Expect the unexpected
JAMES ROSS, the director of the group and an acknowledged expert on early music, notably early Scottish music, describes his work with the Inverness-based MUSICK FYNE.
SOME OF THE most exquisite music for unaccompanied voices was written during the 15th and 16th centuries, when the choral tradition reached unparalleled heights of perfection and virtuosity. The demands placed upon performers is such that very specific voice types are required, and it is in response to this challenge that small early music choirs sprang up.
Based in Inverness and drawing singers from as far afield as Skye and Moray, Musick Fyne was formed in 1980 and in the ensuing 24 years has presented over two hundred concerts throughout Scotland.
Musick Fyne currently has twenty-one singers, all of whom are distinguished for the purity of their voices and their advanced sight-reading skills. In a group which normally sings unaccompanied music, it is essential that all the singers have a good sense of pitch but also the confidence to find their notes and hold their line.
In the course of the average year they may also be asked to sing in several different languages including the obvious English, Scots, Latin, French, German and Italian, but also occasionally in more challenging tongues such as Russian, and as the group’s director is a linguist and believes that the authentic performance of music also relies on the correct pronunciation of the texts, the singers are often asked to use the Renaissance forms of the respective language!
Musick Fyne has performed most of the surviving early choral music of Scotland, participating in several first performances in modern times of the music of Scotland’s Renaissance master, Robert Carver. Presenting sacred music in appropriate settings and in an authentic liturgical context of plainchant has taken the group to some of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in Scotland, including Dornoch Cathedral, St Machar’s Cathedral and King’s College Chapel in Aberdeen, Pluscarden Abbey in Moray, and St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney.
This tradition continues in 2004 when the group performs a programme featuring the exquisite Mass ‘Pange lingua’ by the fifteenth-century Flemish composer Josquin Desprez and a spectacular nine-part ‘Salve Regina’ by his English contemporary Robert Wylkynson. The programme, entitled ‘Mysterium’, visits Dornoch Cathedral on Tuesday 22nd June, Pluscarden Abbey on Saturday 26th June, St Andrew’s Cathedral Inverness on Wednesday 15th September, and the Gordon Chapel, Fochabers on Saturday 18th September.
“One thing is sure, when it comes to Musick Fyne, get used to expecting the unexpected!”
Past highlights in the group’s performances of sacred music have included the Allegri ‘Miserere’ and large-scale works by Ludford, Lassus, Sheppard and Tallis, along with several collaborations with Cappella Nova, including a performance of the gigantic forty-part motet ‘Spem in alium’ by Thomas Tallis.
The group has also expanded its repertoire to include sacred and secular music from earlier and later periods, and recently performed a beautiful double-choir Mass by the neglected 20th-century English composer Bernard Stevens. They have also dipped into the Rachmaninov ‘Vespers’ and tackled the challenging music of Arvo Pärt.
To celebrate their twenty-first birthday, the group commissioned a work from Inverness-based composer Gordon Tocher, himself a member of Musick Fyne. The resulting ‘Menstralis and Musicians’, a triptych setting three fifteenth-century Scots texts, was performed to great critical acclaim throughout 2002.
Musick Fyne occasionally joins forces with the early instrument ensemble Coronach, who specialise in the authentic performance on a galaxy of period instruments of music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. These collaborations have enabled the groups to present authentic performances of larger-scale works for voices and instruments including music by the German composers Michael Praetorius and Orlandus Lassus and the elaborate madrigals of Claudio Monteverdi.
Using his experience as an actor, James Ross has also directed stagings of Baroque operas featuring Musick Fyne and Coronach. A popular production of Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’, with the title roles taken by group members Janet Cromartie and Robin Stewart, played to packed houses in 1998, and last year the groups staged three performances of the French Baroque opera ‘Actéon’ by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, again to full houses.
Variety being the spice of life, Musick Fyne have always delighted in surprising their audiences with innovative and unexpected programming and in February this year they marked St Valentine’s Day with two performances of the complete ‘Liebeslieder Waltzes’ by Johannes Brahms. Exchanging their accustomed sober academic gowns for dazzling ballgowns and dapper evening dress, they clustered round a grand piano expertly played by Rena Beaton and Sheila Bruce to sing some of Brahms’ most unashamedly romantic music.
A million miles, you might think, from the austere beauty of a Renaissance mass, but James Ross believes that the same purity of production and expressive musicality are essential for the success of both. One thing is sure, when it comes to Musick Fyne, get used to expecting the unexpected!
For information on forthcoming concerts by Musick Fyne, Coronach and The Art of Music, please visit the events noticeboard at www.coronach.co.uk and to join our free mailing list simply e-mail your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
© James Ross, 2004