London International Exhibition of Early Music

London International Exhibition of Early Music
Early Music Young Ensemble Competition Finals
Blackheath, 8-10 November 2018

The London International Exhibition of Early Music is the latest incarnation of an annual event organised over many years by the Early Music Shop. It has had a number of names over the years, the most recent one being the Royal Greenwich International Early Music Festival, although it had been resident in Blackheath for a couple of years. My review of last year’s festival can be found here. Concerts have always been an important addition to the musical instrument exhibition, ranging from demonstration recitals on behalf of instrument makers, Performers Platforms, competition winner’s recitals and, this year, for the first time, the Early Music Young Ensemble Competition Finals, alongside more formal evening concerts by some leading names in the early music world. This year’s complete events diary can be seen here. The instrument exhibition itself takes place in the newly restored Blackheath Halls, with the concerts taking place in nearby churches.

Thursday 8 November

The first event of my two-day visit was a concert (in All Saints’ Church, Blackheath), by violinist Melanie Gruwez, winner of the 2018 Trinity Laban Historically Informed Performance Competition. She opened with Bach’s extraordinary Chaconne from the Partite in d, a virtuoso tour de force that would test any violinist. I was particularly impressed with Melanie Gruwez’s use of expressive rhetoric in her shading of tone, volume, and speed, making perfect sense of this complex work. The next three pieces were accompanied by Yunah Proost, cello – Tartini’s Didone Abbandonata Sonata, the Imitatione delle Campane from Johann Von Westhoff’s Violin Sonata in D minor (with its arpeggio passages over a plucked bass), and Corelli’s La Folia Sonata (Op5/12), which also included some impressive cello playing. Melanie finished with a thoughtful reading of Biber’s Passacaglia from the Rosary Sonatas. Opening with the Bach Chaconne was very brave, but I did wonder if it would have made a better conclusion, with the Biber played at the start. It was a shame that the church, although seemingly rather isolated, should have been so noisy, mostly from what I think was grass cutting machinery outside. And the acoustics made it very hard for anybody to hear Melanie Gruwez’s spoken commentary on the pieces.


Performers Platform events were a new innovation last year, providing groups of (if my experience was anything to go by) somewhat varying quality a chance to showcase their talents. I was more selective in my choice of performers this year, going to just one – a performance (in St Michael & All Angels) by two prizewinning students of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Kate Allsop, recorders, and Róza Bene, harpsichord. Their programme focussed on the music of French, Italian and English composers working in London during the 18th century when the recorder was enjoying huge popularity. They opened with an arrangement of Charles Dieupart’s Suite No. 3 in B minor, originally for harpsichord solo, its French-style Ouverture followed by a sequence of dance movements. Sonatas by Barsanti, and Babel followed. Kate Allsop’s playing was elegant with a gently restrained tone, and Róza Bene’s continuo playing was stylishly simple. My only suggestion is that they position themselves so that they can see each other. Kate’s frequent glances over her shoulder so much. The acoustics of the church were particularly effective, as were Kate’s spoken introductions.


The first of the two evening concerts was given by Da Camera, playing a musical club-sandwich of Telemann and Bach interspersed with groups of eclectic pieces by O’Carolan, Eccles, Snow, and Motley. Telemann took pride of place on this occasion, and I think he would have liked the contrast between his three Trio Sonatas providing the outer and middle sections of the club sandwich, and the ‘Maggots’ – the latter term used quite literally, as two of the eclectic pieces were Carolan’s Maggot and Motley’s Maggot. The Telemann pieces were a nod to Da Camera’s recent Telemann CD (reviewed here), the transcription of one of Bach’s famous organ Sonatas, a similar nod to a forthcoming CD. The final Telemann Trio Sonata in G minor is one of my favourites, not least because of the distinctive Largo movement when the melody is with the viola da gamba, which the recorder decorates by a lovely little 7-note arpeggio figure, on this occasion given added decorations by Emma Murphy. The opening Soave mà non adagio also has the melodic focus on the viol, initially with downward scales from the recorder. Robin Bigwood, standing in for Steven Devine on harpsichord, played a solo Chaconne by a composer listed in the very limited programme as M. Snow – I’ve never heard of him, or could it be her. Susanna Pell’s solo moments included the interestingly entitled Cock up your Beaver which she explained meant to doff your cap. This was an entertaining and very professionally presented concert.

