Cosmographic cartography: The Royal Wind Music
On 5th October 2016, The Royal Wind Music gave a concert at the Royal College of Music in London, which Fatima Lahham reviewed later that evening. The programme they presented was a stunning aural and visual cornucopia of delights, and now that it has been recorded and will be out very shortly, we decided to publish the review here to prepare you for what to expect...
I’ve just come back from a concert given by the Royal Wind Music, a double sextet of renaissance recorders founded by Paul Leenhouts in 1997. The 12 musicians, armed with 45 recorders made by Adriana Breukink and Bob Marvin, took to the stage of the Recital Hall at the Royal College of Music in London to perform their programme Cosmography – Spectrum of Polyphony entirely from memory. The hour that followed was so extraordinary that I was inspired to scribble down some of my thoughts about it on the train home.
My first impression of the black-clad ensemble as they walked on to the stage without instruments was that they looked strikingly like a choir – and throughout the concert they continued to evoke aspects of choral singing and organ playing (they have frequently been described as ‘a walking organ’).
But as soon as they started playing the first piece, the audience was quickly made aware of differences to the organ and voice – as the concert programme pointed out:
"While playing these pieces RWM has an advantage over the organ, because each player can give their own character and colour to their line, which results in a wide scope of expressiveness and flexibility"
In visual terms this manifested itself in the independent movement of each player; whether moving freely with a silver-toned soprano recorder, or somehow conveying a sort of organic kineticism through the powerful struggle of positioning their hands to play ‘Big Babe’, the ensemble’s Sub-Contrabass recorder in B-flat (this instrument is one of only three in the world, the biggest size of recorder in existence and over 10 feet long).
The first and last chords of the concert were viscerally memorable, drawing us at the beginning into the breathtaking world of Sweelinck’s Praeludium Pédaliter and Variations on Mein junges leben hat ein End. This work was a perfect example of an organ piece re-imagined for these endlessly flexible instruments, with nearly every harmonic twist signalling another colour achieved magically within nanoseconds by the whole group. Capturing the tangible wonder created by Sweelinck, they plunged next into the sombre and painful world of Gombert’s well-known motet Mille regres, a vocal piece inspired by Josquin’s chanson of the same name. Despite no text being given in the programme, or any verbal explanation offered, I found myself hanging on every last phrase to follow the laments to their conclusion.
How an instrumental ensemble approaches the un-texting of vocal pieces has probably been a challenge at least since the ‘original’ Royal Wind Music formed as a recorder sextet to play at the English court from Henry VIII’s reign to about 1630. The richness of ways in which the RWM addressed this was overwhelming, ranging from diminutions to subtle and perfectly-executed colour transformations to changing facial expressions.
In fact, throughout the spine-chilling hollowness of Gesualdo’s madrigal O dolorosa gioia, the recorder seemed in many ways an even more effective medium than the voice, forcing us to become permeated with the feeling of painful sound and conjuring up images that respond to the word painting of this wonderful piece without the audience even needing to know or understand the original text.
Instrumental virtuosity contrasted with and formed a complement to this textual sensibility, resonating particularly in Brumel’s Tandernac, and dances by Phalèse, in which the lid was lifted on the myriad of articulations available both on recorders as separate instruments and as part of a 12-piece machine. Phalèse’s Bransle Gay stuck in my memory especially for the opening, which was played only on the lowest recorders and (at least to my mind) had fully entered funky bass groove territory.
The final pieces in their ‘Cosmography’ programme were three short and intensely beautiful pieces from J.S. Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, opening with the withdrawn gratitude of Das alte Jahr vergangen ist BWV614, moving through to hopefulness with Wenn wir in höchster Nöthen sein BWV641, and ending with the graceful triumph of Heut’triumphieret Gottes Sohn BWV630. Finally the Elizabethan composer Anthony Holborne made an encore appearance, and the room was left buzzing both with the resonanceof the last chords and the audience’s enthusiasm.
On their website the RWM describe Cosmography - Spectrum of Polyphony as presenting "an image of the complete musical universe of the ensemble". As an exercise in cosmographic cartography, tonight's concert certainly put all the composers featured firmly on the map of the finest music being performed today, revealing the Royal Wind Music as audio-cosmographers who harness a type of musical alchemy to transform 45 pieces of wood into some of the most eloquent communication tools of the 21st century.