By Guy Dammann, in The Guardian
There can be few periods in the history of human culture in which the delights associated with melancholia have been better explored or exploited than in Elizabethan England. For every “Hey nonny no” there’s a “Flow my teares” ready to blast it. All but two of the Orlando Gibbons madrigals presented at this concert were concerned with death and mortality, spun out in strains of such bewilderingly exquisite construction that, to borrow a phrase, even lilies in their springtime must have hung their heads.
Technically post-Elizabethan, Gibbons’ 1612 set suggest the composer was more interested in using the imported madrigal form to expand native song tradition, something borne out in the artful approach taken here by the Hilliard Ensemble and Fretwork. The evening combined purely instrumental settings and unaccompanied ones, the Hilliards – performing with sopranos Julia Doyle and Julie Cooper – excelling in the wondrously splintered pomposities of I Waigh Not Fortune’s Frowne and the more naked lamenting in Ah, Deere Hart. In any of the various combinations employed throughout the evening, which concluded, aptly, with a quite glorious performance of The Silver Swanne, both ensembles caught perfectly the magical way in which Gibbons’ dovetailing lines can fracture and coalesce in the space of a line, ravishing harmonies to flourishing and fading in a single breath.
The Gibbons songs were interleaved with a new piece by Nico Muhly, a composer with a distinct touch of the Elizabethan about him. Entitled My Days, it sets Psalm 39 together with a particularly descriptive section from Gibbons’ autopsy, and proved entirely worthy of the Hilliards and Fretwork, for whom it was composed. Based around a highly ornamented falling line, the music echoed Gibbons’ fluctuating metres, its way of creating a melodic line from collisions between voices and allowing the sense of harmony – enhanced by the use of period tuning – to emerge haphazardly in conversation between the parts.