The later evening concert was given in the fascinating church of St Margaret’s, Lee, with its impressively decorated interior. The Chelys Consort of Viols were joined by soprano Rebecca Hickey (a short notice replacement for the indisposed Dame Emma Kirkby) for ‘A Pleasing Melancholy’, a programme built around all 7 of John Dowland’s 1604  Lachrimae settings, interspersed with songs by Dowland, Holborne, Jones, Danyel, and Wilbye. The background to the concert was Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy “Many men are melancholy by hearing music, but it is a pleasing melancholy that it causeth“. And a ‘pleasing melancholy’ it proved to be, with excellent playing by the five viol players of Chelys and guest lutenist Jamie Akers, and outstanding singing from Rebecca Hickey (who many will know from Stile Antico). Her clear diction and precise intonation were coupled with a beautifully clean ‘straight’ tone, only occasionally applying the gentlest of vibratos as an ornamental gesture. A special mention should go to the unfortunate young women on the ticket desk who, during the interval, patiently endured an outrageous barrage from a man who didn’t seem to understand that singers are occasionally unable to perform, often at short notice, before he walked out. For those with rather better manners for whom there really is nothing like a Dame, Chelys have recorded this programme with Emma Kirkby – details here.

Friday 9 November

A new venture from the Early Music Shop, linked to their 50th anniversary), was the Early Music Young Ensemble Competition. From a pre-selection, four groups were chosen for the final (in St Margaret’s Church, Lee) where they each gave a 35-minute concert. The Dutch/Canadian Tinka Pypker-Anders Muskens Duo opened with a very well-prepared programme, ‘Marianna’s Salon’, celebrating the short life of Marianna Auenbrugger, daughter of a distinguished Viennese physician, and a student of Haydn and Salieri. Such was the affection between these teachers and Marianna and her sister that Haydn dedicated a cycle of six sonatas to them. When Marianna died, aged just 23, Salieri composed the funeral Ode De si piacevoli and published it along with Marianna’s only surviving composition, a Keyboard Sonata in E-flat. The Duo opened with a reflection of the trials and tribulations of love, with the light saloon cantata La Scusa by Domenico Corigliano. Marianna’s Sonata followed, played by Anders Muskens on a recently restored c1790 Longman & Broderip fortepiano, its very gentle tone perfectly matching the chamber nature of the piece. With elements of the Sturm und Drang style of her teacher, it was an impressive piece with an elegiac central Largo. Salieri’s memorial Ode De si piacevoli followed, segueing into Mozart’s touching Abendempfindung, often with ‘an Laura’ added to the title. Soprano Tinka Pypker engaged extremely well with the audience, singing with an attractively stable and clear voice. I particularly liked her conversational style in the lengthy recitative on the opening cantata. Anders Muskens piano playing with very effective, both solo and accompanying. He showed a good sense of rhetorical timing in the Sonata.


Ensemble Vergissmeinnicht is the name of the German flute and theorbo duo of Antje Becker and Barbora Hulcová. Their programme, De l’esprit francais explored the music heard in Parisian saloons during the early 18th century, with Suites by Dieupart and Hotteterre, a Sonata by Boismortier and a flute ‘Double’ on Lambert’s air Je suis aimée. The combination of flute and theorbo is an ideal one, the two sounds balancing perfectly. Although the theorbo was listed as basso continuo in all the pieces, Barbora Hulcová combined a melodic with her accompanimental role, both very effectively. Antje Becker’s flute playing was expressive and sensitive, with a fine sense of articulation and inflexion of tone and well-executed ornaments that she absorbed into the melodic line. Both players clearly realised that silence can often be as important as the notes themselves.


The British recorder quartet Palisander gave a concert ‘Tarantula’ based on their CD Beware the Spider! which they launched during their 2017 St John’s, Smith Square Young Artists residency (reviewed here). The music was all related to the 17th-century belief that the effects of a tarantula bite could be alleviated by music. As well as pieces specifically referring to the tarantula, other pieces included an arrangement of Vivaldi’s La Notte, the so-called ‘Nightmare Concerto’ and a modern piece, Articulator V by Agnes Dorwarth, based on the vowel and consonant sounds that recorder players use as various articulation devices. A couple of the pieces were based on traditional Italian melodies found in contemporary scientific publications.  They gave a very professional and highly choreographed performance that was close to musical theatre at times. Each of the players introduced aspects of the performance, including a reference to a ‘buttered frog’. Their musical virtuosity was self-evident, but they successfully managed to merge that with an obvious crowd-pleasing approach to performance. They would have surely won an audience prize if there had been one on offer.


