Review – “A Choice Collection” – Emma Kirkby, Jakob Lindberg, Steven Devine – Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2009 at St. John’s Smith Square

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Last night my partner and I went to St. John’s Smith Square to see the second concert I’d bought tickets for in the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music – Emma Kirkby’s presentation of English song masters of the Baroque era, featuring songs of master composers Purcell and Dowland as well as pieces by less well remembered folks such as Robert Johnson, Thomas Campion, Maurice Green, and William Croft. Truly, it’s one of the pleasures of a series like this that instead of having Baroque music represented by the same music over and over again (my God, may I live without ever once again hearing a tepid concert consisting of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the freaking Brandenberg Concerto) that at last the richness of the era really comes to the fore. It’s incredible to think of how much has been lost or fallen by the wayside – in a guided walk I took in the City of London Wednesday, our guide told us that only about 12% of the total number of plays produced during Shakespeare’s era were saved – and almost all of that number were his own works! It could make me throw it all in to become a music or theater historian, I tell you, if only I thought there were some chance of me actually being able to find some missing work of genius.

Fortunately the rise of the Early Music movement means there have been rather a lot of people devoted to finding these less-known musical works and giving them the benefit of the light of day – and, more importantly, a fresh performance. Emma Kirkby was, as ever, a lively interpreter of these old scores. She was deliciously over the top for Purcell’s “Bess of Bedlam” and John Blow’s “A Mad Song” (poor Belinda! Poor bess!), but for all the songs she showed a wonderful dedication to the making the text come alive. Of course, for most of these songs, the focus was on sadness and death – very appropriate for the age (did Purcell really only live to 46?) – but also love and seduction. I especially appreciated “She loves and she confesses, too,” with text from Cowley’s “The Mistress” – without hearing Kirkby say it, I would have never appreciated the delicious alliteration of “Noisy nothing, stalking shade” – but the poetry came right to the fore. Ms. Kirkby is probably in my top three of favorite early music performers, at the level where I make special efforts to go see her, and once again she made it an evening well worth my while.

I have to say that her accompanists, Jakob Lindberg on lute and Steven Devine on harpsichord, were also excellent. My preference was of course for the lute (since I find the harpsichord a rather unemotional instrument), and with Lindberg’s ability to sit next to her, a very strong interaction was happening. He was no hired gun – he was playing with her, not for her, in the kind of jazzy interaction style I only ever see with this era of “classical” music. His solos were great, too – Dowland’s “Rosamunde’s Pavane” and “Daniel’s Gigue” made me want to go out and get some more lute music. Devine was fine, but, well, “harpsichord,” what more can I say – great behind something else but not so great on its own (afraid my tastes can’t account for skill). Overall, though, a great night, and I was only sad that there was time for just one encore, William Croft’s Mr Dufy (a song to Venus, though I’m sure I haven’t attributed it correctly).

(This review is for a concert that took place on Thursday, May 21st, 2009. I also saw the Phantasm performance the next night but I don’t have much to say about it and am marking it here just as a reminder to myself.)

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