Early Music Weekend in Greenwich

Written by: Peter Grahame Woolf

Early Music Network Showcase

London International Exhibition of Early Music

25-27 October 2002

Passacaglia (recorders, harpsichord, viola da gamba) with Dan Laurin (recorders). Works by Boismortier, Peter McGarr etc
25 October, St. Alfege’s Church

I Fagiolini: music by Monteverdi,Gesualdo, Byrd and Tomkins. English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble: music from the time of Claudio Monteverdi. Chapelle du Roi: Sacred music of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods. 26 October, Chapel, Old Royal Naval College

Many concerts in the Painted Hall and the Peacock Room of the College building

Sir Charles Mackerras, President of Trinity College of Music, opened the Early Music Weekend 2002 in the magnificent Painted Hall, with its trompe d’oeuil decorations by Thornhill, to celebrate Trinity College of Music’s auspicious new home at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Trinity has declared a far-reaching commitment to establish the College as a major centre for the study and performance of early music and period-instrument practice – indeed, this was one of the determining factors in its choosing to relocate to this extraordinary site, with a musical tradition extending back to the Court of Henry VIII.

The Weekend included the annual London International Exhibition of Early Music, which involves makers of harpsichords, crumhorns, lutes, baroque violins, early woodwind and string instruments, as well as publishers and other specialists. The Early Music Network Showcase featured a concert programme of established professional artists and ensembles, together with up-and-coming talent of highest achievement and promise. For the first time the UK’s two major international Early Music events have come together, and in ’the perfect venue’. It was both a market and a festival.

There were so many performances, formal and more spontaneous, that overlap was inevitable and no one could hear everything. St Alfege’s Church, where Thomas Tallis is buried, hosted some of the Weekend’s concerts, including the first, by Passacaglia, with the recorder virtuoso Dan Laurin (he has many BIS CDs); a concert that set a standard nowhere superseded. I was unable to stay for the second half.

Apollo & Pan is a trio which demonstrated how well renaissance violin (Tassilo Erhardt) and dulcian (Sally Holman, old bassoon) go together; Steven Devine accompanied on chamber organ in the Peacock Room, the College’s attractive small auditorium with fine acoustics, one which many concert promoters might be jealous of and should consider hiring. Amnis, who featured music by residents of cosmopolitan London in the baroque period, Matteis, Purcell, Geminiani and Handel, is a name to memorise.

Most spectacular of all was I Fagiolini, who specialise in Italian renaissance music. The group had two Showcase ’spots’ on the Saturday, a morning selection of The Music of Theatre, their staged productions with masks, aimed to make Venetian madrigal comedies by Bianchieri & Vecchi accessible to modern audiences. Even for Italians, the Venetian dialect of the time is unintelligible, so our pleasure was enhanced by witty, scurrilous introductions written by Timothy Knapman. Developed over four years, this is a brilliant, completely original show, which should be captured on DVD. In the evening, I Fagiolini gave a mixed programme, including a Tomkins item from their latest Chandos CD and ending with Woa Lashona, a song ’for the end of a long day’, from Soweto! But the programming was so clever that they returned immediately to join the next group for Deus in Auditorium from the Vespers 1610, the first item in the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble’s programme of Italian music from the time of Monteverdi. The cornetts and sackbuts went on to amaze with their smooth mastery of fickle instruments, Fiona Russell on a special ivory cornett unforgettable.

Joglaresa, led by Belinda Sykes, impressed with their dash and flair in Hebrew/Arabic/Spanish medieval repertoire, given in the Chapel. Not every group had such a well-developed manner of presentation to ’get across’ to a large audience – some played viols more for themselves, and there were singers who maintained pure tone but with limited projection. Of the more senior and well established performers, Catherine Bott described the early music movement as combining scholarship with passion, and demonstrated this in spades in her magnificent recital with David Owen Norris.

So did bass-baritone Stephen Varcoe, who brought the main concerts to an end with later ’early music’ (Pinto, Zelter & Schubert), Peter Seymour playing a superlative copy by Johannes-Secker of a Stein fortepiano, which is to stay at the College. Trinity’s good fortune was demonstrated by Carole Cerasi with Pavlo Besnosiuk in violin sonata movements by Pinto and Beethoven (Op.30/3) which left you not wanting to hear a Steinway in such repertoire for a long time.

The Sunday morning ended with unintended drama – a storm which blew scaffold poles off the top of the Chapel, causing hasty evacuation of the building and cancellation of a lunchtime reception for the international delegates, who had to repair to the nearby hostelry for lunch instead, whilst relocations were organised for the afternoon!

Afterwards one was left to reflect on a rich experience, and admiration for all these dedicated creators, musicians and instrument makers, who have succeeded in bringing us ever closer to music of bygone ages. Performances on modern string and wind instruments, and on the ubiquitous Steinway grand, will soon come to seem anachronistic and belonging ’historically’ to the twentieth century. Likewise the heavy vibrato – standard until recently for singers (my mother taught herself to ’wobble’ in front of a mirror) – and refreshingly absent throughout this memorable weekend.

Concert clashes were inevitable this first time, because part of the weekend was on behalf of the Early Music Network Showcase, and the other part on behalf of the London International Exhibition of Early Music. Everyone was in a new venue (plus St Alfege Church), so cross-communication was not easy. It is intended that the annual Exhibition (the instrument-makers and their workshop recitals) happens in the same venue in the (same) Autumn half-term weekend. Make a note to check up with Trinity College of Music for details of the Early Music Weekend 2003.

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