Charles Daniels, Tenor; Alexander Weimann, harpsichord and piano: Works by Lawes, Purcell, Britten and others, Fox Cabaret, February 25, 2015.

Photo: Jan Gates

Photo: Jan Gates

This concert with renowned tenor Charles Daniels, accompanied by Alexander Weimann, certainly proved that the tradition of English courtly song is alive and well, and in extremely good hands.  Infrequently heard gems from the English song repertoire were brought to life with the highest level of artistry and technique.

Part of Charles Daniels gift is his intimate knowledge of the circumstances in which the text and music of these songs were created. The first half was largely devoted to the 17th C. songs of Henry Lawes and Henry Purcell, composed in a time when Oliver Cromwell created a republic based on his deeply held puritan beliefs that frowned on the lively arts.  Ironically, private musical performances still flourished in the homes of devotees, and if they were not conceived as acts of rebellion by the performers themselves, they did surmise that they would be perceived as such by the authorities in question. Nonetheless, the songs chosen here are not overtly about war or politics, but about love, both its power to restore peace and tranquility, but also to cause grief and pining.

As the singer himself observed, the interest in these songs does not necessarily lie in their harmonic structure, which is extremely conventional. At that time, word-painting was used to great effect, with dissonances on the words ‘grave’, ‘starved’, and ‘death’ easily explained, as are ornaments and scalar figures on words such as ‘charms’ and ‘captivates’. Perhaps even more important is the form in which the poem is set to music and the quality of the poems themselves. Internal repetitions not indicated by the poet are set by the composer and are very carefully chosen to give emphasis. Intentional humour  is sometimes encouraged, as evidenced by the inclusion of Henry Lawes’ “Tavola” – In quell gelato core, which is a frank send up of singers that are not cultured enough to understand Italian, and Lucinda is bewitching Fair, a gentle homage to a very young man’s first love and the sort of sheep-like characteristics that first love can inspire. In Henry Purcell’s songs, it is clearly not harmony that drives artistic intent, but rather what poetic lines he wishes to draw to the listeners’ attention and the particular ‘affect’ given to them by word-painting or other musical device.

Charles Daniels is a master of the selective emphasis and declamation desirable in this performing tradition, perhaps due to his education at Cambridge and in London. His voice is youthful, but never juvenile, unaffected and natural, and endowed with disarming clarity and control.  Alexander Weimann made the perfect partner, both on the harpsichord and piano: precise and sensitive.

One possibly surprising ingredient in the enjoyment of this performance was the intimacy of the Fox Cabaret, a venue that in earlier times had a rather seedy existence.  The singer noted that, in its renovated form, its dimensions and design might be taken to approximate a very well- appointed residence of the 17th C.  Daniels’ projection into the space betrayed his sensitivity to his surroundings and his diction made the songs as easy to understand as prose.  I felt like I was engaged in a pleasant conversation with an old friend.  I am also convinced that this is truly the setting meant for a harpsichord.

Photo: Jan Gates

Photo: Jan Gates

The second half remained within the genre of English song, but took a temporally progressive approach, starting with a poem of Thomas Stanley’s set to music by Henry Purcell on an injunction to lovers not to bemoan past heartbreaks at the risk of never attracting a new love: Draw near, You lovers that complain. Eventually, we traversed into more modern harmony with two of Daniels’ own compositions, one a setting of a verse by John Donne, the other wholly original. Daniels' harmony is progressive in a style heavily favoured in the 1980s, full of expressive dissonance and unexpected resolutions.  Donne’s sonnet, addressed to death, is a spiritual work, referencing the Christian belief that death can and has been conquered, and as such holds no terror for the poet and the listener.  Here I thought the poem slightly over-shadowed the music.  However, while Daniels’ own poem (Oh, to vex me) is similar in style, it complements the music more. Because this poem is an ode to a modern existential love-crisis, set to modern harmonies, it seemingly has stronger effect.

While also making a brief journey through Ivor Gurney and Frank Bridge, the concert closed with a quintet of poems from Thomas Hardy’s collection Winter Words, set to music by Bridge’s celebrated student, Benjamin Britten.  Britten faultlessly intensifies the words of Hardy, whose poems are clearly the work of a man driven to create in a society in which he has found no succor. One of these songs, At the railway station, Upway, contains a fascinating puzzle. The poem is a descriptive vignette of a condemned man awaiting transport and a street urchin who pities him and offers a tune on his fiddle. As the boy plays, the convict begins to sing, “This life so free, Is the thing for me!” There is a distinctive change in harmony and style within these two lines, the words of the convict suddenly taking on the style of a German apprenticed to a Meistersinger.  Daniels’ makes the most of this rapid, if subtle, change and the listener is left with a subtle enigma as to its purpose and presence. 

I very much look forward to further collaborations between Early Music Vancouver and Music on Main and, particularly, the charming and intimate experience that the Fox Cabaret offers.


© Kate Mackin 2015