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High-class antics under the fan vaulting

19 May 2009

by Roderic Dunnett


THE Sherborne Abbey Festival, founded on an initiative of John Baker and still run by him with his competent team, celebrated its tenth year this month.

A thumping good festival it has proved to be. Like the St Magnus Festival in Orkney, Sherborne judged five days to be the optimum, squeezing in roughly three events a day. Most classical tastes were catered for, and jazz and close harmony added colour to a pro­gramme that, from the audience point of view, was relatively safe and yet wide-ranging and high-class.

This year’s packed events included The Sixteen, singing Italian sacred masterpieces from the Sistine Chapel; the soprano Dame Felicity Lott, still radiant as ever; the master-cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, ac­companied by the European Union Chamber Orchestra, playing bi­centenary Haydn; and a workshop and opera scenes from the hugely accomplished Dorset Opera.

The last-night plum was a visit from Dame Emma Kirkby, who was at school in Sherborne, and who shone in a Handel-anniversary performance of — what else? — The Messiah, a work to which her special voice is divinely suited.

Also billed was an appearance by the mysterious Red Priest. Older readers might have looked out for a cabaret divertisssement sporting a rouged reincarnation of Hewlett Johnson, the “Red” Dean. Instead, Sherborne revelled in an early-music ensemble who helped swell festival numbers under the Abbey’s fan vaulting to a record high.

Red Priest made their name performing almost prehistoric rep­ertoire, drawing on those appetising, unpredictable musical gobbets that survive from the time of Blondel and Wolfram von Eschenbach. But this time they celebrated J. S. Bach instead, in their antic-filled pro­gramme “Johann, I’m only dancing”.

Chief caperer is their leader, Piers Adams, who comes armed with an array of recorders. With his frisky demeanour, and red attire like one of the Doge’s attendants, his virtuosity and versatility on treble and bass, descant, and tenor recorders can turn a Bach Presto or Gigue into a feast of cavorting.

As the music twirls, so does he, a bright jongleur interacting with the violinist Julia Bishop or egging on Angela East, an unruffled cellist (who herself offered electrifying solos). To catch him on a low recorder, producing characterful sounds like a bass clarinet, with her high on the mellow D string, was a treat indeed. Bach himself was an arranger (as with the Vivaldi A-minor Concerto here): watching his “Badinerie” delivered with the zest of a hornpipe would have given him only joy, as it did us.

A Bach Sonata — no. 5 in C — formed the meaty centrepiece of Andrew Nethsingha’s organ recital the next morning. With their terse three-part counterpoint, the six sonatas are among the most fiendish of Bach’s works to deliver securely. How the admired Director of Music at St John’s College, Cambridge, contrives, with so much else to do, to keep his keyboard (especially pedal) playing so well-judged and finessed is a wonder.

For Guilmant’s resplendent Grand Choeur he found lovely, subtle registrations to contrast the serene middle section. In a buoyant tribute to Kenneth Leighton, he conjured up searing brassy detail akin to the famous Hispanic trompeta real of St John’s; while, from Marcel Dupré, he assayed the early F-minor Prelude and Fugue, with its oblique, almost elusive melodic fragment as subject. There was Vaughan Williams and Percy Whitlock, both in folk vein, and rumbustious Vierne.

This was a treat for the denizens of Dorset, who especially appreciated Nethsingha’s dedication of this eloquent and articulate recital to his mentor, George Guest, whose widow was in the audience.

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