Fair Oriana: Divine Songs of Passion

Divine Songs of Passion
Fair Oriana, with David Wright & Harry Buckoke
St Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield, London EC1A
13 April 2022
(and at Sands Films Music Room on 21 April)

As part of their Holy Week Mass and Music series of events, the historic church of St Bartholomew the Great in London’s Smithfield invited the soprano duo, Fair Oriana, to perform their programme Divine Songs of Passion. This well-constructed concert was based around François Couperin’s c1714 Leçons de ténèbres pour le mercredi saint, contrasted with music by d’Anglebert, Purcell, Pergolesi and Blow. The date of the concert was appropriate, as the only surviving part of the Couperin Leçons de ténèbres is the one for the Wednesday of Holy Week. The other two sets of three Leçons composed for the following two days are lost. Although the Lamentations of Jeremiah depict the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, they have long been associated with Holy Week.

The three sections of the Leçons de ténèbres were each introduced by one of Jean-Henri d’Anglebert’s five Fugues grave pour l’Orgue from his Pieces de clavecin, played by David Wright on a chamber organ. The well-executed elaborate ornamentation set the scene for the French musical style, although we were left to imagine the dramatic sounds of the French organ of the period with its distinctive reed and mutation stops. The first Leçon (Lamentatio Jeremia) was sung by Angela Hicks, with her clear, pure-toned and pure-tuned voice and exceptionally graceful use of ornaments. Penelope Appleyard followed with Purcell’s ‘On Our Saviour’s Passion’ and the pair then combined for three verses from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, the orchestral score reduced to a tricky chamber organ version, together with Harry Buckoke on gamba.

Penelope Appleyard was the soloist in the second Leçon (Et egressus est a Filia Sion), her equally clear but slightly richer and more vibrant tone being a very effective contrast to Angela Hicks. The ability of both voices to combine was apparent in the Stabat Mater and in the third Couperin Leçon (Manum suam misit hostis). The latter was preceded by Angela Hicks singing John Blow’s eloquent ‘Oh that mine eyes could melt’. They finished with the encore of Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’.

This was a beautiful concert in the unique setting of London’s oldest surviving church. Breaking up the three sections of the Leçons de ténèbres with other music was a good move, although, for those who did not know the work, the church’s programme note could more usefully have divided the English translations into the different verses of each Leçon. Each starts with an incipit of the initial letter of the Hebrew text, the exquisite melismatic vocal lines of these incipits punctuating the text and providing moments of musical repose. They were particularly well sung by both singers. The instrumental contributions from David Wright, organ, and Harry Buckoke, gamba, were equally sensitive, with David Wright’s continuo realisations supporting the text and the singers well.

This concert will also be given on Thursday 21 April at 8pm in the unusual setting of the Sands Films Music Room, Rotherhithe (ticket details here). It will be also available as an online Livestream which can be accessed up to 5 June. It is well worth watching, either live or via the video link.