Wednesday 21 July 2021

Encounters: York Early Music Festival with Tudor motets, Elizabethan viol music, baroque cantatas and the madrigal re-imagined

Encounters, this year's York Early Music Festival at the National Centre for Early Music

, this year's York Early Music Festival at the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM) took place both live and online. The festival's ten online events are available on NCEM's website until 13 August 2021, and I have been dipping into some of the delights on offer with The Gesualdo Six in English Motets, the Rose Consort of Viols in Elizabethan Encounters, Matthew Brook (bass-baritone) and Peter Seymour (harpsichord) in Amore traditore: Cantatas for bass and harpsichord, and The Monteverdi String Band and Hannah Ely (soprano) in The Madrigal Reimagined.

The Gesualdo Six have been spending lockdown learning new repertoire and for their programme English Motets they returned to the English repertoire from Tudor composers, music that they all grew up singing. The 200 years covered by the programme was a turbulent time, with composers such as Tallis and Byrd writing for both Catholic and Protestant monarchs with Tallis' works for the Edwardian Church virtually coming to define the new musico-religious style. 

It was a lovely programme, mixing the familiar and the unfamiliar, with small gems alongside large-scale pieces. Byrd and Tallis were central to the programme, we began with Tallis' Te lucis ante terminum and ended with Byrd's Laudate, pueri, Dominum, but there was also John Forest, Christopher Tye, Thomas Weelkes, Robert White and Thomas Tomkins. This is music that responds to intimacy of small scale vocal ensemble performance, particularly when viewed online, and to the ensemble's intelligent approach.

We stay with the Elizabethan's for the Rose Consort of Viols' programme based around Elizabeth part-books. The point of the programme, aptly indicated by its title Elizabethan Encounters, was the connectedness of the Elizabethan musical world, the way the partbooks include not just English composers but contemporary continental ones. Here was a wonderful array of motets, chansons and madrigals, often copied without their original texts, and all played with consumate style by the members of the Rose Consort of Viols. John Bryan's informative spoken introductions ensured that we gained insight into the background to the music, thus making an engaging programme all the more interesting.

Interestingly, one composer not well represented in Elizabethan sources is Josquin, but as this is his 500th anniversary year the group included his motet Domine ne in furore, which is intriguingly depicted in a English painting of 1560 by 'Master of the Countess of Warwick' depicting four children with one holding the bass part of Josquin's motet.

The bass Matthew Brook is someone we have often come across in concert, but this was the first time I had had chance to hear him in recital. With harpsichordist Peter Seymour he had assembled a programme based around two cantatas for bass and harpsichord, Bach's Amore traditore and Handel's Dalla guerra amorosa. Handel's piece is one of many such works that he wrote for patrons whilst in Italy, Bach's is the sole example of him writing a continuo cantata and this one was probably for his princely employer Köthen (for whom Bach did not have to write sacred music).

We also heard three more pieces of Bach, the recitative Ich habe genug and aria Schlummert ein, familiar from a cantata written in Leipzig in 1727, but the slightly different version performed was earlier, from 1725 and found in Anna Magdalena Bach's notebook. There was also a delightful aria from the Coffee Cantata, and in complete contrast Komm, süsses Kreuz from the St Matthew Passion.

Three arias from Handel's operas, Agrippina, Rinaldo and Imeneo ensured that the mood varied, created a fascinating journey between the two composers.

My final dip into the festival was to explore the world of the Italian madrigal. Oliver Webber and the Monteverdi String Band were joined by soprano Hannah Ely and lutenist Toby Carr for The Madrigal Re-imagined, which gave us five snapshots of the Italian Renaissance madrigal in its various forms as each generation discovered the genre anew. There was Monteverdi's Cruda amarilli alongside a setting of the same text by Johann Nauwach, a student of Heinrich Schütz; singer Giovanni Battista Bovicelli's ornamentations on a madrigal by Cipriani de Rore followed by Webber's own ornamentations on another De Rore madrigal emulating Bovicelli; music from Monteverdi's Il ballo dell'Ingrate; Webber's ornamentations of a madrigal by Palestrina exploring the style of Francesco Rognoni, and finally, a sequence from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

A key component of the programme was the selection of contemporary readings, some remarkably pointed, which gave a flavour of the way musicians thought about, and fought about, the madrigal. 

Soprano Hannah Ely sang some of the madrigals, whereas others were performed instrumentally. The result was a fascinating series of highlights of quite how flexible the form could be, and how later composers could build on and ornament the work of earlier. The highlight, for me however, had to be Ely's account of La Musica's solo from Orfeo.

There is still plenty to explore, the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments explored music for the trumpet marine (tromba marina), a curious two-metre tall string instrument which emulates a trumpet. Harpsichordists Steven Devine and Robin Bigwood perform music for two harpsichords by Johann Ludwig Krebs (one of JS Bach's students) and Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (JS Bach's eldest son), Rachel Podger presents her The Violin Speaks programme, lutenist Jacob Heringman explores transcriptions of Josquin des Prez, the University Baroque Ensemble explores music from the French and English Baroque, and Florilegium celebrates JS Bach with a programme of his chamber music.       

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