It must have been quite a week. The Elizabethan Session follows similar song projects – about Charles Darwin and Cecil Sharp – so though we know it’s possible to conjure a gig’s worth of top-notch original material by sticking eight musicians in a house for seven days, the effect is no less impressive (and perhaps even better) upon repetition.
While some of the musicians in question – those musicians being Jim Moray, Rachel Newton, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, John Smith, Bella Hardy, Hannah James and Emily Askew – have worked together before, many had never met. But you wouldn’t know it. At Cecil Sharp House, the scene of their second-ever gig together, the octet kick off as a full band with Shores of Hispaniola, an ominous, rumbling rumination on what Kerr calls “a cruel time to be, for most people”. For song that Simpson tells us she wrote “before breakfast” on the first morning, it’s deeply impressive.
The bleak theme is continued by John Smith’s brooding London, written from the point of view of a “terrified peasant” (which, according to Smith, is a self-description). Martin Simpson’s slide guitar adds menace, as Smith sings of Her Majesty: “she shines all over England/though we’ve never seen the light”. The Elizabethan period is the broadest topic yet covered by these song projects, and you can sense the musicians’ delight at having so much to mine (in particular, so much misery) – historian and author Ian Mortimer is given much credit for his input to the project.
The show is a democratic affair, with every player given a chance to shine, and the group thoughtfully recognising that’s there’s no need for everyone to play on every song – making it all the more effective and raucous when they do come together. So Rachel Newton’s beautiful setting of Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love is accompanied at first only by her delicate harp playing, before Emily Askew’s row of bells chime in, and Smith and Simpson blend in a shimmering mix of acoustic and electric guitars (Marlowe is returned to later, in Simpson’s simple, touching lament for the “playwright, poet, spy, brawler and gay atheist”).
Askew’s specialist interest in early music – and collection of unusual instruments – adds an intriguing point of difference to the show. Her bagpipes and wide, flat vielle set a 16th-century tone for a jig in the style of the era. And though Hannah James admits there wasn’t much clog dancing in Elizabethan times, her energetic springing and stepping adds a thrilling burst of energy to the performance. Askew impresses again with an Italian-style piece featuring the utterly brilliant shawm – a huge proto-oboe that was a feature of what Askew tells us were called “loud bands”. You can hear why.
Elizabeth herself is referenced several times. Bella Hardy’s Hatfield (where, legend has it, the young princess learned of her imminent coronation) considers heroism and memory. Simpson cuts to the quick of Elizabeth’s human relationships in a first-person song inspired by her signature, while Moray’s I Guess That I’m Over It Now and Kerr’s Lady Lizzie take a lighter look at her personal life, the former consoling her crestfallen admirer Robert Dudley, the latter musing on the ageing monarch’s make-up regime. Askew’s sprightly pavane/ground-bass piece, meanwhile, one could easily imagine being played to entertain the Queen and her courtiers.
But the musicians have explored far more than just the queen’s reign. There are settings of poems by John Donne and Aemilia Lanyer, a “feminist shanty” inspired by ‘sea queen’ Grace O’Malley, and Shakespeare gets a mention through Hardy’s Midsummer Night’s Dream-inspired Love in Idleness. A particular highlight is Jim Moray’s superb The Straight Line and the Curve, about philosopher-occultist John Dee and, among other things, his ‘scrying mirror’. Moray’s fellow musicians provide an elegant orchestra to accompany his stark piano and intriguing lyrics – demonstrating that, for talents such at these, it’s possible to get rather a lot done in a week.
The Sessioneers had spent most of their day recording – so there is a CD to come – but currently the only chance to see them live together again is at the Folk by the Oak festival (which co-commissioned the project with the EFDSS) on July 20. It’s an opportunity worth taking.