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Bring on the sagbutts

31 August 2012

Early music made its mark in Edinburgh, says William Dundas


Bidden to shine: NVA's Speed of Light, King Arthur's Seat, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, during the Festival

Bidden to shine: NVA's Speed of Light, King Arthur's Seat, Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, during the Festival

AT THIS year's Edinburgh International Festival, we have had a set of Olympic rings on the Mound, and lots of concerts featuring lots of brass. They could almost be celebratory fanfares for our success in the recent Olympic Games in London.

We also have the world première of an outdoor event, Speed of Light, as part of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival. It involves volunteers who have trained to wear light-emitting suits while running defined routes up and around Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park. The other participants are the paying audience, who walk their own routes carrying what look like spears with illuminated tips. These serve the dual purpose of lighting their way when the illuminated tips are held downwards, and being part of the light show when they are held aloft.

My first concert was the Alpine Symphony of Richard Strauss. I was attending it in a personal capacity without my reviewer's notepad and pen, but I enjoyed it so much that I felt I should encourage you to listen to the BBC Radio 3 recording when it is broadcast in mid-September.

My official opening review is of one of the series of concerts given, in the early evening, in Greyfriars Kirk. It was given by the joint forces of His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts and Concerto Palatino. The concert celebrated the 400th anniversary of Giovanni Gabrieli's death: it had occurred 400 years to the day before the concert. Music from Symphoniae Sacrae (1597) was their opener. It sounded really sumptuous. The interior of this church is long and rectangular, without transepts, and with narrow side aisles. This creates a very lively sound, followed by an amazing decay, the sound of the cornetts taking longer to decay than that of the sagbutts.

The richness of the sound was further enhanced by the use of two chamber organs. Most of the remaining programme consisted of many canzoni, and three other religiouspieces, concluding with Maria virgo a 10 (1597). The concert fulfilled the promise of the title to the programme note by providing a succession of sonic splendours. This concert was recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on The Early Music Show on Saturday 15 September.

I returned to Greyfriars Kirk the following day. The offering was "Dalmatica: Sacred chants of the Adriatic". The music was performed by the four female singers of Dialogos, and Kantaduri, six traditional male cantors. They all come from Croatia. The music, 28 pieces, was performed from multiple locations around the church, beginning with Pismu novu, svi pivajmo. This is a traditional Advent chant from Split. It was performed as a processional by both sets of singers. The concert continued witha succession of liturgical chants that followed the church calendar through to Good Friday.

The sound world was at times rustic and rough-edged. For a crude comparison, any readers who are familiar with sound of the Rustavi Choir, from Georgia, who toured the UK extensively in the mid-'90s, will fully understand what I mean by this description. The singing came from various locations around the church throughout the concert, the cantors often facing each other in a circle, apparently singing quietly and wordlessly towards the end of pieces by the women, and then singing their text as a direct continuation from that of the women without any break.

This was a great experience but it went on too long. It overran. For the last 20 minutes, audience members were unavoidably leaving the church in order to be on time for other festival performances. This was a shame. It was one of those times when my mother would have said that enough was as good as a feast.

I took a day's rest before returning to Greyfriars. The performance on this occasion was by the acclaimed countertenor Iestyn Davies, accompanied by Arcangelo, an early-music group founded in 2010 by Jonathan Cohen.

Davies sang three cantatas: one by Handel, Mi palpita il cor (HWV 132c), and two by Porpora, Oh Dio, che non è vero and Oh se fosse il mio core. His singing is stylish and wonderfully expressive. His stage presence is a touch unsubtle, from his designer jacket to his eliciting applause and finally advertising his current CD. This did not, however, detract from his obvious ability to project the emotions and subtleties of the texts. On this, my first hearing of him, I found his voice, at times, rather white and lacking in colour and contrast. He did, however, give an encore. I had no such reservations about his singing of that. His efforts were enthusiastically received by the large audience.

He was admirably accompanied throughout by the instrumentalists of Arcangelo. The only other piece in the programme was the Violin Sonata in A (HWV 372) by Handel. This was played by Stéphanie- Marie Degand, and was on the whole well articulated and phrased. There was a lack of clarity at some points in the final allegro, but she recovered well.


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