Baroque at the Edge

Baroque at the Edge Festival
LSO St Lukes & St James Clerkenwell. 6 January 2018

With a headline of “Imagine if Bach was a jazzman, Vivaldi a folk-fiddler, or Handel a minimalist…”, the new Baroque at the Edge festival launched itself onto the London musical scene. Headed up by Lindsay Kemp and Lucy Bending (the pair who for many years ran the London Festival of Baroque Music and its predecessor the Lufthansa Festival), the festival invited musicians from the classical, jazz, and folk world to “take the music of the Baroque and see where it leads”. They promised “No rules, no programme notes, no lectures: all you need to know is how to listen”. The Baroque at the Edge title was also given to the May 2017 LFBM festival, the last to be directed by Lindsay Kemp and managed by Lucy Bending – a nice link to their then unannounced new festival. The Baroque at the Edge festival included six concerts and a family event, spread over a three day weekend. After an opening Friday night piano recital, the Saturday (6 January) featured four events, starting with a lunchtime concert in the impressive late Georgian church of St James, Clerkenwell.

1pm. St James, Clerkenwell. Tabea Debus, recorder, Alex McCartney, theorbo

Tabea Debus is one of the most exciting young musicians to arrive on the performing scene in recent years. As well as being a virtuoso recorder player, she has the inventiveness and imagination to look beyond mere performance. An example is her commissioning, together with London’s City Music Foundation, of 13 new compositions based on Telemann’s 1735 Fantasias for Solo Flute (TWV 40:2–13). A recording of the 12 Telemann pieces with their new companion compositions will be released shortly, but this concert gave a taster of what to expect, with three of the new compositions (two of them world premieres, and a third, the 13th of the set, based on a medley of all 12 Telemann Fantasias.

The opening Cantabile of Telemann’s Sonata in C Major (TWV41:C2) gave an early demonstration of Tabea Debus’s ability to apply complex improvisatory ornamentation to a simple musical line – an essential aspect of Baroque music. Here, and in the following three movements, her fine sense of musical timing was also apparent, applying gentle rhythmic and timing flexibility to the notes without losing sight of the underlying pulse. In this, she was strongly supported by the imaginative theorbo continuo playing of Alex McCartney. This was followed by Michel Blavet’s Sonata seconda (from his 1740 Troisième livre de sonates) and a transcription of an aria from Telemann’s Flavius Bertaridus.

The first of the world premieres came from Colin Mathews with his ‘Meditation’, its expansive and gentle arching melody contrasting step-wide movement with leaps, as found in its companion Telemann Fantasia, the 12th. Mathews increasingly complex texture included flutter-tonguing and trills before segueing into the Telemann’s similarly multi-sectional Fantasia, the sequences of repeated notes perhaps the inspiration for the flutter-tonguing of Mattews’ Meditation. 

The next of the new compositions was enclosed within two theorbo Toccatas by Johann Hieronymus Kapsberger, the first a fine example of the freely improvisatory stylus phantasticus that was so influential during the 17th century. Alex McCartney’s performance of this, and the simpler second Toccata. was exemplary, catching the fleeting moods of the first piece particularly well. Laura Bowler’s composition ‘TV Man’ is based on all 12 of Telemann’s Fantasias, and forms the 13th of the set of new commisions. Using a pre-prepared tape that incorporated a variety of colourful sounds and ‘dramatic interventions’, including spoken text to which Tabea Debus also contributed, as well as performing various physical responses, including semaphore-like arm gestures. An extraordinarily complex, but nonetheless fascinating piece.

The second world premiere followed after two linked Bach pieces: Fumiko Miyachi’s ‘Air’; a response to Telemann’s 5th Fantasia, with its initial contrasts between Presto and Dolce, mirrored by Miyachi’s designations of Perky and Pensive. More advanced performing techniques were required, including vocalising into the recorder and producing chords, part vocalised, part played. The Telemann Fantasia includes a central passacaglia section, a technical challenge for a solo instrument.

This enterprising concert finished with pieces by Handel and Telemann for recorder and theorbo continuo, reflecting the friendship between the two composers (which included exchanging gardening tips). Like the earlier Bach pieces, these were arranged by Tabea Debus.

