Clifton International Festival of Music 2022 Review: Ruby Hughes & Sergio Bucheli in ConcertBy John Vandevert
On a sunny and lazy Sunday evening, the 2022 Clifton International Festival of Music held its fourth performance. From the captivating beauty of the English choral tradition, paying special homage to Vaughan Williams (this year marking his 150th anniversary), the Festival moved to the English Renaissance. Hosted within the grand and imposing nave of the Clifton Cathedral–a quintessentially Brutalist building built in 1973, during the wave of Post-War Modernism–this intimate occasion was the perfect way to spend a Sunday evening before the start of a new week.
The event was held at 7:30 pm, began promptly, and the air was one of “formal informality.” For the first time in a long time I felt as if I were back home at my childhood church, gathering with friends and family in the spirit of collective adoration for the power of music. I was worried when it was announced that Mary Bevan, the intended singer, was suffering from a chest cold and being replaced. But the replacement was none-other than Ruby Hughes and my fears were abetted. As I saw period instruments being set up and warmed–specifically a lute and archlute–by Sergio Bucheli, I realised that I was in for a real treat. Having had few opportunities to hear early music live, this concert was an important one for me.
So it was that, within the shockingly Brutalist and aggressively dystopian interior of Clifton Cathedral–as unlikely a venue for an early music concert as anywhere–the fourth event of the 2022 Clifton International Festival of Music began. Situated in front of the “altar,” amidst the beams and tiles of an open floorplan and the chaste coldness of concrete futurism, soprano Ruby Hughes and lutenist Sergio Bucheli sat, honestly and openly like two fallible humans, ready to perform.
On the program were ten vocal pieces by three 17th century English baroque composers–Henry Purcell, Robert Johnson, and John Dowland–along with one contemporary, female, composer–Errollyn Wallen–in the neo-baroque style. From Purcell, the duo performed the aria “Music for a while.” This aria was the second of four movements from Purcell’s incidental score composed for the 1692 revival of John Dryden and Nathaniel Lee’s play “Oedipus,” paired with English composer Michael Tippett’s personal arrangement of “Bonduca’s Lament,” from Purcell’s 1695 opera “Bonduca.” From composer and lutenist Robert Johnson–a contemporary and colleague of Shakespeare–we were treated to the pieces; “Full Fathom Five,” which is the second stanza from “Ariel’s Song” as heard in Act I, Scene ii of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (1610-1611); “Where the Bee Sucks,” which is another song from “The Tempest,” sourced from the pages of the 1659 publication “Cheerful Ayres or Ballads”; and “Care-charming sleep,” which was a tender and compassionate song also with connections to Shakespeare. These composers, along with numerous superb solo pieces by Bucheli interspersed within the mix, formed the concert’s first half.
For the second portion, four pieces by one of the most eminent English Renaissance composers, John Dowland, were performed. First was “Flow my tears”, originally named “Lachrimae pavane” and one of Dowland’s most famous ‘ayres’ (which is archaic name for arias); followed by three songs from Dowland’s 21-song collection “First Booke of Songes or Ayres” first published in 1597. These were; “Can she excuse my wrongs”; “Go Cristall Teares”; and the melancholic “Come Again, sweet love doth now invite.” The concert concluded with a contemporary work by Belize-born British composer Errollyn Wallen, entitled “Peace on Earth.” This is a Renaissance-styled, minimalist choral piece which conveys in an ethos of timbral purity humankind’s continual striving for unity amidst the troubling reality of ‘winter,’ which was a metaphor for moral blindness.
I was struck by the succinct breadth of literature covered by the performance: it was an appeal to traditional English composers conveying the brilliant richness that was the English Renaissance. Considering the focus on minority composers and underrepresented names–Maddalena Casulana, recently rediscovered by musicologist Professor Laurie Stras, and Renaissance composer Vicente Lusitano, come immediately to mind–which has come to be the modus operandi for the classical world, hopefully future concerts will prioritize more unconventional names. As it stands, the repertoire this night was nonetheless cohesive the whole way through, and the order they chose to perform in worked dramatically and musically, creating an evocative path through the English Renaissance. A conversation I had with a fellow concert-goer before the performance began conveyed to me just how important the repertoire they chose was for the English identity. My interlocutor expressed that her favorite composers were Purcell and Dowland, and when she hears their music she feels honored to be English. What more could you ask for in a concert than this?
Ruby Hughes and Sergio Bucheli commanded the evening with a performance of extreme virtuosity and expression-laden beauty. From dynamics great and small, the selective usage of vibrato, and cogent implementation of dramaturgy to convey text, these two performers succeeded in breathing an exciting vitality into the centuries-old, but still intensely youthful, repertoire.
As a trained operatic soprano with a repertoire-list spanning from chamber, opera, and art song to oratorio and symphonic inserts, and sourced from a compositional pool as wide as her dynamic range–from John Blow to Alban Berg to Huw Watkins–I expected great things from Ruby Hughes and received it tenfold.
