tue 22/04/2014

Richard Thompson, Philip Pickett, Musicians of the Globe, Cadogan Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Richard Thompson, Philip Pickett, Musicians of the Globe, Cadogan Hall

Strumpets and varlets aplenty in this Elizabethan romp of a concert

Richard Thompson: The Leonard Cohen of early music
Richard Thompson: The Leonard Cohen of early music

I defy anyone not to be excited at the prospect of a concert featuring such numbers as “Cuckolds All Awry”, “The Queen’s Dumpe”, “The Wooing of the Baker’s Daughter” and “Tickle My Toe”. Add to these tantalising scenarios early music’s favourite rebel Philip Pickett, and a guitarist who made it into Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 20 Greatest Guitarists of All Time chart, and you have yourself quite the unlikeliest of parties.

Hosting this geek-meets-groupie celebration were the Musicians of the Globe, associate ensemble of the Globe Theatre. For almost two decades, under Pickett’s direction, the group have toured and recorded the music of Shakespeare’s world, collaborating with all manner of vocalists and instrumentalists along the way. That the latest should be legendary folk guitarist Richard Thompson is surely a reflection on the anarchic instincts Thompson shares with Pickett. Both uncomfortable with restrictions of genre and convention, their collaboration last night demonstrated both the rewards and risks of such boundary blurring.

Falling on the risk side of the divide, it has to be said up front, was the venue. Cadogan Hall is a natural space for chamber orchestras, early opera and vocal groups, but was just too airy and impersonal for a programme like this. With a six-piece ensemble of lutes and viols I accept that amplification is inevitable, but it meant that we lost something of the authentic character and texture of proceedings, something that might well be worth sacrificing for the mulled-wine-in-hand, off-duty atmosphere of some of the Southbank Centre venues, but not for the prim formality of a less than full Cadogan Hall.

globe_musiciansAmbient gripes aside, there was much to love here among the bawdy ballads, courtly dances and emotive songs selected by Pickett et al. The first half offered a glimpse into the public and private modes of Elizabethan entertainment. The decorous lyricism of lute-song “How Can the Tree” and dance melodies “Goddesses”, “Greenwood” and “Packington’s Pound” provided the well-scrubbed public face to which the rather more saucy balladry of “All in a Garden Green” and “Watkins Ale” represented the private, after-hours alternative. Euphemism is king in this repertoire (if a man ever offers you a drink of Watkins Ale the answer is a knee firmly applied to the groin) and the scenarios a veritable Penthouse fantasy of coy pursuits, seductions and insatiable females.

Thompson has a voice that speaks of experience – of whisky drunk and women kissed – and his laconic delivery and commentary (“a bit of rogering in this one, folks”) gives these songs a life that no amount of authentic performance practice could. He’s a bit like an Elizabethan Leonard Cohen: the quality of the singing just isn’t the point. Although we lost a few words in his rather covered diction, the beer stench and bosom heave of the tavern were vividly clear.

Featuring just the core musicians of the ensemble, Thompson’s six-strong backing group of Globe instrumentalists numbered violin, recorder (played by Pickett himself, pictured below), lute, viol and bandora. The “red-headed stepchild of early music”, as Thompson described it, this latter (a first encounter for me) is a cross between a lute and a guitar, and strummed with grinning enthusiasm by Elizabeth Pallett proved itself an earthy addition to the politer tones of lute and viol.

PickettTaking a lead in “Green Garters” and “The Queen’s Dumpe” (“dumpe” being a mood, good or ill, lest anyone should wonder), it was lovely to hear the lute cast off its habitual supporting role and take the melodic spotlight for once, with lutenist Lynda Sayce evidently rejoicing in the rare treat of frisky semiquavers. Playing no less than seven different recorders during the course of the evening, Pickett provided much of the melodic embellishment, matched for character by Penelope Spencer’s sprightly violin.

Though microphones did distort balance occasionally, the overall effect from this unlikely ensemble was as accomplished as it was unfussy – a gloriously un-bearded introduction for anyone new to the arcane world of early music. Just remember to enjoy this music safely: refrain from retiring behind bushes with strange gentlemen, refuse any invitation to learn to “daunce a downe”, and reject any offers of marriage that don’t come with cash upfront.

Thompson has a voice that speaks of experience - of whisky drunk and women kissed

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Comments

I was at this concert and I was very disappointed in Richard Thompson. Happily I had gone to see Philip Picket and the Musicians of the Globe. He clearly wasn't that confortable with his material or his fellow musicians. His introductions were artless "There's some rogering in this song" like some smutty schoolboy's snigger. His plot summaries were pointless "Dido was the queen of Carthage" he told us before singing "Dido Was the Carthage Queen" and "Faustus came to a sticky end", No! Really! Thompson hasn't the voice to carry of these songs, if only Nic Jones could still perform: Nic's clarity and diction made every song he ever sung instantly memorable. At times Thompson was downright rude: introducing his guitar and its luthier before his fellow musicians, and even then he gave their instruments more attention. Which is pity as the musicians were superb: Philip Pickett's recorders had wings; lutenist Lynda Sayce proved her demur instrument could play more than exquisite Dowland, it rocked; Elizabeth Pallett's bandora stunned; while Penelope Spencer's violin was intoxicating and Henrik Persson's viol and drum gave the whole ensemble a firm foundation. As I said I didn't go to see Richard so I wasn't disappointed, sitting at the back I realised a lot of people were disppointed and didn't come back for the second half.

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