4pm. LSO St Luke’s. Paolo Pandolfo, viola da gamba

The presence of a watch lying on the floor in front of the Paolo Pandolfo’s seat on stage made it clear that this was going to be a relaxed and improvisatory event. Paolo Pandolfo played a sequence of five sets that each combined an initial improvisation that merged into a pre-existing piece, explored a range of musical styles. The initial improvisations were based on Renaissance dance and bass forms such as the Bergamasca, La Spagna, and La Folía. They segued into pieces such as Marais’ Les Voix Humaines and Rondeau le Bijou and Kapsberger’s Canario. He finished with two pieces of his own, both based on earlier improvisations – one called, Exilium, the other Viola Tango. He told us that the freedom that improvisation gives the performer allows new ideas to develop. Paolo Pandolfo held the large audience in spellbound attention with his inventive, and frequently virtuosic, improvisations and his sensitive playing. It was telling that it took a long time before any of the sections were applauded – reducing an audience to reverential silence is always a good sign of rapt attention and an unwillingness to break the spell.

7pm. LSO St Luke’s. Marian Consort: ‘Breaking the Rules’

The main evening concert was the first London performance of a show that has already toured extensively around the UK. Described as a “Concert Drama for Musicians and Actor”, the piece is based on the life of (or, more accurately, the last day of) Carlo Gesualdo, the Italian hereditary Prince, best known today for his extraordinarily exotic vocal music and for his, shall we say, colourful life. The setting is the chapel of Gesualdo’s castle on his estate in southern Italy on 8 September 1613, the day of his death. A couple of weeks earlier, his only surviving son had died, the child of his first wife, Maria who he famously murdered, along with her lover, when he discovered them in bed together. The text of the monologue was commissioned by The Marian Consort (to commemorate the 450th anniversary of Gesualdo’s birth, in 1566) from music administrator, fund-raiser and singer Clare Norburn.

Her script worked its way through Gesualdo’s catalogue of personal disasters as he reflected to himself, and to the audience, on his life of sin and the penalties that his not-so-loving God would put him through in Purgatory. The latter was probably not helped by Gesualdo’s succession of challenges to God, and his surprise that he had not already been struck down for his sins – “So a double murder is not enough for you?”. Norburn packed a lot of information into her text, including the suggestion that Maria’s first husband had died from an “excess of conjugal bliss”, which might explain her disappointment at Gesualdo’s performance, or lack of, on their wedding night. Despite, or because, of his guilt at the double murder, his relationship with his hapless second wife was appallingly abusive. She was from the d’Este family in Ferrara, where Gesualdo spent a few critical years before the court was dissolved. It was not clear whether Norburn’s work included any original research, or relied on the work of other Gesualdo writers, or how much of her story would be considered factual. But it made a compelling story.

Actor Gerald Kyd was a rather youthful Gesualdo, but otherwise managed to channel his character well, as well as dealing with the rather complex twists and turns of the text, which included expressions such as ‘eye candy’. He had to switch from directly addressing the audience to turning in on his own thoughts as he negotiated the rather confusingly flexible theatrical fourth-wall – “You want to hear about that night” was one of his challenges to the audience. Nicholas Renton’s stage direction kept things simple, with just chair and a few peripherals as props – one of the latter being what looked suspiciously modern looking pencil.


The spoken text came in short bursts and was interspersed with a plethora of examples of Gesualdo’s music, sung by the excellent vocal group, the Marian Consort, surreptitiously directed from within the six-strong choir by countertenor Rory McCleery. Their singing and, of course, the music of Gesualdo, was the undoubted highlight of the evening. The singer’s task was complex. Not only did they have to cope with the harmony-shattering complexity of Gesualdo’s writing, which often seems anarchic to the extreme with incredibly difficult harmonic sequences and progressions that demand outstanding intonation, but they were singing from every corner of the space of St Lukes, often separated by the width of the building. Their ability to coordinate their sound was outstanding, as was their interpretations of the music. I was particularly impressed with the two sopranos, Charlotte Ashley and Gwendolen Martin, who both had key moments during the evening, whether in solo, duet (as two Ferrara Concerto delle Donne singing ladies) or, in the case of Charlotte Ashley, holding several beautifully clear and focused high notes. Ezi Elliot provided sensitive lute accompaniment as well as a number of solo pieces to sooth Gesualdo’s troubled mind.

9.30pm. LSO St Luke’s. Thomas Dunford, lute, Keyvan Chemirani, Persian percussion

The late evening concert in LSO St Lukes paired a baroque theorbo with a Persian Santūr (a dulcimer, but only used once) and a hand drum in a programme that seemed intended to be improvised but was clearly well rehearsed and planned. Based on a sequence of well-known Elizabethan songs, generally by Dowland, and one piece from Purcell and Kapsberger, the theorbo generally played the underlying piece solo before repeating it while the percussion added an extraordinary range of sounds and texture from his drum. I am not sure to what extent the two instruments complemented each other, and did wonder whether a Persian/Arabian oud (the forerunner, and name-giver, of the lute) would have been a more appropriate pairing of instruments.



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