In the Purcell duo, she excelled in bringing technical precision and intonational exactitude in-step with bucolic luxuriousness. “Music for a while” demonstrated her shrewd considerations of space and performance technique, employing her free-flowing vibrato in modest measure and using the 3-5 second reverb of the cathedral’s high cement ceilings to her musical advantage. One of the most sensational aspects of the performance was Hughes’ dynamic control, wherein she did not compromise anything: from her pianissimi to her prudent fortes, all were well supported with breath, fueled with intention, and never utilized at the expense of healthy singing. This really underscored the larger necessity for singers to be trained in the bel canto style before attempting musical gymnastics of any kind, early music or otherwise.
Hughes was not performing a cappella, of course, and she was accompanied, with as much technical precision and intrepid musicality as she exhibited herself, by Sergio Bucheli on his archlute. The archlute, it must be mentioned, is a marvelous instrument and one which stood out against the lethargic grayness of the performance space. Trained on baroque guitar, theorbo, and lute, and clearly comfortable in chamber spaces, Bucheli’s articulatory control with such transparent music was exceptional, and when heard in-tandem with Hughes, one became a supplicant to the whimsical nobility of a tumultuous heart in love, torment, and longing. Their stellar, and honest, invocation of Purcellian prosody conveyed an intimate understanding of how to perform together: an exemplary case of “listen and respond.” The only downside to Hughes’ prosodic musicality was her tendency to drop cadential endings and an excessive usage of the fricatives for textual annunciation. While justified dramatically, as the concert progressed her frequent application of such devices made me wonder, “How can early music be performed without making it a caricature of how it must have been?” I am not sure the answer was found in the performance, but in any case the performance was beautifully realized, so it did not seem to matter much.
In the Johnson pieces, after having warmed us up to the delicate, yet amorously persuasive, mannerisms of 17th century bardic musical language, Hughes and Bucheli continued to serenade our hearts and minds. Again Hughes exercised her exquisite technical control and dynamic clarity, demonstrating her ability to perform clean floridity and dexterous passages all while conveying textual legibly like a true storyteller, while Bucheli melodiously strummed alongside her.
While “Where the Bee Sucks” was jovial and executed in crisp perfection, “Care-charming sleep” was the first-half’s nonpareil. Tender, caring, supple phrasing was the modus operandi across the board, vibrato was handled with care, and there was an intense feeling of knowledge and understanding in what was being sung. This observation will come as no surprise to a performer, but audience members can tell when a performer is simply “performing” as opposed to “storytelling.” It was the latter which the performance wonderfully conveyed the entire way through.
Better yet was Hughes’ style of hanging onto the note for as long as she could, before adding a slight fricative or simply leaving the tone resounding in the room to radiate before wafting away. It was sublime. A technique like this does not get old, as her well-balanced register and modest dramaturgy produced a sense of excitement, of anticipation, for the conclusion. How would she end? Of course by hanging on until she could no longer.
The second half was a festival of Dowland’s marvelous writing. While the contemporary piece was superbly sung, the texture was essentially a sustained melodic ostinato and I would hardly consider it comparable to the other pieces performed. The first of the Dowland pieces, “Flow my tears,” was the best song–should I say “ayre?”–of the evening. Tasteful lyricism and the apt application of energy apexes defined the entire set as it was shared between the two performers. The usage of vibrato, diction, dynamics, color, and intonation all added to a milieu which can only be semi-adequately described post-experientially.
The three “First Booke” songs were prime examples of Renaissance text-painting, although much praise must be given to Hughes and Bucheli, for these song’s ‘scores’ provide little clues by way of realization and the capabilities of the performers were consequently tested again and again. Furthermore, it is easy for this music to become an exercise: a methodical and antiquarian etude that lacks the living heartbeat of the epoch from which it was crafted. No such concerns were present this evening. I was entranced the whole night through by the refined sensuality and personal relationship Hughes and Bucheli had with the repertoire. I could sense it, we could all see it. It was more than just repertoire being sung in front of people, for which the audience would simply say “How nice,” and move on with their day. As exemplified in “Come again, sweet love doth now invite,” a nobility and grandness of expression, a candidness of emotional intention, and a heartfelt musical dedication to pulling out of this historic repertoire something related to our present condition was conveyed. If anything, the last piece by Wallen, brilliantly sung in chaste measure by Hughes, conveyed the entire concert’s raison d’etre: We look to the dawn for hope, and if we stumble and do not succeed like we had hoped, we look once more and then try again in the morning.
Overall, the performance was outstanding and a real treat to experience. From the friendly atmosphere of those in attendance to the sophisticated and masterful technique and musicality of the performers, the colors of nature abounded within the Brutalist interior of the cathedral. Who is to say if this repertoire, or early music itself, will become more than a specialized and niche interest, but if concerts such as these are continuously held, I think it has a very good future ahead indeed. Although I was one of the youngest concertgoers this night, the fact that Hughes mentioned her work in public outreach with early repertoire was a good sign that times are changing, and the antiquarian aura of early music is wearing off. Let us hope it continues to change.