Inventions: The Early Music Weekend

Inventions: The Early Music Weekend

Tess Knighton, Artistic Director

Friday 17 September – Sunday 19 September, 2004

I Fagiolini – The Full Monteverdi

Mille Fleurs – Music from Las Huelgas

Concordia – Charpentier and his Patroness

The Cardinall’s Musick – The English Early Music Revival

The Hilliard Ensemble – Echoes

The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments – The Early Music Revival in Paris

Ensemble Micrologus – Music from Aragonese Naples and the Spanish Courts

The Orlando Consort – The Toledo Summit 1502

Ensemble Plus Ultra, His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts, Schola Antiqua – Mass for a Queen

James Bowman & Elizabeth Kenny – Dowland Lute Songs


Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 19 September, 2004
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer & Purcell Room

This was a weekend festival of Early Music at the South Bank Centre, a programme designed to illustrate just how little we can know of the music of the past and how much has to be ‘invented’. Thus varying levels of abstraction and inference from historical data are fused with a kind of pragmatic creativity. As Tess Knighton, Artistic Director of “Inventions” says: “If we have already accepted that there is no such thing as a truly authentic performance … it is probably time that we also confronted the extent to which we have invented the musical past.”

Friday night saw vocal group I Fagiolini open the festival with its startling ‘production’ of Claudio Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals. Having been strategically placed among the audience seated at tables in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer, the performers erupted into song before leaving their seats and playing out a mini-drama of love and loss, accompanied in their tortured wanderings through the audience by actors who responded to the accusations, pleadings and laments with appropriate theatrical gestures. It is well-known that in Monteverdi’s time performances of madrigals were semi-staged, but forcing the Fourth Book into a narrative drama is a modern device that I found questionable at best.

The most significant aspect of the performance was the use of space and its effect on the sound: depending on where you were sitting, a particular voice came to the fore while others receded. At one time I had a mezzo-soprano right behind me; at another the tenor was only a few feet in front of me. This, combined with feigned lovemaking and violence, made for a rather confrontational experience; relying on ‘shock value’ did however tend to weaken the integrity of the performance.

By contrast, Michael Noone’s reconstruction of a votive Mass for the Blessed Virgin Mary was, given the limitations of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a tour de force in its use of space and liturgical drama. This performance, which took place on the Sunday evening, was given to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Isabel of Castile, and included newly discovered plainchant from Toledo Cathedral as well as polyphonic works by Juan de Anchieta (1462-1523), Pedro de Escobar (1465-1535) and Francisco de Peñalosa (1470-1528). As the Entrada (Introit) was chanted, both Spanish plainsong specialists Schola Antiqua and Noone’s Ensemble Plus Ultra walked in slow procession from the back of the hall to the stage, where brass ensemble His Majesty’s Sagbutts and Cornetts awaited: a beautiful interpretation of a Marian mass ensued, full of colour and variety. Choirs and brass combined for the final motet “Benedicta es caelorum regina” by Josquin, bringing the performance to a ringing end.

To lead up to this monumental performance, we were earlier that afternoon treated to some very colourful interpretations of music from the Aragonese Kingdom of Naples and the Spanish courts by Ensemble Micrologus from Italy: voices were enhanced by an amazing variety of Renaissance instruments including bombardes, a psaltery, nackers, sackbuts, a vihuela and a cornamusa. This concert was followed by a much more sober but equally affecting performance by the Orlando Consort of a cappella vocal music which might have been performed at the so-called Toledo Summit of 1502.

The central performance of the Saturday was a wonderful concert by The Cardinall’s Musick, which also featured a cappella vocal works first brought to the attention of the modern church-going public by Sir Richard Terry (1865-1938). The Queen Elizabeth Hall thus resounded with the rich polyphony of Fayrfax, Cornysh, Ludford, Byrd, Tye and Tallis – sung to perfection. Another highlight was Concordia’s performances of Du Mont and Charpentier: organ, viols, theorbo and voices combined with great delicacy to recall the intimate devotional world of Charpentier’s patroness the Duchess de Guise.

The day came to an end with thought-provoking concerts by The Hilliard Ensemble – which combined contemporary vocal works with those of Pérotin, Lupi, Josquin and Le Rouge – and The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments giving us an idea of the early music revival as heard in the Salon Pleyel in Paris around 1900, with baroque music performed on the harpsichord, viola d’amore, viola da gamba and hurdy-gurdy.

“Inventions” itself came to an intimate close on the Sunday evening with a performance of Dowland songs by James Bowman accompanied on the lute by Elizabeth Kenny. There was much to admire in these heartfelt renditions. However I felt Bowman to be excessively emphatic, to the point where both his tone and clear enunciation of the words were adversely affected. But a beautiful close, nonetheless, to a very successful festival which, I believe, achieved its aims: that is, to offer some idea of the sheer variety of different approaches to interpreting the music of the distant past.

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