Royal Academy of Music
Nancy Nuttall Early Music Prize
RAM Duke’s Hall. 29th April 2016
The Royal Academy of Music’s annual early music prize has in recent years been known as the Nancy Nuttall Early Music Prize, rather than its earlier incarnation with the name of a sherry manufacturer who donated a crate of sherry to the winners. The competition is for groups of from 3 to 10 players playing music from before 1800 on historically appropriate instruments. The winning group receives £1,000. It is a few years since I have been able to get to this event, and the increase in the standard of performance, and in the number of performers, was noticeable. Around 24 young musicians appeared, with very little duplication within the six groups.
It started with one of those awkward reviewer moments when I realised that instead of arriving embarrassingly early for a 6pm start I was actually embarrassingly late for the 5pm start. So I missed the first two groups, although I had a glimpse via a TV monitor of a professional-looking quartet of players (Ophelia Zhao flute, Simone Pirri violin, Cameron Grimes cello, Camille Ravot harpsichord) with their take on a Vivaldi Trio Sonata, following their earlier Bach trio sonata. I missed the first group altogether, which is a shame as they had an interesting combination of Lisa Hagemann, viola da gamba, and Laura Agut, sackbut, with harpsichord/organ support, playing a Telemann Sonata and three of Ortiz’s Trattado de Glosas.
The third group to perform were Tabea Debus and Olwen Foulkes recorders (pictured), Bianca Riesner cello and Benedict Williams organ. They opened with Purcell’s Two in one upon a ground from Dioclesian, the canon between the two recorders showing both excellent consort playing and independence of the individual voices. That independence of musical line applied in the bucket-load to their arrangement of the first movement of Bach’s first Organ Trio Sonata, written to help his eldest son learn exactly that skill on the organ, where independence of hands and feet is one of the hardest challenges. There are three voices, so the cello was very clearly one of the soloists, taking the part played by an organist on the pedals. I particularly liked the subtle organ accompaniment, which thankfully avoided adding any more than simple harmonies to the bass line, rather than the often heard tendency to over-twiddle. The prelude from Hotteterre’s Premier Suitte de Pièces allowed the two recorder players to shine on their own, with some impressive ornamentation that, quite correctly, flowed along with the melodic line, rather than being applied on top of it. The concluding Vivaldi La Follia was very well performed, with clever segueing between the contrasting sections. This was another piece where the cello had some virtuosic moments to match those of the recorders. This was an extremely impressive little concert, well-staged and presented and with some outstandingly musical playing.
They were followed after an interval by a rather unusual combination of four sackbuts, played by Quinn Parker, Thomas Scaife, Benny Vernon and Frederick Ouellette. The first two pieces (a Coperario Fantasia and Tye’s If ye be risen again with Christ) rather accented the salubrious nature of the consort, before things livened up for Marini’s Sonata a quattro trombone and two of Praetorius’s Terpsichore dances. Three players took turns at being the upper voice, all of them remaining commendably in touch with the lower voices, avoiding the temptation of all upper voices to dominate. Indeed, one of the best features of this group was their ability to play in consort.
The final two groups featured vocal music, starting with the Handel Gloria ‘discovered’ in the RAM’s own library some years ago. I was particularly impressed with soprano, Charlotte Schoeters (pictured), with her clean and clear voice and her technical and musical ability in a far from easy piece. She managed Handel’s tricky runs with ease and with commendable articulation and also demonstrated the ability to turn a long-held steady note into a trill without recourse to excessive vibrato. Her delicate ornamentation of the melodic line in the Domine Deus was a delight. I now realise that I also praised her singing during last year’s Leipzig Bachfest, commenting that she was “by far the best soloist” (see review here). I hope Charlotte’s voice survives her continuing years of study – all to often these lovely ‘early music’ voices are forced too much, usually developing an uncontrollable vibrato. Charlotte Schoeters was accompanied by Mark Seow and Laura Rickard violins, Joshua Salter cello and Benedict Williams organ, with Mark Seow making a significant contribution.
The final group of the evening acted out Bach’s ‘Coffee Cantata’, with a couple of tables and lots of coffee cups. Milly Forrest and Nicholas Mogg took the two main roles, with Benedict Williams topping and tailing the piece by singing from the harpsichord. Particularly fine contributions came from Ophelia Zhao in some tricky flute passages and from Anne-Linde Visser with some excellent continuo cello playing.
The two adjudicators were Luise Buchberger and Robert Howarth, both distinguished members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as, respectively, principal cellist, and principal keyboard player and occasional conductor. They awarded the Early Music Prize to the group led by the two recorder players (Tabea Debus, Olwen Foulkes, Bianca Riesner, and Benedict Williams – pictured) – a well deserved award. The group of four sackbuts were ‘very highly commended’ and two of the groups were ‘highly commended’: the one I missed at the start with the viola da gamba and sackbut, and the group who performed the Gloria, headed by soprano Charlotte Schoeters.
It is worth stressing that the award is given to groups, rather than for any individual performer – an important lesson in the teamwork that music performance nearly always requires. It is also worth noting that the range of performing experience of the young musicians can also be large, despite their comment ‘student’ status. One of them has already made two CDs, but others could well have been at the start of their professional conservatory training. But the standards of all the musicians suggests that the future of the early music scene is assured.