Jeffrey Thompson, tenor; La Reveuse (Florence Bolton, treble and bass viol, Benjamin Perrot, theorbo, and Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichord), Works by William and Henry Lawes and others, Orpheum Annex, March 27, 2015.

Following on the excellent Charles Daniels recital a few weeks ago, Early Music Vancouver continues its exploration of vocal music of the English Baroque, in particular songs from the period around the British Civil War. Tenor Jeffrey Thompson joined ensemble La Rêveuse in a stimulating collaboration that featured composers William and Henry Lawes, and closely mirrors their 2013 recording for Mirare. 

Jeffrey Thompson has received many honours, including first prize in the Concours International de Chant Baroque de Chimay under a jury led by William Christie. In 2002, he was selected to participate in the first Le Jardin des Voix with Les Arts Florissants. Thompson possesses a delicate yet formidable instrument, and one that does not shy from a heightened emotionality. The singer claimed in the pre-concert talk that he could, “...sing pretty all night, but you might get bored”. I would likely never be bored by anything Thompson does, especially when he ‘sings pretty’. His voice is flexible and limpid, golden in tone and ethereal in timbre. The range of attack and release within his command is quite breathtaking, most notable being his release on consonants at pianissimo. Thompson can spin out a final release that literally floats away with the last syllable sung. 

His interpretation of the songs of William and Henry Lawes was, in many respects, delightfully modern and reflecting influences from musical theater, something which would be apparent from his harmonic improvisations even if the resiliently-popular “Over the Rainbow” hadn’t been the encore. Thompson is not afraid to infuse canonical works with his own personality and extremes of expression, and the results can be splendid when conjoined with his superlative technique. He proved himself capable of a dazzling, rapid fire changes in affect and projection that were so characteristic of 17th century style , from flamboyant troubadour in “Wert thou yet fairer than thou art” (Henry Lawes), to impatient bosom companion in “Why so pale and wan, fond lover?” (William Lawes), to trusted confidant in the latter’s “Why should great beauty virtuous fame desire?” 

Thompson naturally did have more than able help in the ensemble La Rêveuse, who have made early music of all kinds their raison d'etre, and have assembled an impressive variety of recordings for French labels. This ensemble is a particularly attractive combination of soloistic musicians that also come together excellently in ensemble. They have each specialized in realizing ‘figured bass,’ an essential and ubiquitous part of the baroque style, that also involves an intimate knowledge of performance practice and the compositional methods of the time. Given only a set of numeric symbols written below a bass line, each of these musicians is expected to fill out the remainder of the harmony in keeping with all the rules of voice-leading and counterpoint. Their judgement throughout was impeccable.

In William Lawes’ “Perfect and endless circles are”, it was the richness and warmth of Florence Bolton’s viol playing that made it possible for Thompson to dig into the pathos of a love-sick swain. The harmonic underpinning provided by the continuo group is also critical, and while the exact number of players comprising the continuo is not standard, Benjamin Perrot and Bertrand Cuiller are the very definition of strong continuo players. There is a repertoire of pieces where a continuo group would be expected to play on its own. Infrequently heard, but exquisite gems, on this programme were Tregian’s Ground (Daniel Norcombe), a syncopated romp for bass viol, and the clear favorite on this evening, two dances by John Playford: The Queen’s Delight/Lady Catherine Ogle, a new dance, comprising a stately square dance, followed by a lively Gigue. 

All told, it was another intimate and hugely enjoyable evening of Baroque exploration from Early Music Vancouver. 

© Kate Mackin 2015

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