London International Festival of Early Music
Society of Recorder Players/Moeck Solo Recorder Competition Finals
Blackheath, 7-8 November 2019
London International Festival of Early Music now seems to be firmly ensconced in Blackheath after some years in Greenwich under a variety of earlier names. Hosted by the Early Music Shop, an exhibition of instruments and music (in the Blackheath Halls) forms the centre of the three-day festival. The three-day programme of concerts and events around the exhibition includes makers demonstration recitals, performer platforms for younger musicians, workshops and more formal concerts by professionals. Every other year, the festival hosts the finals of Society of Recorder Players/Moeck Solo Recorder Competition, the winner getting a recital during the following year’s festival. Last year they introduced the first of their Early Music Young Ensemble Competition Finals. Last year’s review can be seen here.
Thursday 7 November
The first of the Performers Platform events (at St Michael & All Angels Church, Blackheath) was an afternoon pre-CD launch taster for the new CD Indoor Fireworks by recorder player Olwen Foulkes. The recording is based on music that was performed in London theatres during the 18th-century. As well as the play, an evening would also have been included musical and other entertainments. Olwen Foulkes has researched this repertoire, principally using adverts or the Theatre Royal in the Daily Courant which listed many of these other entertainments. This concert included examples from composers Baston, Paisible, Vivaldi, Grano, Finger, Tollet and Sammartini, either written for or arranged by Olwen for recorder.
The music chosen was delightful, with Olwen’s description of the fascinating background story adding considerably to the interest. Olwen’s playing, and that of her colleagues, was excellent, her communicative style engaging the audience with the music. The formal launch of the Indoor Fireworks CD is at the Foundling Museum on Friday 29 November. This new CD makes an excellent follow-up to Olwen’s earlier CD, reviewed here, which explored music from Handel’s theatre.
The evening concert was given by Solomon’s Knot with their programme Fear & Hope, based on work by Susanne Flück for the Bachwochen Thun. The concert was is two very distinct halves, the first focusing on music from the time of the Thirty Years War in Germany and the music of Schütz and Schein, the second on Tallis & Byrd with organ pieces by Matthew Locke & Purcell from several generations later.
The five singers of Solomon’s Knot, with organist Pawel Siwczk, were particularly effective in the German repertoire, maintaining sufficient musical interest despite the pieces being relatively similar in style and mood. Seven of the pieces were by Heinrich Schütz, the most memorable for me being his Wann unsre Augen schlafen ein, with its wonderful harmonic sequence at the start and long melismas from the soprano line soaring above the lower texture. Here, as elsewhere, soprano Clare Lloyd-Griffiths was outstanding, her high and beautifully stable voice being the highlight of the evening. Schütz’s earlier Die mit Tränen säen also impressed its expressive response to the text reflected in the harmony and texture of the piece. A programming oddity was the inclusion of a piece by Johann Kuhnau (Tristis est anima mea) a composer from a much later era and a different tradition to Schütz and Schein.
The English second half also threw up a similar programming oddity. The solo organ pieces (the singing in this part was all unaccompanied) were also from a completely different era and musical tradition to the vocal pieces. In this case the contrast was between the Elizabethan composers Tallis & Byrd and, on the organ, the post-Restoration composers Locke & Purcell. With such an enormous repertoire of surviving organ pieces by both Tallis and Byrd, I am puzzled as to why the organ music wasn’t from those composers.
That said, the organ playing by Pawel Siwczk was exemplary, with some neatly executed ornaments. The key vocal piece was the opening Tallis Lamentationes Jeremiae, its closely wrought polyphony caught beautifully by the singers. They all performed from memory with the exception of alto Emma Lewis who was a last-minute stand-in. I’ve reviewed Solomon’s Knot many times over the years, and am always impressed with their musical integrity and sensitivity.
Friday 8th November
Society of Recorder Players/Moeck Solo Recorder Competition Finals
Enter these gates with thanksgiving said the engraving on the doors of All Saints Church, Blackheath as the increasingly grumpy and self-important audience gathered in a cold wind until just before the advertised start time for the Society of Recorder Players/Moeck recorder competition – the first of a number of administrative issues with this event. One of the cold grumpies would not accept the explanation (tuning) of the poor young woman on the door, and demanded to see somebody in authority. Another instructed us to move further into the tiny porch so that she could get out of the wind, only to use her new position to leap close to the front of the queue. On a promise (that was not kept) that we all kept quiet during the continuing of three keyboards, we were eventually let in.
Fortunately, the music-making during the competition was far more successful. Biographical details of the finalists can be found here. The first competitor was Paula Pinn from Germany. Her programme “Delight of Arrangements” opened in processional form with a reconstruction of passages from the Codex Manesse (c1300/40) over an organ drone which she segued into a piece by Verdelot. Her sensitive use of ornaments and little inflexions of tone were a feature throughout her impressive performance, which also included music by Stravinsky, Geminiani, Dieupart and Bach. She showed a real understanding of French style in the Dieupart Suite. Her arrangement of Bach’s French Suite for solo recorder was played with a fine sense of momentum, finding those little moments of repose in Bach’s frequently non-stop flurry of notes.
She finished with a Bach/Vivaldi Concerto, based on Bach’s organ transcriptions, which would have been an excellent lesson to any organists in the audience on how to articulate and mould a musical line. A very impressive performance, aided by excellent continuo harpsichord playing from Anna Kiskachi.
