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Medieval pictures in sound

09 November 2012

Roderic Dunnett goes to the countryside to hear early music


"MUSIC in Quiet Places" is an attractive series of concerts held in country churches in north-east Northamptonshire, as an offshoot of the Oundle Music Trust.

Some years ago, the latter expanded the world-renowned Oundle Organ Festival into a full-scale summer Musikfest; yet the teaching of organ performance to a thrillingly high standard is still central to the organisation's activities.

The spring-to-autumn events this year drew in eight churches, many of them of exquisite beauty. They included St Leonard's, Rockingham, surveying the Welland Valley and home to Rockingham Castle; and All Saints', Polebrooke, whose vibrant recital featured the Harborough Collective, an instrumental (and solo vocal) ensemble founded by the Yehudi Menuhin School-trained violinist David Le Page, which is steadily acquiring a national reputation.

"Music in Quiet Places" certainly draws in the talent. Its final 2012 concert was staged at St Mary and All Saints', Fotheringhay, surmounted by its spectacular lantern and close to the (now ruined) castle where Richard III was born, and Mary, Queen of Scots, met her grisly end. It was given by the refined four-man Orlando Consort, who celebrate their quarter-century next year; and focused on music from the 12th-century School of Notre-Dame (notably the unsurpassed Pérotin).

Alongside them, and singing with them, we heard, intermittently, a plucky ensemble of local singers, linked with the Orlando as part of the Oundle Music Trust's useful educational scheme.

What shone out was the entrancing poetic quality of the words, both Latin and early English: the imaginary exchange with Mary Magdalene, hotfoot from Christ's tomb, in Victimae Paschali laudes, where the community group joined in the difficult plainsong with verve, not getting everything right, but having a determined try; or the joyous invention of Orientis partibus, which cheekily conjures up the weary, patient ass (asinus) bearing the offerings of the three wise men, masticating and munching his indigestible fodder till (over-)sated. The words are like a medieval painting - some impudent Brueghel, perhaps.

The singing of the Orlando (ATTB; although, beautifully balanced, they sound more like ATBarB) was beyond compare: rhythmically vital and pliant, delicate in the lower-voice trio Verbum patris humanatur, from the Cambridge Songbook, with its verbal and even musical pre-echoes of Carmina Burana; and likewise in the soft berceuse of a tenors' duet in the (also anonymous) Edi beo thu hevene quene.

The baritone Donald Greig made a handsome job of some revealing and entertaining - if slightly over-extended - narrations, taken from a letter of 1284 to Brother Leofranc of Reading, surveying the ropey and riotous state of the monasteries and parishes in the realm, not least in Wales.

But the glory of the evening was the countertenor Matthew Venner, with his impeccable intonation and stylised French forward vowels. Honed by Ex Cathedra and already gathered in by The Sixteen, Venner is a singer of breathtaking talent and artistry. His three solo a cappella items, notably Beata viscera and Gaude, Virgo gloriosa, were delivered with such delicacy and relaxed confidence that one could happily have listened to him all evening.


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