Giles Underwood (bass-baritone)

with the Martlet Ensemble.

St Mary's Church Iffley, Saturday May 9th 2015

The Martlet Ensemble was formed in 2014 by Giles Underwood, Director of Music at University College Oxford. Most of the instrumentalists who came to Iffley on 9 May (2 violins, viola, cello, oboe, chamber organ) were University students being mentored by the team of internationally renowned musicians Giles has recruited to the ensemble.

Giles Underwood

Giles Underwood directed the ensemble and was also vocal soloist in a series of demanding works of the Baroque era, concluded by a complete performance of Bach's cantata 82, Ich habe genug. Each half of the concert began with a work for instrumental ensemble, the more substantial piece being Purcell's Chacony (i.e. Chaconne) for the string players. The variations moved from a solemn opening series to a forceful conclusion and displayed the rich tone of the ensemble strings.

The first vocal item was the cantata De Profundis Clamavi (psalm 130) composed by Nicholas Bruhns (pupil of Buxtehude) some time in the 1690's. The first half ended with a secular cantata by Purcell's younger brother Daniel. Its mildly scandalous pastoral text describes the woe of Damon whose beloved Sylvia dotes instead on a satyr. Finally Damon collects his thoughts and refuses to be slave to a perverse lover. Both these pieces were dramatic in style, with the music emphasising the emotional currents in the texts. Giles Underwood showed full control of the dramatic development of both texts, supported by the lively instrumental accompaniment. The performance demonstrated the original musical substance in these little-known works from the tradition which shortly reached its climax with the music of Bach.

The second half of the concert moved forward a few years to the cantatas of J.S. Bach. An instrumental sinfonia from cantata 156 was followed by arias and a recitative from cantatas 78 and 159, dealing with the Saviour's suffering and mankind's redemption. These passages formed a prelude to the complete solo cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genug of 1727. The text extends and dramatises Simeon's words in the Nunc Dimittis asserting that with the coming of Jesus his soul can depart in peace. In this half of the concert the oboe joined the strings, organ and voice to create a most expressive and powerful ensemble. The message of these texts is renunciation, and Bach creates intense dramatic contrast, greeting death with a joyful assertion of faith.

Giles Underwood's fine baritone voice had the flexibility of volume and range to cope with all demands without strain. His masterful performances of this complex music reflected his wide experience of the repertoire, and well illustrated Bach's practice of treating the voice as an instrument of high virtuosity. At the same time as singing he directed the instrumental sextet in colourfully supporting his performance. The ensemble fitted perfectly into the form and acoustic of St Mary's Church, a space comparable with University College Chapel. The Martlet Ensemble (Peter Shepherd, Isla Ratcliff, Polly Rylands-Richey, Isobel Rose, Rachel Byrt, Frederick Waxman) gave us a performance of professional quality and total authenticity.

Martlet ensemble