Early Music Young Ensemble Competition

Early Music Young Ensemble Competition
MokkaBarock, Ensemble Pro Victoria, Ensemble Hesperi
London International Festival of Early Music
8 November 2020

The London International Festival of Early Music series of events continued, under the banner of LIFEM: DIGITAL, with their Early Music Young Ensemble Competition, the final of which usually occurs every two years during their live festival. This year the competition took place online, with the three finalists’ recitals streamed on the festival’s website on Sunday, 8th November. After a preliminary round of the competition based on video entries, the three finalists’ recitals were recorded under ‘live’ conditions. Two of the groups were UK based, the other being from Salzburg.

The first group to perform were the five members of MokkaBarock, a young international early music ensemble formed from current and former students of the University Mozarteum Salzburg’s Institute for Early Music. They have been prize winners in several international competitions, and have performed at renowned festivals such as the Oude Muziek Festival Utrecht, the MAfestival Brugge, the Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik, the Tage Alter Musik Regensburg and the Meraner Musikwochen.

They opened their programme with Telemann’s Trio Sonata in F followed by the Chaconne from Purcell’s Dioclesian. A presumably improvised lute introduction from Elias Conrad gradually focussed down on the ground bass before the cello and organ (Cecilia Clò & Yukie Yamazaki) joined in the continuo and the two recorders (Tabea Seibert & Florian Brandstetter) began to weave Purcell’s florid upper lines. They completed their set with Marco Uccellini’s Sonata in A minor. Although their playing was not without the occasional slip, something that would usually go unoticed in a more normal live concert situation, they played with energy and a clear understanding of the style and nature of the repertoire. I particularly liked their sensitivity of playing in the slower movements.

The six-strong vocal group Ensemble Pro Victoria was founded at the University of Cambridge in 2015. Their recent focus has been on pre-reformation English music as part of the Tudor Partbooks research project. They have been ensemble-in-residence at the Newcastle Early Music Festival for the past two years.

They started with Asperges me by Cristóbal de Morales followed by Victoria’s Nigra Sum, Francisco Garro’s Parce mihi, Domine and Victoria’s Regina Caeli. I did wonder why they chose to sing with a persistent vibrato, something usually frowned upon in this repertoire, and indeed most ‘early’ music. It gave an unfortunate unstable feel to their intonation, particularly when it continued throughout cadential moments.

Ensemble Hesperi is based in London and promote undiscovered 18th century Baroque repertoire from Scotland, London and the continent. They were selected as 2020 Britten Pears Young Artists on the ‘Chamber Music in Residence’ programme and as ‘Take Note’ artists for Chiltern Arts Festival. The members are Mary-Jannet Leith, recorders, Magdalena Loth-Hill, violin, Florence Petit, cello, and Thomas Allery, harpsichord, each with their own distinguished record on the early music scene in the UK.

They opened with two movements from Sammartini’s Sonata VI (12 Sonatas), followed by two of James Oswald’s Airs for the Spring: The Narcissus and three movements of Handel’s Trio Sonata in F. They played with an excellent sense of consort and professionalism with fine individual contributions from the four players

It became apparent at the end of the video stream that the judges were at the recorded sessions for the two UK-based groups Ensemble Pro Victoria and Ensemble Hesperi, but viewed MokkaBarock’s performance on video. It cannot have been easy for MokkaBarock to perform to a single camera rather than the usual audience. I didn’t recognise the recording location for their video, but it was later revealled that it was recorded in their home city of Salzburg. Their video was the only one of the three that was recorded as a continuous set under the normal competition rules. The other two groups were recorded in St Michael and All Angels Church, Blackheath, one of the festival’s usual venues, but the videos faded out after each piece, so the usual conditions of a continuous concert performance were not applied – at least to the viewer. There seemed to be enough people present at the recordings of the two UK groups to raise a reasonable round of applause at the end, which was obviously not the case for MokkaBarock.

The judges were Margaret Faultless, Lucy Crowe and the festival’s Artistic Director, Gill Graham. All three finalists receive a cash prize, with the winning ensemble receiving £2,000 and an invitation to perform at the 2021 festival. The second and third placed ensembles receive £1,000 and £500 respectively. They chose Ensemble Pro Victoria and Ensemble Hesperi as joint first prize winners, with £1,500 and a slot in next year’s festival each, with MokkaBarock, very surprisingly in my view, in third place. At least the Covid-concert-conditions allows the viewer to to listen again to all three performances from their own homes and make up their own mind. It can be viewed here and I hope it stays available for some time. The future of live music is clearly going to be online for some time to come.

It is to the credit of the festival that they have managed to keep the competition going under current circumstance. And at least they have avoided the organasional problems that have beset past live competion finals. As with the other LIFEM: DIGITAL events, donations are encouraged to make up for the loss of their usual audiences.