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La Compañia: A Renaissance Celebration.  Melbourne 19/10/2004

From: Mark Shepheard
Category: Music
Date: 26 October 2004


Renaissance celebrations were clearly rowdy affairs but, as Tuesday evening’s concert from La Compañia stylishly demonstrated, they also had their moments of elegance and subtlety. As part of the Melbourne Festival’s Chamber Music Sunset Series ‘Exquisite Song’, La Compañia presented a program of English and Spanish music from the 16th and early 17th centuries. The packed audience was treated to an impressive variety of pieces, ranging from stately court dances such as the Pavan and Galliard by Innocento Alberti – an Italian musician active at the Tudor court in England – to a catchy chaconne by Juan Arañés, a work rooted in the popular dance rhythms of late Renaissance Spain. Extrovert pieces like these – played by the full ensemble with its complement of cornetto, shawm, dulcian and sackbuts (not to mention drums, violin, viola da gamba and a variety of early plucked instruments) – were interspersed with more reflective, intimate works, such as the two wistful songs from the “Henry VIII manuscript”, in which soprano Vivien Hamilton was accompanied by the soft sounds of the viola da gamba (Victoria Watts) and lute (Rosemary Hodgson), while Lizzie Pogson tastefully ornamented the simple melodies on her Renaissance violin.

Ornamentation and improvised variations are the key to bringing Renaissance secular music to life, and La Compañia are well-versed in these techniques, spicing-up the repetitive rhythms of the dance music with some virtuoso embellishments from, say, Danny Lucin’s cornetto or the raucous shawm of Mitchell Cross. The ensemble’s intonation was near flawless – no mean feat with such otherwise recalcitrant instruments – and they blended well with the strong soprano voice of Vivien Hamilton. Not always strong enough, though, to prevent it from occasionally being swamped by the full ensemble, particularly in the more extrovert pieces such as Arañes’ chaconne and ‘El Feugo’ (‘The Fire’) by Mateo Fleicha the Elder . Vivien was heard to best effect in such works as Edward Johnson’s “Elisa is the fayrest Quene”, a sop to the vanity of the elderly Elizabeth I but sung here with such rapt intensity that what seems on a paper a mere work of sycophantic praise was transformed into a breathtakingly passionate hymn of love. My personal favourite, though, was the villanesca ‘A un niño Ilorando’ (‘To a crying child’), a nativity piece by Francisco Guerrero, one of 16th century Spain’s most important composers. Here Vivien’s voice seemed become one with the reedy tones of the two dulcians (Mitchell Cross and Simon Rickard), producing an ethereal sound which, combined with the work’s swaying – almost hypnotic – rhythm, will ensure that this work will haunt me for days to come. 'Exquisite song'indeed.

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