York Early Music Festival

York Early Music Festival
Innovation: the Shock of the New!
10-12 July

My principal reason for going to York was to review the biennial York Early Music International Young Artists Competition which took place over the last three days of the annual York Early Music Festival. The Festival lasted from 5 to 13 July and was given under the banner of Innovation: the Shock of the New! taking inspiration from the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci. Alongside talks and community events were a range of concerts, mostly from York-connected and UK ensembles, but with welcome continental visitors including Concerto de Margherita, one of the EEEmerging groups, fortepianist Andreas Staier, the Italian/Jewish Ensemble Lucidarium, and the distinguished Belgian consort Vox Luminis. I was able to attend the last four of the Festival concerts, together with the three days of the Competition.

Florilegium gave a performance of the complete Bach Brandenburg Concertos in the University of York’s Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall on Wednesday10 July, playing them in the reverse order. The concert was recorded by the BBC Radio 3 and was broadcast on 12 July. It is available on iPlayer here. The order in which the six concertos are played is, to an extent, not relevant, although I didn’t really see the point of reversing the normal order. They were unlikely to have been intended to have been performed in one go in any case and, indeed, may well never have been performed at all. They were offered by Bach to the Margrave of Brandenburg as an elaborate calling card, drawing on earlier compositions from his time at Köthen and, possibly, Weimar. The distinctive character of each concerto suggests a composer showing his compositional wares.

The 6th Concerto omits the violins, using just two violas, two violas da gamba and continuo. It makes for a satisfyingly relaxing conclusion to the set, but on this occasion opened the batting. There had been travel problems which might account for some performance issues throughout the evening, and also the poor balance of the BBC recording which, amongst other things, has the harpsichord sounding far too loud. Intonation was rather wayward throughout but, in the opening 6th Concerto, there were also several sudden dynamic changes which disrupted the flow of the music.

Musically things picked up with the arrival of principal violinist Bojan Čičić for the remaining five Concertos. Harpsichordist Julian Perkins might have been happier with more of a warm-up before his extraordinary solo in Brandenburg 5, which is usually the virtuoso climax of the set, coming just before the end. But his performance of this technically extremely demanding solo was one of the highlights of the whole evening, along with Bojan Čičić’s violin virtuosity in Brandenburg 4. Concerto 3 was given a skin-of-the-teeth performance , the helter-skelter speed just about working in the relatively dry acoustic. As well as those already mentioned, cellist Jennifer Morsches and Rosie Moon, cello and bass, and Gail Hennessy and Oonagh Lee, oboes, deserve mention.

There were two evening concerts on Thursday, starting outside the city walls in the lofty Victorian Gothic church of St Lawrence. Under the title of Private Passions, soprano Elin Manaham Thomas and Steven Devine, harpsichord, celebrated the 400th anniversary of Barbara Strozzi’s birth. Considering the occasion it was a curious programme – what was introduced as a concert “all about Strozzi” turned out to have only half of the pieces actually by Strozzi, who was otherwise pitted against Monteverdi and Carissimi. Respect for female composers clearly has some way to go!

The cruelty of love was the theme, starting with the despair of a lover whose companion slept through their passion in Strozzi’s Amor dormiglione followed by the grief of one whose lover is ‘inconsistent and treacherous’. The torment continued with Monteverdi’s Lettera amoroa and Si dolce è’l tormento before Strozzi’s most famed piece, the Lamento: Lagrime mie where Fate denies a lover’s wish for death after his innocent beloved is imprisoned by her father. Imprisonment and death of a different sort was the theme of Carissimi’s Ferma, lascia ch’io parli which tells the sorry tale of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Strozzi’s La vendetta, a jovial ditty about revenge, completed the entertainment.

The highlight of the concert was an addition to the programme, Steven Devine’s outstanding performance of the Toccata Seconda from Frescobaldi’s first book of Toccatas. With as much drama as the vocal pieces, this mini-opera was rich in expression and tension.

