Fretwork, Susan Bickley: Queen's Hall Series

Submitted by Pat Napier on Mon, 27 Aug '07 2.07pm
Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Susan Bickley (mezzo soprano); Fretwork: Wendy Gillespie, Asako Morikawa. Susanna Pell, Richard Boothby, Richard Campbell, Richard Tunnicliffe (viols)

The centrepiece of this morning's serene and fascinating concert of consort music was John Taverner's Sanctus from the Mass called Gloria tibi Trinitas. That's the 16th century John Taverner, not the present day John Tavener (who's been commissioned to write music for Fretwork, just to confuse things). This piece, which forms the centrepiece of the most solemn part of any Mass was played in full - a rare treat. It also inspired a whole genre of In nomine works from many composers right up to Purcell. And In nomine is the very last phrase of the Sanctus.

© Fretwork

This Sanctus gave rise to many feats of ingenuity, with composers vying to produce elements of surprise, technique, sound combinations around the cantus firmus setting (where the melody line is anchored in the middle voices, played or sung as long notes throughout the piece). This freed the other instruments to fly out from it or weave the music around it. And it all span out of medieval plainchant, which is such an exciting feature of this, the new Director, Jonathan Mills' first Festival.

Fretwork, celebrating its 21st birthday this year, is the crème de la crème of viol consort music. Its many years of playing together (and it takes many years to reach the pinnacle of gorgeous and distinctive mellifluous sound) to give us such effortless-seeming music. All the musicians play all of the instruments and change round depending on the dynamics they want to bring out. Richard Boothby's bass viol, in particular, made a luscious, smooth, dark chocolate sound.

Early music's magnificent academic research base has given us a chocolate box of rare and varied delights and Fretwork put together a particularly choice and exotic selection. As in all the best treats, there were old favourites and new surprises to savour, for Fretwork are also gifted in playing contemporary music on viols and have many prestigious commissions under their belts.

Moving seamlessly from Gibbons to Goehr or Taverner to Purcell or even Picforth to Benjamin, we sampled what may well be the longest timespan in one concert in the Festival. And it was a concert of contrasts all the way.

Susan Bickley
© Samantha Ovens

Gibbons contrasted with Taverner in fantasias v cantus firmus and also viol consort music v Goehr's use of the mezzo voice for example. Then Taverner at the start of the genre v Purcell at the end of it, the latter already incorporating an inventive way ahead. But, intriguingly, the obscure, unknown Picforth (he of the unknown first name and only one tiny fragment of manuscript) could very nearly act as a very early precursor of Steve Reich!

Susan Bickley featured in several of the pieces, always adding a dimension and colour of delighful beauty. She, though, had the immense task of introducing the second half with the inocuous-sounding Upon silence which really would have been better called The long-legged fly, the Yeats' poem to which the music is set. It was 15 minutes of truly stunning vocal gymnastics, perfectly illustrating the long sleepy-looking rests interspersed with the fly's crazy, unpredictable, frantic flights. She closed this very enticing chocolate box with Purcell's hauntingly lovely Evening Hymn.

© Fretwork

The whole concert was far more unified and delectable than it might sound, such was the programming skill that made it a whole box of delights in the same way as each piece gave it a the rich flavours from which to make the choices just right for the audience.

Susan Bickley and Fretwork gave us the encore to remember for many years to come in its surprise and impact: Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, in German.Or, to you and me Mack the Knife as you've never heard it before but won't forget in a hurry. Utterly delicious!

© Pat Napier 26 August 2007. First published on Also see Fretwork
© Fretwork images: Edward Webb

Music: Gibbons: Fantasies-In six parts: Nos.1, 2, 5, 6; In three parts: Nos.1, 8; Goehr: Let me not; Fantasia. Why is my verse so barren?; Taverner: Sanctus (Missa tibi mundi); Ferrabosco II: In nomine No.3; No.7; Byrd: Rejoice unto the Lord; John Ward (1571-1638): In nomine No.1; Picforth: In nomine; Purcell: In nomine in six parts; In seven parts; The evening hymn