For three concerts in early February, Philadelphia’s early-music ensemble Tempesta di Mare reached a little further back than usual to assemble a broken consort.
To us, a “consort” is the spouse or partner of a reigning monarch, but a Renaissance consort was an ensemble of instruments from a single family: a consort of strings might include only violas da gamba (cellos) and violas da braccio (violins). Starting in the 16th century, though, adventurous composers began to assemble and write for mixed ensembles called broken consorts. They made — to Elizabethans — a “heavenly noyse.”
An authentic staging
After two Philadelphia concerts, the troupe’s broken consort performed in Wilmington on February 3 at Christ Church Christiana Hundred. Tempesta is no stranger to that idyllic complex, but this time the players were in the Church’s intimate chapel. With its sky-blue painted rafters and golden wood walls, it was just the kind of room where those early artists might have made their music.
Front and center was a large oval damask-skirted table, where music and instruments were laid out, along with small wooden stands for the scores. The players sat around the table as they might have in a Renaissance home or gathering hall. Some instruments were familiar — violin, recorders, flutes, lutes, and viola da gamba — and some not: a cittern (tiny lute), a bandora (large bass cittern), and a theorbo (large bass lute).
Sad, joyful, sly, surprising
Tempesta played 17 works of varying lengths, opening with two brisk instrumentals by William Byrd (c. 1540-1623): “My Lord of Oxenfords Maske” and “Monsiers Almaine.” Throughout the concert, these were generally spritely dances of the era (galliard, jig, pavanne, and a “morriss”) that alternated with the more melancholic vocal works Elizabethans loved.
The first of these was “Tell me true love,” by Renaissance star John Dowland (1563-1626). Laura Heimes sang this — and all the vocals — in a clear, honeyed, and focused dramatic soprano. Here, the opening strains of the deep-voiced gamba (elegantly played by Lisa Terry) were a good match to the song’s melancholy, and the work concluded with luscious playing by the entire ensemble that included Gwyn Roberts’s beautifully rendered flute obbligato.
Alternating upbeat instrumentals with plaintive Elizabethan songs was a program hallmark. Heimes filled “Sorrow, stay” with expressive crescendos and diminuendos that mirrored the text “no hope … no help … down, down.” Then Richard Stone and Christopher Morongiello played the expressive duet “La Rossignol/The Nightingale” (by the ever-present “Anonymous”) from the evocatively titled Jane Pickering’s Lute Book (c. 1600).
Heimes gave a sly rendition of one of Dowland’s all-time hits, “Come again, sweet love doth now invite,” while flirting coquettishly with the lutenists, and Mark Rimple’s cittern added a joyful texture to the ensemble. Emlyn Ngai (violin) and Lisa Terry (viola da gamba) gave an exceptionally spirited, highly collaborative rendering of “Divisions III in A minor for a treble and a bass” by Christopher Simpson (1602-1699).
The program also featured two larger four-movement group works: “Set No. 6 in D major” by William Lawes (1602-1645) and “Suite No. 3 in E minor” by Matthew Locke (1621-1677). Locke, a former chorister at Exeter Cathedral, was a leading English composer who paved the way for Henry Purcell by bringing the French style to London — and to this work, which moves in unexpected harmonic and rhythmic ways.
Young ears, ancient ayres
Two Italianate songs by Nicholas Lanier (1588-1666) — “Mark how the blushful morn” and “No more shall the mead” — allowed Heimes an opportunity for some virtuosic singing. And the concert ended with the lively “In the merry month of May” by John Wilson (1595-1674), a winsome courting song for soprano and the ensemble.
These composers and versatile musicians were also courtiers and civil servants with other duties and accomplishments. Lanier, who was “Lutenist to the King’s Music” in 1616 under James I, was a poet, painter, and printmaker. His colleague Lawes (“musician in ordinary for lutes and voices” under Charles I) was a soldier, killed in battle in the English Civil War.
Tempesta is known for vibrant musicianship, and these consort players were no exception. But the concert — carefully curated and played with great élan — suffered considerable slow-down from the necessity of frequent and lengthy tuning. Their cheering audience didn’t seem to mind, as the musicians made clever tuning jokes. And it was heartening to see a goodly contingent of young people enjoying these “ancient ayres.”
What, When, Where
Broken Consort: Music from Elizabethan and Restoration Era London. Gwyn Roberts, flute and recorder; Emlyn Ngai, violin; Lisa Terry, viola da gamba; Richard Stone, lute, bandora, and theorbo; Mark Rimple, cittern and guitar; Christopher Morongiello, lute and theorbo; Laura Heimes, soprano. Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players. February 3, 2019, at Christ Church Christiana Hundred, Wilmington, DE. (215) 755-8776 or tempestadimare.org.