Feature Review – Greenwich International Festival & Exhibition of Early Music 2005

Written by: Erwin Hösi

Artists included:

James Johnstone

Stephen Preston & Sarah Cremer

Ricardo Barros

John Henry

The Flautadors

His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts

John Hutchins

Roger Montgomery

Timothy Travers-Brown & Jacob Heringman

Rose Consort of Viols

Con Licenza

David Bolton

Trinity College of Music Baroque Chamber Ensemble/Philip Thorby

Friday 11 November-Sunday 13 November 2005, The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

This year’s International Festival of Early Music, held in the impressive rooms of the Trinity College of Music, seemed to offer an even greater abundance of events than before. Besides the usual concerts with established names, there was an evening completely produced by college students – as well as the many, and interesting, makers’ demonstration recitals, the finals of the Moeck Recorder Competition, the hustle and bustle of the exhibition stalls with all the renowned names of the industry, a dance workshop, and a Ceilidh.

Friday morning was a choice from three equally mouth-watering options, all scheduled for 11.15. The opening of the exhibition, like last year using the Queen Mary Room and Prince Philip Ante Room, as well as the Painted Hall, and comprising literally every name of relevance in the world of Early Music. Or a concert with the prize-winners of the Ella Kidney Early Music Competition (lutenists Natalie Fransen and Jamie Akers, sopranos Claire Troth and Catherine Rogers and the overall winner, violinist Eva Luskova). Or a masterclass with James Johnstone, former principal of the Gabrieli Consort and a keyboard-player with Florilegium, as well as teacher at the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College. If this was not enough, only forty-five minutes later began the first of the many makers’ demonstration recitals in the Admiral’s House and Huguette Brassine and Barnaby Ralph presenting the new Dolce edition of Francesco Barsanti’s flute sonatas – an example of the kind of scheduling that proved to be one of the few frustrating things about the weekend.

I decided to throw myself into the busy and – as always – enthusiastic exhibition. And the general atmosphere was so friendly and industrious that the Ceilidh (which was obviously planned to encourage communication among guests) was no longer necessary by the Friday night on which it took place.

Friday also brought an opportunity to learn about Baroque dancing of the court and stage. In the introductory lecture to his and Sarah Cremer’s dance workshop, Stephen Preston traced the origins of Baroque dance back to Renaissance pantomime and helped the audience understand the basic affects of the individual dances. Interesting thought the workshop was, a maker’s recital with Andreas Küng presenting some newly developed recorders and a masterclass with John Henry proved too tempting and so I left early; and since the Andreas Küng recital turned out to be cancelled, there was time to see John Henry taking fourteen-year-old Eleonore Marmeuse through her paces. Following this a programme of Roman Catholic composers under Elizabeth I had to be forgone for one of the first great highlights of the weekend.

The Flautadors gave a fascinating performance that juxtaposed works of Bach and Guillaume de Machaut with compositions by Leo Chadburn (born 1978) and David Murphy (born 1970). After a surprisingly successful transcription of Bach’s Two-violin Concerto, De La Salle by Chadburn followed. In this work, all conceptions of the recorder as a melody instrument were replaced by a number of more and more hypnotic tremolos that added up to a surreal soundscape, in which the recorders lost all their pastoral associations. Following this – and a 45-minute break (!) – James Johnstone’s sombre and peaceful organ recital featuring works by Buxtehude and Bach gave a good overview of the many possibilities of the Old Royal Naval College Chapel Organ (Samuel Green, 1789).

Trinity College’s own tenor Sam Boden, gave a thoroughly captivating performance of ‘stile nuovo’ motets from Dario Castello to Monteverdi. This concert, with His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts, was the day’s second big event. Boden’s velvety voice, his clear diction, sensitivity for the words and elegant lightness in ornamentation proved him an ideal performer for this repertoire. Not much can be said about the well-known qualities of the wind ensemble. Having been around for 21 years, the group’s sensual and rich sound has not just been limited to early music audiences but also has made its way into “The Two Ronnies”. A Ceilidh brought the first day to a gregarious end in Blackheath Halls with the Petteridge Light Orchestra and two ‘masters of ceremonies’.

With slightly fewer overlaps, Saturday added several attractive events. A natural-trumpet masterclass with the learned and enormously motivated John Hutchins presented not just the beauty of St Alfege’s acoustic in all its clarity, but also showed the handful of listeners what a long path it is to the playing standard now taken for granted in historically-informed performance-practice. It was impressive to see the students not just improve their playing but also catch some of the professor’s enthusiasm. John Hutchins’s concert with the student ensemble in the late afternoon (with its widely varied programme spanning a period from Samuel Scheidt to Ottorino Respighi (Ancient Airs and Dances) was one of the most popular events of the festival. With a “Musical Presentation of a Sea Battle” by Ferdinand Donninger (1716-1781) and the more introspective use of the wind ensemble in Biber, Gervaise and Philidor, this concert took advantage of the Chapel’s entire space. The opening Philidor Suite was performed from the entrance, with the players standing behind the audience, while the following ‘Danceries’ were played antiphonally from the balconies.

