LAST month’s first Liverpool Early Music Festival (LEMF) proved a welcome addition to the city’s musical scene. Besides The Sixteen’s Choral Pilgrimage concert in Liverpool Metropolitan (RC) Cathedral, it featured a musical exploration by the ensemble Palisander of journeys by Columbus and others to the New World; and the story of flamenco music’s medieval roots, told by the ensemble Lux Musicae London with Ignacio Lusardi (flamenco guitar) and Julian Harris (oud).
The incentive for this imaginative week came from the medievalist Clare Norburn, an adroit singer and playwright. She has evolved half a dozen “plays with live music”, or perhaps “concert theatre”, which have been toured to other festivals, broadcast, and acclaimed for their insight and sensitivity. Mainly they invoke significant, sometimes unhappy, events of the distant past.
At the city’s Nordic Church and Cultural Centre, a recital, “Contemplation”, focused on Hildegard of Bingen, who is the subject of Vision (Arts, 8 March), part of Norburn’s Empowered Women trilogy. (Unsung Heroine focuses on Beatriz de Dia, the 12th-13th-century Occitanian trobairitz, a female troubadour.)
Into the Melting Pot, performed at the same venue, is about the young Jewess Blanca, who is caught up in the horrors of 1492 after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s Decreto de la Alhambra. This expelled some 40-100,000 mainly Sephardic Jews from Spain and led to many forced conversions.
The programme — emotively and, at times, sparklingly sung by two (occasionally three) singers — drew on Sephardic songs that are, as Norburn explains in her detailed note, part of an oral tradition handed down before and after the Spanish pogroms of the late 11th and 13th centuries, and the grim expulsion that forced Jewish exiles to resettle across Europe.
The evening also drew on classic troubadour songs and, especially, the cantigas (songs) by King Alfonso X of Castile (1221-84), whose accommodating view of Jewry was so different from later royal brutality.
The two principal singers — a wonderfully expressive mezzo-soprano, the German-born Ariane Prüssner; and Norburn herself, a soprano, exhilarating in both higher and bewitching lower range — were exceptional, in, not least, the light portamento that each introduced and their brilliant close counterpoint. Their pronunciation (sometimes of dialect) was irreproachable.
Alfonso’s cantigas — more than 400 — are deeply felt monodic celebrations of the Virgin. Three were performed with instruments. The main ones were recorders (Fatima Lahham) — one high, producing exotic chirruping decorations, the other in a lower range — and a medieval-style harp, played by Joy Smith, also the percussionist.
Extra rhythmic urgency came from a kind of wooden sound box whose pitch depended on whether the top or side was struck. The most expressive instrument of all was the haunting lute-like oud, which predates the ninth century. The expert players gave to every item that they accompanied its own character, and to the concert its vibrant variety.
The beauty of the cantigas could be enjoyed from the start: Alfonso’s beguiling Virgen Madre gloriosa, and the ensuing Sephardic song “La Serena”. The singers captured with perfect delicacy the melismata that are a feature of the genre.
The music, though at times it may sound like a forerunner, is not flamenco, but does intermittently express a gleaming optimism and joy. Evocative lighting (Claire Rowland)added to an alluring atmosphere. The direction (by Nicholas Renton) included interaction, but was pretty nugatory. Humour in the narrative delighted the audience.
Four of the most delicious moments came with a sequence of vivid, syncopated stanzas that recalled the troubadours, but also the Renaissance chanson-composer Clément Janequin and more recent music from around the Mediterranean.
There followed a characterful solo from Prüssner (whose singers’ workshop was a welcome outreach element in the festival) and an exciting dance for instruments (Cantigas de Santa Maria no. 311), all capped by a thrilling first-part finale, Alfonso’s “Mui Grandes noit’ e dia” (no. 57).
I had some reservations. The narrator, Suzanne Ahmet, as Blanca, earned many fans, but continually dropped her voice, so that, sitting at the rear, I heard less than one third of her words. Where she did succeed for me was in two respects: whenever her story was tinged by instruments — recorder, or especially Giles Lewin’s oud — the plangent narrative picked up. Several times, Ahmet rose in a crescendo, especially when she removed her headscarf (the costume was good), and spoke up.
The printed (but unstapled) programme was excellent, although parallel texts would have made it more possible to follow and savour the words. Alfonso and the Sephardic (or Galician) writers perhaps deserved to have their exquisite poesy set down here, too. It was not clear from the programme which items were solos or duets.
The LEMF has put a welcome toe in the water and revealed its potential. It could prove a fly-by-night. But provided the net is widened and others are drawn in to expand the administration, it may grow and become a regular fixture. The city has other series — for example, the Liverpool Bach Collective’s Baroque season spanning ten churches. Maintaining this event’s early momentum will be decisive.
Alfonso’s cantigas have been recorded, notably by groups such as the Ensemble Gilles Binchois (Ambroisie AMB 9973).
I can recommend The Telling’s gorgeous new recording, “Gardens of Light” (details on its website).
Clare Norburn’s “Into the Melting Pot” continues to tour during 2019-20. Further details at www.thetelling.co.uk.