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Music review: London International Festival of Early Music (St Michael and All Angels, Blackheath)

25 November 2022

Richard Lawrence on an early-music festival in a Georgian church

Anna McCarthy

The Brook Street Band during the opening concert of the festival in St Michael and All Angels, Blackheath

The Brook Street Band during the opening concert of the festival in St Michael and All Angels, Blackheath

THE grandly named London International Festival of Early Music, formerly held in various locations, including the Royal Naval College Chapel at Greenwich, has lately come to rest in Blackheath, where it celebrated its 49th anniversary in the middle of November.

Under the direction of Chris Butler, an astonishing amount of activity was crammed into four nights and three days. Running throughout was an exhibition of early-instrument makers in the Blackheath Halls. Events during the daytime included short concerts by students from the Royal Academy of Music, the Purcell School, the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and Chetham’s School of Music.

These took place in the Church of St Michael and All Angels, which was also the setting for four professional evening concerts. Then there were demonstrations by instrument-makers, talks, and the final of the festival’s Young Ensemble Competition, not to mention a festival evensong. I reluctantly confess that this splendid enterprise was quite new to me — and I write as a former editor of not one but two early-music magazines.

I attended two of the evening concerts, on 9 and 10 November. St Michael’s, handsomely restored a few years ago, can narrowly claim to be Georgian: it was completed in February 1830, four months before the death of George IV. But the church is Gothic rather than Georgian in style, with an admirably clear acoustic for both speech and music.

Anna McCarthyThe composer Nitin Sawhney at the Brook Street Band’s concert in Blackheath

The first concert was given by the Brook Street Band. It was called “As steals the morn upon the night”; so I was rather looking forward to hearing the beautiful duet from Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. But there were no singers, the ensemble consisting of the Baroque trio-sonata configuration of two violins, cello, and keyboard. The theme was night-time, the audience being taken on a journey from sunset to just after dawn.

This meant that, by the time the programme arrived at breakfast, we were preparing to go home at 9 p.m., but no matter: this was a charming conceit, delightfully executed. An unnamed speaker recited the L’Allegro text and, later, the words of Purcell’s Evening Hymn. The first three pieces were connected by the same ground bass. Tatty Theo’s cello kicked off a Ciaccona by Tarquinio Merulo; a pizzicato Ciacona by Biber represented a night watchman; a soothing organ replaced Carolyn Gibley’s harpsichord in a movement by Telemann, while the texture was pleasingly varied in a suite by Montéclair. The first half ended with Bach’s C-minor trio sonata, BWV526, the violinists Rachel Harris and Kathryn Parry weaving a sensuous line in the central Largo.

After the interval came the first performance of Early Transitions by Nitin Sawhney (b. 1964). The composer introduced the piece, explaining the complexities caused by his drawing on the rhythms of Indian music. What transpired was an energetic, 11-minute moto perpetuo of Baroque figuration: hardly conducive to “The Second Sleep, 4am” of the programme, but an attractive addition to the repertoire, as much fun to watch as to listen to. Come the dawn, a Handel trio sonata was preceded by part of the “Cuckoo and the Nightingale” organ concerto, followed by Le Réveil-Matin from Couperin’s first book of harpsichord pieces and, to end, a repeat of the Merulo Ciaccona.

The concert on the following evening was given by Solomon’s Knot, consisting on this occasion of eight singers accompanied by Jan Zahourek and Pawel Siwczak on the violone and organ respectively. The programme comprised four of J. S. Bach’s motets and five by his father’s cousin Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703). This again was a pleasure to watch. Singing without scores, the choir engaged with the audience through gesture and facial expression.

Motets for double choir by both composers made their antiphonal mark through effective spacing. JCB’s Fürchte dich nicht began with the lower voices, joined in the second stanza by the sopranos singing the chorale in the distance. In “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” from JSB’s Jesu, meine Freude, the group was bunched on the left while the rich alto of Kate Symonds-Joy intoned the chorale from the right.

The texts were distributed to the audience, separate from the printed programme. Wrongly ordered pages resulted in the interruption of Jesu, meine Freude by applause. Otherwise, all went well. Memorable moments included the quiet ending to JCB’s (German) Nunc Dimittis and JSB’s Der Geist hilft, and the quiet emphasis at “noch falsche Lehre” (“nor false teaching”) in JCB’s Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt. Finally, we were sent on our way rejoicing with a glorious, full-toned account of JSB’s Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. I look forward keenly to the festival’s golden jubilee.

These and other filmed concerts from the festival will be released on www.marquee.tv on 5 December.

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