The comic highlight of the day was Roger Montgomery’s lecture-recital about the history of the horn. In his good-humoured presentation style he narrated – and presented – several of the eccentricities in the evolution (“domestication”) of his instrument. He displayed examples of horns from East and West (of which several had a very a limited range, including just a single tone) and pointed out JS Bach’s highly demanding and not very empathetic approach to the slidehorn (a predecessor to the trombone); just two entertaining items that made the hour fly by. An attempt at joining two differently keyed instruments together to one mouth-piece (following Charles Clagget’s experiments) and a reconstruction of a Russian one-note-horn performance were among the further curiosities that led to some observations about Wagner’s and Berlioz’s handling of differently keyed horns.

A song recital with lutenist Jacob Heringman and mellifluous alto Timothy Travers-Brown, presented by Catherine Bott, was the festival’s most ethereal and ravishing event. Combining works by John Danyel (1594-c.1626) with those of contemporaries, this concert indulged in the often-melancholic dreaminess that seemed to have been the period’s favourite affect. The main attraction was Travers-Brown’s smooth and lingering presentation, in which his crystal-clear diction joined with a remarkable voice. Heringman’s skills on the lute enabled him beyond mere accompaniment to an intense symbiosis with the vocalist.

As part of the Festival’s tradition, Saturday ended with a concert at St Alfege featuring students, this year an all-Telemann programme. The ensemble combined viola da gamba and cello, two harpsichords, baroque flute and recorders and three violins. Apart from the energetic, skilful performances, this year’s vocal soloist, soprano Claire Troth, gave an excitingly witty and warm performance. The way she ‘longed’ to be kissed in the aria “Säume nicht”, was aimed directly at the listener’s heart while still preserving a sense of lightness and good humour. Another highlight of this concert was the beautiful obbligato recorder in the Cantata “Locke nur”, that most flatteringly meandered its way around the vocal melody.

Sunday offered a number of demonstration recitals that ran parallel to the Moeck/SRP recorder competition finals. Pity that juror Pierre Hamon of ensemble Alla Francesca could not be persuaded to give a recital. The Rose Consort of Viols charmed a small audience in the Admiral’s House with a selection of Costanzo Festa’s counterpoints on ‘La Spagna’, a genre that has only recently discovered to have been as ubiquitous as the ‘In nomine’. The density of the refined polyphony in combination with the beautiful-sounding instruments and the great experience of the ensemble resulted in a most winning performance. Only a Tudor surrounding could have been a better ambience for this kind of event, the function of which was to present Richard Jones’s Renaissance viols. Alison Crum of the Rose Consort gave a report of a visitor who had learned to play the viol over just the three days of the Festival, apparently with remarkable success.

Like last year, a busy Claire Williams (who was also the patient accompanist at the trumpet masterclass and with the student ensemble with her colleague Alison Baldwin, with whom she forms Con Licenza), played Andrew Wooderson’s harpsichord. Compared with their excellent performance of last year, the two have grown both technically and artistically. In Mealli’s Sonata Op.4/1, Baldwin impressed with her elegantly executed ornaments and her virtuoso skills in the highly demanding last movement. Giovanni Bassano’s Variations on Lassus’s “Susanne ung jour” provided an opportunity to present the Ruckers copy’s beautifully-soft lute register, while the flute moved into more airy, pensive and soulful territory. The Flemish style of the keyboard proved to be just perfect for Sweelinck’s set of variations on “Mein junges Leben hat ein End”. The closing piece, a contemporary transcription of Corelli’s “La Follia” Sonata for recorder, was all bravura. The transcription perfectly managed to translate the show-offish violin part into the language of the recorder, making only few cuts. The performers equalled the task in all respects and perhaps even exceeded it.

David Bolton presented a chamber organ, a harpsichord and a spinet from his workshop, concentrating on explaining the technical intricacies of reconstructing historical instruments and playing a number of short pieces. He also took the organ apart in front of the audience, giving rare insights.

Ricardo Barros with his typically passionate performance style presented French works on a Robert Deegan copy of a harpsichord built in 1769 by Pascal Taskin. Especially in the furiously wild works by Barros’s special favourite Pancrace Royer, the instrument was taken all the way to its limits, resulting even in its de-tuning. Besides Royer, the programme featured pieces by the equally ‘possessed’ Forqueray and three preludes by Couperin as breathers. This recital was the last of a number of highly captivating performances, of which only a few could be highlighted in this review, and that also attracted a distinctively larger audience than before.

Not just as a huge annual local project that has become a popular venue for international parties involved in Early Music, but also as a reflection of the constant activity of the scene itself, the Greenwich International Festival & Exhibition of Early Music is bound to continue to thrive.

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