REVIEW / Seeing the skull beneath the skin: Tess Knighton on Red Byrd's radically stripped-down approach to Purcell

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The Independent Culture
'Apocalypse Then' was the title of Red Byrd's programme at the Wigmore Hall on Thursday; it could just as well have been 'The Grim Reaper Strikes Back', for it was the fear of death that ran like a black thread through the more intimate sacred texts set by Purcell and his contemporaries. The first half was unrelieved doom and gloom, while the second introduced, briefly, a lighter element before settling once more into mortal matters with Purcell's Funeral Sentences. Readings from John Bunyan and others, chosen to reinforce the theme of dark despair that inspired some of Purcell's most dramatic sacred music, did little to raise the spirits on a dank February evening.

If the overall effect of the programme was unsettling, the performances themselves were disturbing, though this was on balance, I felt, to Red Byrd's credit. It was clear that they sought, above all, to convey the startling intensity of feeling behind the texts and that, in order to do so, they had developed an approach to Purcell's vocal idiom that contrasted fiercely with the kind of interpretations we have come to expect - and accept almost unthinkingly as 'authentic' - from specialist early music singers. Most current performances of Purcell could be summed up as polished and polite. So it came as a bit of a shock to encounter singers prepared, where necessary, to strip away the veneer of reserve to reach the emotional core beneath (backed to the hilt by the excellent continuo team of Nigel North and Paul Nicholson).

Here Purcell's music was grabbed by the scruff of the neck and dragged through the mud in an attempt to convey the black night of the soul portrayed over and over in the texts he chose to set in these privately apocalyptic pieces. This worked well in some cases, less so in others, but then breaking out of the established mould of emotional restraint and reticence was destined to be a high-risk strategy. While a more unfettered, even wild, approach sometimes blurred the subtlety of Purcell's chromatic writing and while ornaments had a tendency to fly off the handle, there were other moments when Red Byrd drew near to the very heart of the matter. For one thing, they consistently sang the words as if they mattered, and if this compromised beauty of tone or even stability of intonation, so be it.

Caution was certainly thrown to the winds in Ian Honeyman's rendering of Purcell's setting of George Herbert's 'With sick and famish'd eyes', while Susie Le Blanc's cries to Gabriel in 'The Blessed Virgin's Expostulation' were almost alarmingly fraught with anguish. Both Richard Wistreich (equally convincing as Samuel in 'In guilty night', and in Thomas D'Urfey's bawdy, not to say lewd, 'Would ye have a young Virgin') and John Potter drew, successfully on the whole, as much on the power of rhetoric as on musicality. If some found this all too hot to handle, at the very least Red Byrd's approach makes a timely challenge to the new orthodoxy that hovers around too many historically aware performances today.

(Photograph omitted)

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