GREENWICH INTERNATIONAL EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL & EXHIBITION 2008
The format was similar to last year's Festival, with perhaps more emphasis on TCM staff and students. The Exhibition remains very international - exhibitors from many countries, an inspiring sight filling the Painted Hall and other spaces and a cheerful din of early instruments being tried out - not worth trying to hear what a clavichord there sounds like ! We feared sales might be seriously depressed by the current financial crisis, but a few exhibitors were reassuring about what is a specialised niche market.
Philip Thorby is a pillar of strength each year. His opening concert Music Divine, directed "from the viol", was a more intimate, smaller scale event than in some past years, with a well planned sequence of English sacred vocal music punctuated by instrumental pieces. It was good to hear Byrd's 3-part Mass discreetly augmented with viol consort and chamber organ, as might have happened in secret Catholic household devotions. The second half was of Tomkins and Gibbons, the whole making a satsifyingly serious concert.
James Johnstone (harpsichordist of Florilegium and one-time pupil of Leonhardt & Koopman, no less) gave a distinguished harpsichord recital of 17th C music by lesser known composers around Frescobaldi. Pasquini's Romanesca so impressed that I bought afterwards Johnstone's CD devoted to that composer's harpsichord music [Gaudeamus GAU336]. Recorders in various guises featured strongly throughout the Festival. Passacaglia led by Annabel Knight explored early seventeenth century Italian chamber music by Frescobaldi and five other composers of the time including Marini and Merula, their individualisms - if they exist - not obviously discernible.
In the Ella Kidney Early Music Competition Prizewinners' Recital this year it was Sam Goble (cornetto) who particularly impressed, coming into his own in a sonata by Giovanni Fontana and virtuosic Divisions by Girolamo dalla Casa. Balance problems with this loud instrument made for difficulties with Kyoko Murai's light soprano, her voice seeming somehow not well supported and produced with inappropriate vibrato for this repertoire. Claire Williams was a prompt accompanist and partner at keyboards, but she is visually distracting and needs to cultivate stillness.
For the first of the key evening concerts (tickets £16) Paul Leenhouts brought to Greenwich his international group of twelve recorder players The Royal Wind Music, all of whom had studied at Amsterdam. They picked and mixed tiny sopranino to the over ten-foot sub-contrabass from a large collection of Renaissance recorders on stage, and played the well rehearsed programme by memory. Leenhouts controlled his group with alert, economical gestures, achieving precision and faultless intonationin a pleasing selection of pieces "after the 17th century collections of Sir Jacob van Eyck", giving particular delight to the many recorder players in the Old Royal Naval College Chapel audience.
Next evening there we had Stile Antico, a successful conductor-less British group of twelve singers who had been featured in prestigious European festivals. They offered "sensuous, erotic, ardent" music inspired by the Song of Solomon, so we were told. Those of us who don't know our Bible too well had to take all that on trust, because no texts or translations were provided. The sound was generally euphonious, but one wondered how the group rehearses; do they take turns as listener and adviser, as so memorably did the members of the Takacs Quartet at a rehearsal which I was privileged to attend.
A word about the programme book, which has an old fashioned look and seems set year to year in its presentation style. Whilst at the Exhibition representatives of the makers are on hand to describe and explain in minutest detail the background thinking which has gone into the instruments offered for sale, the concert notes are a hit and miss affair, seriously disadvantaged by the pages being put together without harmonising style or rigorous proof checking (e.g. on different pages, the duration of the Festival Eucharist was either 45 mins or 75 mins duration - and on the door 90 minutes). No named Editor is listed.
Far more space is given over to CVs (some of them excessively self promoting) than to helpful notes on the music itself, so much of it unfamiliar and by 'minor' composers. Some performing groups supply handouts at the door and may give spoken introductions; variably helpful, not always about the music (e.g. titillation; Gesualdo = murderer etc). Texts/translations are provided or not, seemingly arbitarily; for a rare major work of Buxtehude we had an English version but not the original, although there was plenty of wasted space on the pages and parallel presentation is always the ideal. Perhaps this is something for Sean Farrell, Trinity's Director of Performance (who on p.22 of the programme book gives a Welcome preface) to look into for next year; a leading academic institution ought to do better.
Farrell's so-called "Fringe Concert" in St Alfege's Church was one of the two most memorable events of the entire weekend.
Buxtehude's forbiddingly titled set of cantatas Membra Jesu nostri * - (meditations on the wounds of Christ on the Cross) was a riveting experience. It proved to be marvellous music, a major work stylishly sung by five solo singers of the Ex Trinitas Vocal Ensemble, which had grown from the choral tradition of the ORNC Chapel, supported by an ensemble of Greenwich Baroque. In one of the seven Cantata Meditations the four baroque instrumentalists were augmented by a surprise addition of five mellifluous viols, invisible up in the organ loft. Although no one I spoke to (including some participants) had known Membra Jesu nostri before, it is available on several recordings; worth following up.
* Harmonia Mundi: HMA1951333 is warmly recommended; Membra Jesu nostri is coupled with the jubilant Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn [Concerto Vocale/Rene Jacobs].
The other event I shall long remember was a morning recital by an accomplished recorder quintet.
Peter Grahame Woolf