as well as mortal conflict within the play. The romance of the drama was encapsulated by the sincere aria “Dear Pretty Youth” and the playful “Where the Bee Sucks, There Sucks I”.

Matthew Locke’s incidental music for Macbeth was also reconstructed through Woolston’s research into the 1664 production. All the works in this collection have forms based on dance styles, but it is unlikely that the works supported ballet or dance as part of the staged performance. The full political horror of ‘The Scottish Play’ is depicted, including a meditative sarabande in a minor key to accompany Macbeth’s fateful decision to murder the king. Tortured dissonances in a mournful instrumental tune represent Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness whilst a relatively light gavotte concludes the performance as, after the anti-hero’s defeat, Malcolm is crowned King of Scotland. In all these movements are cunningly faint traces of Scottish folk tradition, including brief pentatonic melodies and ‘Scotch Snap’ dotted rhythms. Caledonian references in somewhat starched English breeches!

Purcell’s ‘Fairy Queen’ contains many of his most-familiar arias and a chamber performance of the work did not reduce its impact. The ensemble and Elliott achieved a beautiful hollowness of tone and atmospheric stillness in the aria “See, Even Night is Here” before a proud and stately “All Salute the Morning Sun”. The contrast between these two movements highlights Purcell’s skill as a dramatically-aware composer and an economical composer with use of variations upon repeated ground bass.

Overall, this felt a very clean and evidently scholarly performance. However, it may have lacked an element of the melodramatic to fully convey the original dramatic purpose of the music. Whist not brash or lewd, authentic Restoration performances, even those for royalty, might not have been as considered or even as searching emotionally as tonight’s.

The concert concluded with a well-appreciated encore of Purcell’s sublime Evening Hymn which was performed with much sensitivity from all the performers.

The first performance of the Georgian Concert Society 2017 – 18 season took place on 14th October at St. Andrew’s and St. George’s West, Edinburgh.