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Music review: Suffolk Villages Festival opening concert

29 September 2023

This late celebration in Hadleigh was enjoyed by Garry Humphreys

St Mary’s, Hadleigh, in Suffolk

St Mary’s, Hadleigh, in Suffolk

THE Suffolk Villages Festival began in 1988 as the Stoke by Nayland Festival of Georgian Music, and since then has gone from strength to strength, offering programmes of music from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, sacred and secular, vocal and instrumental, including semi-staged and concert performances of early operas, all under the artistic direction of the musicologist, harpsichordist, and conductor Peter Holman.

Although there are concerts from autumn to spring, the Festival itself takes place over the August Bank Holiday, this year encompassing music by Bach (at Stoke by Nayland), Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven (the Revolutionary Drawing Room Quartet at Wivenhoe), Elizabethan and Jacobean virginals music (Steven Devine at Sudbury), and ending with Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (directed by Peter Holman at Hadleigh).

It was at St Mary’s, Hadleigh, that this year’s Festival opened with a concert postponed from last October because of Covid: “Heinrich Schütz: Drama, Virtuosity & Splendour”, featuring the tenor Charles Daniels with the vocal ensemble Psalmody and the John Jenkins Consort, directed by Peter Holman. The concert was originally planned to mark the 350th anniversary in 2022 of the death of Heinrich Schütz.

Schütz was Johann Sebastian Bach’s greatest predecessor, renowned for his vivid and profound biblical scenes — “a counterpart to Rembrandt”. The focus was on his work for the Dresden Court during the Thirty Years’ War, with music ranging from virtuoso solo motets (sung by Daniels) to large-scale pieces for multiple soloists, divided choirs, a five-part string consort, harpsichord, and organ.

A pre-concert talk by Professor Stephen Rose of Royal Holloway, University of London — “Schütz and the Thirty Years’ War” was an enthralling and illuminating introduction to the background. It pointed out the limitations imposed by the War and resulting in music on a smaller scale than would have been normal (and musicians’ sometimes not receiving payment for a year or more), besides reflecting the spirit of the times.

Schütz, well aware of developments in Italy, spent time in Venice in the early years of the 17th century, studying with Monteverdi and subsequently using Italian-style ornamentation and sometimes Latin words, which did not conflict with Schütz’s German Protestantism; for Latin was regarded as a sort of lingua franca.

What this concert demonstrated more than anything was Schütz’s remarkable range of textures, emotions, and atmosphere, deriving from the use of different forces: solos, groups of voices, and the full choir. Striking moments were Himmel und Erde for three basses and Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich?, with its restless invocations of the crowd.

The heaviest responsibility was that of Charles Daniels, who sang several of Schütz’s solo pieces from Symphoniae Sacrae and the Geistliche Konzerte, besides taking part in larger-scale works, dispatching the coloratura with intense conviction. Soloists from Psalmody were also heard, the sopranos Gill Wilson and Annabel Malton and the tenor Zachary Kleanthous being particularly worthy of mention.

There was instrumental music, too, from the John Jenkins Consort. For me, the highlight of the evening was their playing of Johann Rosenmüller’s Sonata da Camera (1667) — such delicacy and vitality. The bass-violin continuo player, Louise Jameson, must be congratulated for her artistic underpinning of every piece in the programme.

Drama, virtuosity, and splendour was, indeed, what we heard from these different combinations of voices and instruments — heavenly music despite the War — and an imaginative and enjoyable introduction to this year’s Festival.

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