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Music review: An early-music round-up

31 May 2024

Roderic Dunnett finds encouragement in today’s ensembles


ONE of the bonuses of the burgeoning of smaller ensembles or “chorales” recently has been an enthusiasm for bringing to the fore and championing composers of the 15th to early 18th centuries — medieval to Baroque — whose works, to a degree neglected, have proved to be on a par with the better-known names of those eras. Often they go on to record these, bringing them to a wide audience.

Robert Hollingworth’s rediscovery and editing of a revealing 40-part anthem by Alessandro Striggio (c.1536-92) is a classic example; or The Sixteen’s and others’ perambulations of the 15th-century Eton Choirbook, great names like Power or Léonin; East European masters, especially Polish; or the wondrous, short-lived, but surprisingly prolific John Browne (1453-c.1500), whom Hereford recently brought into a cathedral service.

But there are many others beavering away. Andrew Carwood, followed by others, shone a torch on Fayrfax and Cornyshe; Peter Philips’s Tallis Scholars, who recorded a whole disc of Browne, have long spoken up for Robert White and Robert Parsons, and taken their repertoire widely across Japan; who else has energised works by Bauldeweyn? Birmingham has dazzled with Ex Cathedra’s unearthing of a wealth of Central or South American composers. Scottish ensembles have done a similar service for the great Robert Carver, and more.

I have stumbled across three such rewarding groups of late. One of the most recent, buoyantly youthful ensembles is Ensemble Molière, wisely aired as the shining final concert of an Early Music series presented by the magnificent Leamington Music, founded, cast and headed by Richard Philips. Their concerts — in St Mary’s Collegiate Church — were shrewdly chosen to bring to light rich treasures.

“The King’s Playlist” presented a feast of essentially 17th-century gems, setting Couperin and Charpentier alongside some rarities, as freshly arranged by their fleet harpsichordist, Satoko Doi-Luck. A hefty suite “For the King’s Suppers” by Delalande (also a speciality of Ex Cathedra) yielded vivid instrumental semi-choruses (period violin and flute supported by bassoon); there was de Cambefort (not the better-known Cambert); Marais (alternating marvellously eloquent strings and keyboard, then bassoon solo with cello); and the vitalising master of them all, Lully.

Still in the Midlands, slightly patronisingly, I was not ready for the unremitting excellence, in every respect, of Northampton’s Swarbrick Singers. They were placed at an impressively high level of such groups by their offering at the early-medieval St Andrew’s, Old: the precision and clarity that they brought to Robert Ramsey — another Renaissance Scot — or particularly when divided into double choir for Scheidt, Jacob Handl, and some birdsong-like Buxtehude, each part confidently holding its own line, with expression verging on the superb, consonants mostly strong, and distinctive balancing evinced by their Director, Ian Clarke (in a pleasing, immediate acoustic), abetted by a flood of evocative pacings, including well-judged rubato. The unremitting polish owed much to scrupulous preparation. This also showed in their intelligent dynamic variety — in vibrant Schütz near the end, for instance: this was a choir to note and praise.

Salomone Rossi, a Jewish composer of the same generation as Monteverdi, has never, so far as I recall, been championed in England in the manner achieved by the ensemble Vache Baroque. The passion with which these performers, directed by Jonathan Darbourne, were encouraged to approach his music, one of a series drawing wholly new attention to this significant figure, could not been more replete. Rossi, himself a fine violinist, was a leader in several genres, above all the trio sonata. Faultless intonation, crucial energy, and subtle shifts in pace and dynamic all picked out this ensemble as one of the most impressive relatively new groups to emerge.

Indeed, they have been hailed as such. Their concert in Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, in London, was not just instructive: it dazzled, revealed some wonders of chromaticism teased out with rich expressiveness, and confirmed Rossi, almost unknown here, as a highly significant figure of his pioneering era. It is this kind of discovery, and the boldness to promote it, that picks out a group such as Vache as a valuable and inventive addition to the Baroque ensembles of today. Everything about them, not least the direction, shone.

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