I first reviewed Elin Manahan Thomas in 2001 as she was about to start at the Royal College of Music. I wrote that “… it will be a good test of the London conservatories to see if she survives her forthcoming studies with her ‘early music’ voice intact”. In 2008, I wrote that “this doesn’t seem to have happened and vibrato is a major issue for me, as it clouded the clarity of her undoubtedly fine voice more-or-less throughout and imparted an unsettlingly nervous edge to her voice”.

Eleven years on, the same comment applies to this performance, which added unstylistic slithering between notes and a lack of articulation to the persistent and strong vibrato, the latter making her voice sound inherently unstable. She also demonstrated something that I usually only see in inexperienced and nervous students; focussing her attention on a point way above the audience’s heads, both when singing and during her otherwise personable chats. Singing, and talking, is all about communication, and it is really unnerving when the person speaking to you is concentrating on something above your head.  It was such a contrast to the purity of the voices of the three young singers of ensemble .q.p.i.t that I had just heard in the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition (reviewed here).

Instrumental excellence was also a feature of the later evening concert given by Elizabeth Kenny in the Undercroft of York’s historic Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. Her programme focused on the early development of the chitarrone/theorbo at the end of the 16th century in Theorbo Fantasy: Old and new music for the long-necked lute. Her programme note gave one of the best descriptions of the chitarrone/theorbo that I have read. She opened with the early pioners Piccinini and Kapsberger, and music in a similar fantasy vein to the Frescobaldi Toccata heard earlier. Rober de Visée’s elegant and sophisticated Suite in C showed a later stylistic development, notably in La Plainte de Tombeau de Masdemoiselles de Visée.

She finished with a piece commissioned from Nico Muhly, his Berceuse with seven variations. Based on a series of 24 chords that spanned the whole compass of the theorbo, the variations generally kept the cradle-song notion of a Berceuse, albeit with a central baby-waking moment of drama at the climax of the arch-form structure. It was fascinating to hear Elizabeth Kenny explain how a UK-based performer discusses issues with a New York composer, via Skype.

Usually just heard adding a bit of a twang to a Baroque orchestra, it was lovely to hear the theorbo in its solo role, particular from such a professionally accomplished player. An example of the latter quality being that she coped with a lens popping out of her glass without batting an eyelid.

Although I only heard a few of the Festival concerts, what must have been the highlight of the entire week was the Friday evening performance in the Chapter House of York Minster. It was given by the distinguished Belgian group Vox Luminisdirected by Lionel Meunier. Unbelievably, it was their debut at the York Early Music Festival, despite many other UK appearances over the years. Their programme was of motets composed by members of the Bach Family Legacy  – all, incidentally, with Johann as their first names.

The twelve singers (with organ and violone bass for some of the pieces) appeared in several formats. The well-choreographed sequence of stage and personnel changes between pieces was accompanied by superb improvised organ toccatas from Bart Jacobs, very much in the style of the period.  The sequence followed a chronological order, starting with the only Johann who was actually referred to as Johann, rather than a second name. Johann Bach lived from 1604-73 and was the oldest member of the Bach family to appear in Johann Sebastian Bach’s collection of family music. He lived in Erfurt, Thuringia and was organist of the Predigerkirche. We heard his two known motets, starting with the extraordinary Unser Leben ist ein Schatten. A structural masterpiece, it contrasts the main group of six singers with a distant group ‘hidden from view’. It wounded wonderful in the acoustic of the lofty octagonal Chapter House. It can be heard here, sung by Vox Luminis from their Bach Motets CD.

They continued with an inspiring collection of pieces by Bach’s uncles and cousins, notably Johann Michael, whose youngest daughter Maria Barbara married JS Bach in 1707 and whose brother Johann Christoph may have been an early organ teacher of JS Bach. The contrast between the pieces, as well as the musical links, were a fascinating exploration in this programme, which was given an outstanding performance in what was probably a tricky acoustic for the singers, but not for the audience.

It is perhaps invidious to pick out individual singers from a vocal consort, but I was particularly impressed by the four sopranos, Zsuzsi Tóth and Stefanie True together with Victoria Cassano and Caroline Weynants. They finished with JS Bach’s masterpiece, Jesu, meine Freude. The continued their inventive use of the space with the encore, Johann Michael’s Unser Leben, with the sopranos positioned in the corners of the octagonal space.