REVIEW: Songs of Longing and Exile at the Brighton Festival

Stile Antico & Rihab Azar
Stile Antico & Rihab Azar

Review by Richard Amey

Brighton Festival 2019 at All Saints Church, Hove, on Friday, May 17: ‘Songs of Longing and Exile’ – Stile Antico (Early Music vocal group of 12 voices, UK) with Rihab Azar (oud, Syria).

William Byrd (c1540-1623): motet, Be not angry, Lord. Lutenist John Dowland (1563-1626): Seven Lachrymae (Seven Tears Figured in Seven Passionate Pavans), No 1 with Dowland’s words, Nos 2-7 with commissioned poetry by Peter Oswald. Giles Swayne (b 1946), world premiere, Bodrum Beach.

What has melancholy mood music from the courts of Elizabethan England and Denmark got to say about modern exile, displacement and longing? The distance is 400 years and this evening’s evidence suggests it has too little, until sharpened by 21st century observation.

Stile Antico’s exploration project investigates if composer Dowland’s gently tortured weeping world can empathise or connect with the plight of refugee peoples decimated today by their own governments and their allies. Heard tonight, in 2019 context, despite the insertion of modern narrative words, the answer was ‘barely beyond the longing’.

Dowland’s seven Lachrymae Pavans selected by Stile Antico are ‘Old Tears, New Old Tears, Sighing Tears, Sad Tears, Forced Tears, Lovers’ Tears and True Tears’. They stand an inimitable landmark in poignant musical expressivity, with ‘Old Tears’ bearing words (the famous ‘Fly my tears, fall from your springs, exiled forever let me mourn’). But these Pavans are entertainment and dancing for privileged monarchical courts, albeit in times of greater mortal fragility.

Pavan No 6 was tonight performed to a widescreen picture of a pair of begging hands and made the closest case to being convincing. There were relevant dissonances and the habitual closing major-key cadence this time just about worked. To poet Peter Oswald’s “Give me, give me something to wear; sick, sick the whole winter” – his poetry was also screened – the cadence did suggest a pavement dweller’s forlorn, imploring smile sent toward a passer-by who unexpectedly stops.

Yet the nagging paradox is that Dowland is writing about ‘Lovers’ Tears’. A similar dissonance in the final ‘True Tears’ added up to too little too late – unless it was my penny that took too long to drop.

With Dowland’s various types of tear being unable fully to cut it, Oswald’s implanted beseeching and cynical voices of the displaced rather too easily seem to rub against the music. And Dowland’s frequent consoling, crowd-pleasing cadences sound often contradictory and hollow, set inescapably against our own inconsolable anguish about the plight of our global situation’s victims strewn across so many nations.

At this point, in answer to the challenge: “Well, if not Dowland’s music, then whose Early Music might be better?” I may humbly make a layman’s offer of Gesualdo, Victoria or Monteverdi, and suggest a selected compilation of several composers’ work. Early Music can search itself up and down yet its beauties will so often count against it.

In this continuous 75-minute presentation, Stile Antico’s brief of general exile was made specific to the Middle East by the screen photos of wrecked cityscapes and human lives – two continents and four centuries away from Shakespeare’s London. Sounding alongside are the semi-improvised musical textures, rhythms and melodic line of an oud – the lute of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Silent during the singing, its interluding role between each Lachrymae Pavan further locates the presentation, though cannot silence the England/Dowland disparity. However, seven minutes from the end of the evening, to the rescue came a three-year-old Arabic boy, lying dead, face downwards on a Turkish beach.

This worldwide outcry-sparking media image stirred Cambridge/Royal Academy-trained composer Giles Swayne into re-contexting Matthew Arnold’s 1851 poem ‘Dover Beach’, which juxtaposes beauty with man’s inhumanity to man. Bookended by Arnold’s text “All you who pass by” (O vos omnes), Swayne’s own words are those of the dead boy’s father, retelling their disastrous three-mile sea crossing from Bodrum to Kos at the hands of people smugglers.

Giles Swayne, 72, later emerged to take his bow having injected a biting reality and connection into the evening. The previous politer tonality of Dowland was banished, the atmosphere suddenly bitterly raw and desperate, a wholly different barrage of emotions was expressed, and the oud was there in amongst it, flailing and bewailing. This was a world premiere, remember, heard half a mile away from an English Channel shoreline where more refugees may one day begin arriving alive and dead.

How well the choir managed this sea change of style and technique. An evening begun in the safety of William Byrd, then soaked in Dowland’s salty sorrow, ended tossed and thrown in danger and drama as 12 vocal aces went wild with anger. “I paid those people money to drown my wife and children,” utters the father. “It was I that should have died that night.”

These reservations apart, the evening’s presentation was a fascination. Singers and sell-out 275 audience both set in the half-round facing each other across the nave. The singers, on a stage between two arching pillars, stood alternately male next to female for the Byrd, to spread the sound of the multiple parts; then for the Dowland in same-sex pairings to match the registers of Dowland’s original five-part viols instrumentation; then conventionally with sopranos and altos one side, tenors and basses the other, for the Swayne onslaught.

But sticking most in the memory will be Syrian oudist Rihab Azar, from Homs, now more than three years in London. The choir in black, she sat on a bright red-upholstered church chair in a Prussian blue off-the-shoulder top, black hair swept back into a bun behind a black stiff alice band.

With touching un-Western performing modesty, each time she emerged from behind the choir to play, briefly nodded to the audience, then quickly disappeared again. What were her pieces called? ‘Melody of Immortality’, her co-written ‘Love Far Away’, ‘Escaped Eyes’, ‘Seen thorough the Veil’ (Arabic classical), and her own ‘Questions’.

Each was all-acoustic except ‘Love Far Away’ which was slightly amplified, using electronic looping and effects. Her ‘Questions’ used drop-D tuning. Her oud was a Turkish one, having a fixed bridge, but in Iraqi tuning across its single bass string and 10 others in their five pairs.

Owing to its shape, it sits on the player’s right thigh whereas a guitar sits on the left. We are encountering the oud more often in this country. One turned up at a Brighton Early Music Festival workshop for lute and theorbo two years ago. It is one of Giles Lewin’s instruments.

“The oud does best when it’s speaking of what is inside,” Rihab Azar said to me. “It’s not an extrovert instrument and it doesn’t sound happy. I try, but it’s not happy!”

Her stage presence, dexterity and tone made her inclusion an assured artistic touch. This Stile Antico creation may be still a work in progress and this version, premiered here, creates food for thought and debate. It soon moves to Wigmore Hall next month and Round Chapel Hackney in part of Refugee Week.

Richard Amey