Sunday 27 October 2013

Cool Passion: BREMF opening event

St Batholemew's Church, Brighton
This year's Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) opened with Cool Passion, what was billed as an Early Music Club Night, with 22 musicians including I Flautisti, the Borromini Quartet, the Little Baroque Company, Flauguissimo, Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro, mezzo-soprano Esther Brazil, baritone Greg Skidmore and bass viol player Alison Kinder gathered at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton on 26 October 2013. With Piers Adams of Red Priest as presenter, they performed two and half hours of music ranging from early Renaissance through to late 18th century. Highlights of the concert will be broadcast on the Early Music Show on Sunday 3 November on BBC Radio 3.

St Bartholomew's Church is a huge space and it was laid out with three different stages, one in front of the main altar on the chancel steps, one at the side of the nave and one on the balcony high up at the back of the church. Acts appeared in all three of the stages and this meant that the evening progressed fluidly, with no awkward gaps for re-setting stages. The audience sat informally in the nave space, most on chairs but some sitting on the floor. But that was as casual as it got, the audience was very attentive, there was little moving around and most people seemed to arrive in time for the 8pm start and stayed till the 10.40pm finish.

The aim of BREMF's club night events isn't just to present music in a more casual atmosphere, but also to give a platform for a wide range of young groups which the festivals supports and nurtures. Via the link-up with BBC Radio 3, many of the groups will get their first broadcast exposure. We were treated to some fascinating music and some inspiring performances from a range of fine young musicians.

We started with I Flautisti, the London Recorder Quartet (Danielle Jalowiecka, Jitka Konecna, Doris Lindner and Ilona Veselovska) a group which was founded when the performers were all at the Royal College of Music though now the members are based in London, the Czech Republic and Vienna. They opened with Ricercare Prima - Passamezzo antico from Four Instrumental Pieces by Diego Ortiz (1510 - 1571) a lovely dancing delight. This was followed by the anonymous La Spagna, a more sober work with some great divisions in the top recorder part. Pierre de la Rue's Ma bouche rit was quite busy, a subtle piece based on a cantus firmus. Finally the anonymous La quercia a jolly perky dance. The group played from the rear balcony, so we could her them well had to wait for their second set before we could see them properly.

Next, on the main stage, mezzo-soprano Esther Brazil sang Monteverdi's Dispressata regina from L'Incoronazione di Poppea accompanied by Tom Foster on harpsichord and Toby Carr on theorbo. Brazil has a lovely firm but rich voice and sang with a superb sense of line with lovely divisions and a nice sense of detail. A vivid and passionate performance, finely supported by Foster and Carr.

Then came the Borromini Quartet (James Toll, Naomi Burrell, Sam Kennedy and David Edmonds) performing on the side stage. They play on period instruments with gut strings and no vibrato and, in an interview with Piers Adams, James Toll said that they all shared the same rhetorical approach to playing. They performed the String Quartet Op.1 No.3 by Hyacinthe Jadin (1776 - 1800). Jadin was a French composer, from a French musical family. The start of his career as a composer coincided with the start of the French revolution and he died at the age of 24 from TB. His music is still little known. The four movement quartet had a Mozartian grace and charm with an interesting interplay between the instruments. The opening movement, Allegro Moderato, was interestingly plangent. The second is marked Menuet but it opened with an eerie unison passage for all the performers which contrasted with the flowing, elegant middle section. The slow and stately third movement Adatio was rather sober, but with some interesting instrumental interplay and the lively Polacca finale combined a busy texture with an appealing melodic felicity. Jadin's Op.1 quartets were dedicated to Haydn; written in 1795 they were published in 1796.

Back to the main stage for a performance of the cantata Thetis by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 - 1764). Baritone Greg Skidmore was accompanied by Helen Kruger (baroque violin), Tom Foster (harpsichord) and Alison Kinder (viola). Dating from between 1715 and 1720, the cantata tells how both Jupiter and Neptune competed for the love of the nymph Thetis, but she chose a mortal man for love. To show off Neptune blows winds whilst Jupiter throws thunder and lightening. Se we got a pair of rather spectacular arias before the final gentle dancing conclusion pointing a moral. Skidmore sang with a focused dark baritone voice and a firm sense of line. Technically apposite in the arias, he was nicely expressive in the recitative.

I Flautisti made their second appearance this time on the side stage so we were able to see the fine set of matched recorders they played on - same wood, same maker. First three piece by Antonio de Cabezon (1510 - 1566) Las Diferencias, Fuga al contrario, and Tiento X Primer Tonio. The first displaying fast flowing polyphony, the second gentler with a busy texture and the third livelier. They followed with two further pieces by Diego Ortiz, Ricercare Quarta - La Gamba and Ricercare Seconda - Passamezzo, delightful lively pieces. They were then joined by Piers Adams for a helter-skelter performance of the Badinerie from Bach Ouverture No. 2.