The final ended with a performance by Pocket Sinfonia, a four-member British group playing fortepiano, violin, flute, and cello who, as their name suggests, perform scaled-down arrangements of orchestral works, inspire by Hummel’s transcriptions of pieces by Mozart, Beethoven and Weber. They have commissioned and created arrangements of pieces by Grieg, Prokofiev, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, and perform on period and modern instruments. On this occasion, the delicate sound of the original fortepiano was not sufficient to balance with the other (period) instruments, which was unfortunate as the piano, perhaps inevitably, had the lions share of the music. They opened with an arrangement of the Overture to Salieri’s Les Danaides, an opera based on the same plot as Cavalli’s Hipermestra (performed at Glyndebourne last year) where the 50 daughters of Danao, King of Argos, are married off to the 50 sons of his estranged brother, with the plan to murder all the sons on their wedding night. Before their final performance of Hummel’s transcription of Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony, they played the original version of the Adagio from CPE Bach’s Quartet in G (Wq95). The Hummel Mozart arrangement was surprisingly successful, given the limited resources.


The prizes on offer were £1500 and £500 for first and second, but the three judges, headed up by Emma Kirkby, decided to award a joint first prize to the Tinka Pypker-Anders Muskens Duo and to Palisander.  They will share a first prize of £1000 each and a concert at the 2019 London International Exhibition of Early Music. The competition will be broadcast on the BBC Radio 3 Early Music Show on December 23rd, and will be available after broadcast on BBC iPlayer.

Another competition winner gave a recital later that afternoon, when Silvia Berchtold, the winner of the 2017 Society of Recorder Players/Moeck International Solo Recorder Playing Competition, gave her winner’s recital Milonga del Mealli (in All Saints’ Church, Blackheath), with Gerhard Abe-Graf, harpsichord and, occasionally, Alex Jellici, cello. Since winning the competition, Silvia has travelled to India to study their classical music, and this was reflected in her concert, notably with a piece by Ravi Shankar, L’Aube Enchantée, originally for harp and flute, but working well on recorder and harpsichord with the later addition of an Indian-sounding drone from Silvia’s mobile phone. Her well-balanced and symmetrical programme of segued pairs of pieces opened and closed with Indian-influenced improvisations on pieces by Hildegard von Bingen that segued into (and out of) Sonatas by Pandolfi Mealli (Op3/4, originally for violin), in the stylus phantasticus of the mid-17th-century. She also explored the influence of South American music and dance forms on the composers Falconiero and Arañés, one such dance being the Milonga, related to the modern Tango but originating in the Spanish Seguidilla. Silvia Berchtold made very effective use of the full range of expression possible on recorders, including using very powerful sounds, whilst retaining intonation and tone. Gerhard Abe-Graf made imaginative use of the harpsichord in the improvisations.


The Friday evening concert was Amores Pasados given by members of the Alternative History project (Anna Maria Friman and John Potter, voices, Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, lutes) and was based on the CD of the same name, reviewed here. Unfortunately, the information in the programme book was very limited, and John Potters spoken introductions were more-or-less inaudible beyond the front few rows of pews. But, given the relaxed nature of such events, it probably didn’t matter if we didn’t know what we were hearing. I did recognise the opening piece, the three-movement Amores Pasados, written in 1989 by the former Led Zeppelin bass-player, John Paul Jones, for Red Byrd. The first movement, No dormia, is an evocative and almost medieval interpretation of a poem by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, sung to a Spanish text. Songs by Warlock and Moeran (both ‘interesting; characters) revived the interwar Tudor revival, as did the post-war Nocturne by Peter Pope. A couple of pieces by the Genesis keyboard-player, Tony Banks, concluded the evening, the whole concert being a delightfully mellow reflection of the music of many genres. The voices Anna Maria Friman and John Potter matched perfectly, the former singing in a low soprano register, the latter in his distinctive high tenor. Lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman provided evocative accompaniments, along with their own version of an Arvo Pärt organ piece.

A similar range of concerts continued on the final Saturday of the exhibition. It occurs every year on the three days before Remembrance Sunday.