The South Korean Hojin Kwon explored different types of arrangements for recorder in her programme “Transcriptions”. With examples from the violin, harpsichord, traverso, and viol repertoire, she played music from Germany, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands, the latter a striking contemporary piece by Conrad Steinmann with microtones, overtones, frequent manipulation of timbre and an impressive display of nimble-fingered virtuosity. In the early pieces, Hojin Kwon demonstrated excellent sensitivity to the style of the pieces, notably in the lilting rhythms of a Suite by d’Hervelois, playing with an attractive subtlety of tone and neat articulation.
Her concluding piece was an attractive multi-sectional Sonata by Sybrand van Noordt, a 17th-century Dutch organist composer. I particularly liked Hojin Kwon’s beautifully-paced final cadence. It was unfortunate that the organisers didn’t give her the opportunity by to set up her music and instruments prior to her formal entrance, as later finalists were. Walking on stage with a large bundle of instruments and music is not the best start for a competitor. Han-na Lee accompanied on organ and harpsichord.
The third finalist was the American Martin Bernstein with the rather excessive accompanimental instruments of two harpsichords, organ, and two violas da gamba, played very effectively by Emmanuel Arakélian and Salomé Gasselin. His programme included pieces by Boyvin, Castello, Guilan, Bach, Francœr and the contemporary composer Markus Zahnausen. It was a curious performance, linked it would appear to his approach to music-making through language, poetry and singing. His programme note, and his talk during his performance, referred to the way that “poetry gives me a way to share the intense, intimate drama I find in this music”. What was presumably intended as a rather theatrical approach to performance turned out to involve curious facial and eyebrow gestures, long and awkward pauses before and between pieces, and frequent intense stares at the audience. The start was also rather uncomfortable when he started playing what sounded like a piece directed straight towards the harpsichord player, which just turned out to be him tuning up.
That said, his pyrotechnics during the contemporary piece by Markus Zahnausen were impressive, including playing the recorder sideways, flute-like, blowing through one of the finger holes. And it made a change for a competition recital to end quietly, in this case with a gentle Sarabande from the Bauyn Manuscript. However, here and in some of the earlier pieces, there were some rather unsettling fluctuations of pitch.
The final finalist was Tabea Debus a London-based German musician who I have reviewed several times. Her programme was “Ode to an Earworm” referring to those musical moments that stick in the mind. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to start playing until around 4pm, three hours after the start and about 20 minutes before the advertised time for the announcement of the result! The church was getting colder and darker and requests from the accompanists (Jonathan Ress, gamba, and Alex McCartney, theorbo & guitar) to turn on more lights came to nothing, despite there being stage floodlights and chancel lighting, all of which would have helped.
Tabea Debus’s programme included two modern pieces, including the world premiere of Gareth Moorcraft’s virtuosic Diaries of the Early Worm, with its little flourishes and neat percussive articulation from Tabea. Caffeine, a moto perpetuo piece by Freya Waley-Cohen was apparently composed during a coffee-fueled transatlantic flight, the leaping melodic line expressing her mood at the time. In contrast to the fireworks of these pieces, Tabe Debus’s sensitivity and musicality were evident in the earlier pieces, notably in her selection of Bach pieces transcribed for solo recorder.
Well over an hour after the advertised finish time, the results were announced. The three adjudicators were Michael Form, Sarah Jeffery and Lucy Russell. They ranked the finalist in this ascending order: Paula Pinn, Martin Bernstein, Hojin Kwon, with Tabea Debus as the deserving first prize winner. [EDIT: although there was no mention of it at the time, there were actually four prizes awarded so I have deleted my comment about placing the four finalists in order]. As will be obvious from my review, I question the order of some of the players, but then I rarely agree with competition judges. There is no audience prize. The winner gets a concert in next year’s festival, together with a cash award.
Amongst the organisational issues already mentioned, the church itself seems unsuitable for an event like this. It is very cold and draughty, with an entrance exposed to wind across the heath of Blackheath. There is only one toilet, adjacent to the performing area which resulted in longs gaps between the performances while everybody who needed to take advantage of the facilities did so. One late-comer was not only allowed to enter in the middle of a performance but, rather than being directed to sit at the back, walked right to the very front row – an unnecessary distraction for the player.
Truly, Madly Baroque was the title of the Friday evening concert (in St Michael & All Angels Church) given by the unconventional chart-toppers Red Priest, the naughty boys and girls of the early music world. In an extremely professional and slick performance, they rollicked their way through a series of popular pieces from the 18th-century, playing at breakneck speed and remarkable accuracy but in a style that would send early music purist screaming to the hills. An excellent spoken introduction to the much-maligned Pachelbel Canon, combined with a performance with recorder, violin, cello taking the place of the usual three violins probably allowed many in the audience to understand the canonic structure of the piece for the first time, despite many listens.
In a concert full of highlights, picking individual ones is tricky, but Brandenburg V was one, not least with Adam Summerhayes’ violin “cadenza”. But it was a shame that David Wright’s much-hyped extended harpsichord solo was shortened. The Adagio of Albinoni’s Concerto in d had a beautifully pulsating accompaniment supporting the melodica melody, while the concluding Devil’s Trill Sonata was given added devilment by Piers Adams.
Red Priest were the only performers who didn’t want any photographs taken, so I conclude with an attempt at a night shot outside of church on my new mobile phone, not realising that on ‘Night Mode’ you need to hold the phone steady for a few seconds.
All photos: ABW