Back to the main stage for the Little Baroque Company, Nina Lejderman (soprano), Helen Kruger (baroque violin), Poppy Walshaw (baroque cello), Tom Foster (harpsichord) and Toby Carr (theorbo). They performed Giovanni Battista Bononcini's (1670 - 1747) cantata Alle sue pene intorno. Bononcini is perhaps best known in the UK as one of the other composers in competition to Handel at the Royal Academy. Bononcini fell out of favour however after passing one of Lotti's madrigals off as his own. His cantata Alle sue pene intorno deals with the passion of a woman scorned. Nina Lejderman sang with pure, straight sound combining a lovely expressive recitative with nicely flexible and flowing technique in the arias. Bononcini was skilled at writing approachable music and both the first and last arias were very touchingly plangent.

There followed a chance for violinist Helen Kruger to shine, with a performance of Heinrich Ignatz von Biber's (1644 - 1704) Sonata II in F major. Essentially a set of highly characterful variations each one seemingly more complex than the previous, the work finished with some fast string crossing and a sudden ending which had an air of comedy about it.

From the side stage came the duo Flaugissimo, Yu-Wei Hu (flute) and Johan Lofving (guitar) with a program of arrangements of late 18th century music for flute and guitar, a combination that was popular for domestic music making at the time. First came the minuetto from Fantasies and Preludes for Flute by Johann Joachim Quantz (1697 - 1773) full of delicate melody in the flute, and lots of notes. Quantz was resident at the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia, a flute player himself. Next the group's own arrangement of the Allegro from Johann Christoph Bach's (1735 - 1782) Sonata in G major for Pianoforte, Op.15 No.3 (JC Bach was known as the English Bach for his residency in London). A piece in the graceful galant style for which JC Bach was known. An arrangement of Haydn's song Hark what I tell to thee had similar charm. Finally they played the Flute Sonata in E minor H551, by CPE Bach (1714 - 1788) another galant piece for of civilised music making.

From the balcony came the sonorous sound of  Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro, a quartet of sackbuts played by Daniel Serafini, William Brown, Stephanie Dyer and Guy Morley. They played the sombre, impressive Paduana by Johann Hermann Schein (1586 - 163), and the sonorous Sancta mater istud agas, an adaptation of a motet by Francisco de Penalosa (c1470 - 1528).

From the side stage we had a trio of pieces by John Downland (1562 - 1626), who Piers Adams rather aptly described as the Leonard Cohen of his day. First Toby Carr had his moment in the spotlight playing the lovely lute solo, Lacrimae Pavan. Quiet, intimate music which came over surprisingly well in the large space of the church. Carr is taking part in the lute song masterclass being given by Emma Kirkby later in the festival. Greg Skimore sang In Darkness Let Me Dwell, accompanied by Carr and Alison Kinder on bass viol. An intimate moving performance but the resonance of Skidmore's voice combined with the bass viol rather overshadowed the lute. Finally in this group, Esther Brazil sang Flow my tears accompied by Carr and Kinder. A luminous, beautifully crafted and thoughtful performance, plangently moving.

Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro moved onto the main stage for two further works. Canzonato by Johan George Franz Braun (c1630 - c1675), a lively fanfare like piece with some interesting passing notes in the harmony and some nifty fast bits. Then an arrangement of a motet by Tomas Luis de Victoria (1585 - 1672), Tenebrae factae sung, full of rich dark textured polyphony.

Finally the various performers joined together for a pair of motetes by Schutz. First Greg Skidmore, the four sackbuts of Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro, Alison Kinder on bass viol, Toby Carr on theorbo and Tom Foster on organ performed Schutz's Fili mi Absalom. A profoundly moving work which combined Skidmore's fine baritone with the dark textures of the sackbuts, a piece full of fascinating chestnut coloured textures.

Then Skidmore and Esther Brazil were joined by two sackbuts from Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro, Helen Kruger on baroque violin, Alison Kinder on bass viol, Toby Carr on Theorbo and Tom Foster on organ in Schutz's Domine labia mea aperuit. Here Schutz created a lively and complex texture in the ritornelli, with the voices mainly accompanied by continue but he overlapped the two giving some nice contrasts.

The various items were introduced with panache and a nice line in puns by Piers Adams.

The evening was intended as a casual event with the audience moving around, but with the quietness of much of the music people tended to stay in place and I think an interval might have been helpful.

The concert provided an amazing showcase for some stunning performers. I look forward to hearing many of them again.

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