REVIEWS: The Brighton Early Music Festival

Richard Amey at the Brighton Early Music Festival

Brighton Early Music Festival: “Early Music Club Night – Cool Passion” – St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, Saturday 26th October

The six-worded title appears to use cool in its now widely-used hip sense of meaning ‘good.’ Brighton’s Early Music Festival markets itself in ways that put it in the leading pack, and it has survived to trail second only to York in this country’s festivals of its kind.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

It has many imaginatively shaped and presented events and Passion is its theme this year, though this event – the ninth of 22 in 19 days – was from one angle a taster for newcomers to early music, while from another it was a quietly glowing homage for those already its adherents.

It was hosted by one of its world superstars.

The wit and panache in the patter of Piers Adams − the pride of Lewes as probably the globe’s leading recorder virtuoso − partners his instrumental mastery and flair, all of which he demonstrates in his rocking, baroque-blasting band Red Priest. A week ahead of Red Priest’s sell-out gig at All Saints Hove with their new Handel In The Wind programme, Adams was MC as a late, master-stroke sign-up for this Early Music Club Night.

In his trademark black leather performing trousers I hazard might even function as pyjamas, there was no repressing his informative, matey yet authoritative introductions and interviewing of the five different international ensembles performing, and sometimes combining, at three different points around St Bart’s, the temple of BREMF, towering in height, cavernous in depth and resonance.

An audience upwards of 200 were seated in three blocks and also occupied the floor of the nave in various seated, lounging or lying positions, all rapt, engrossed, fascinated and ultimately transported by the sounds and sentiments of music all pre-Mozart.

Sublimely smooth were the four recorders of i flautist, all female, impishly described by Adams as the Spice Girls of the early music scene. At the end of their second spot, Adams reached into his jacket, whipped out the contents of his sopranino pocket and i flautisi, familiar by now with Adams’ tricks and audacity, kept admirable pace in accompanying at HS2 speed the concluding Badinerie from JS Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 2 in B minor.

Taking that same rostrum later came The Borromini String Quartet on period instrument replicas and playing the delightful Opus 1 Quartet of a gem of a composer few will have known called Hyacinthe Jadin. He was a guy and he died at 24 in 1800, the year before Beethoven’s 1st Symphony.

Later still on this stage came the delicious duo Flauguissimo of baroque flute and small 18th century guitar, playing some hyper-sensual Haydn and CPE Bach. And a while after them, Alison Kinder (bass viol) and Toby Carr (lute) were joined separately in some John Dowland by Esther Brazil (mezzo soprano) for Flow My Tears and Greg Skidmore (baritone) for In Darkness Let me Dwell.

Adams deserves a mention here for mischievously spotting the singer-songwriter kinship between the downcast Dowland and the laconic Leonard Cohen. Dowland certainly dominates the Great Elizabethan Songbook.

All these ensembles were quiet but with discreetly placed mics were audible anywhere within the St Bart’s comparatively vast echoing acreage and Skidmore, with an acute sense of ensemble, singing pianissimo and often softer than that, actually made time stand still for me.

Suddenly up on the organ gallery behind us all, the sackbut quartet Il Nuovo Chiaroscuro struck up to lend the unmistakeable regal nobility of the early trombone.

In front of the altar was an organ and harpsichord (Tom Foster the keyboardist) to accompany Brazil, Skidmore and Helen Kruger (baroque Violin) joining with Kinder or Poppy Walshaw (baroque viol) and with Carr on the theorbo − the giraffe of the lute family. From them we enjoyed a Monteverdi aria, and cantatas by Rameau and Bononcini.

All these acts alternated, switching the point of focus, and the grand finale, augmented by sackbuts, was from Heinrich Schutz with his aria Absalon My Son and his anthem Lord Open my Lips and my Mouth will show Forth your Praise.

And all praise to the Brighton Early Music Festival for its unceasing enterprise and for endlessly proving the bearer of ever new gifts in the form of glories from the Baroque, the Renaissance, the Tudor, and the other golden ages of pre-Classical music.

To come, Red Priest (November 1) will be returns only, but there is a feast of musical and historical exploration and celebration to come. I am loth to point up any of them as outstanding, this festival programme of 2013 is an outstanding one in the BREMF annals. The concluding St John Passion at this same venue on November 10 brings us to the opposite meaning of cool.

Richard Amey

Brighton Early Music Festival – Breaking The Rules, The Marian Consort, Celestial Sirens, Finbar Lynch; at St Bartholemew’s Church, Sunday November 3.

This is no ordinary specialist music festival. There is unusual innovative talent among its organisers and the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) has front-line creative performing artistes in the field among its driving force on its presentational front.

One such is soprano Clare Norburn, their co-artistic director, who is also a musicologist, writer and broadcaster. Her Breaking The Rules is an evening’s revelation about an Italian renaissance composer who violated the laws not only of music. And what an evening.

TV and stage actor Finbar Lynch portrayed Norburn’s scripted evening-long soliloguy as the noble-born minor prince Carlo Gesualdo living his final hour, and it was staged in the chancel of St Bartholemew’s Church with this whole massively cavernous building in almost total darkness.

Lighting effects accentuated pivotal junctures in the narrative. When his emotions burst their banks, words fail him and Gesualdo (Lynch) breaks off, his music takes over with its ever-startling harmonies and subdued volume.

He is spotlit amid his own enforced solitude in his castle, as he agonises, on his likely after-life fate and relives the traumas and excesses of a life made explosively difficult by his disturbed and arrogant temperament. By candlelight the mere six voices of The Marian Consort sing some of the greatest and most sublimely expressive vocal music, religious or secular, ever published.

Act 2 is begun by a procession of plainchanting nuns (the choir Celestial Sirens) who arrive up the aisle and, passing through, stop to sing the motet Vidi Speciosam by Rafaella Aleotti, the first composing nun to be published. Jadran Duncum’s theorbo is the sole accompanist, on a mere two items, the second being the only other non-Gesualdo inclusion, Luzzasco Luzzaschi’s madrigal for two sopranos Cor mio, deh non languire.

From Gesualdo we have Tenebrae responses, madrigals and motet plus fragments of other words interjected to underline points in the narrative or key phrases in the monologue.

With one Marian Consort voice per part, via the leviathan-like resonance of this outrageously huge building, the tortured and startling language of Gesualdo’s unparalled musical voice drifts and weaves intimately, enigmatically and sometimes tauntingly around the ears of an audience unable to read the words in their programme brochure.

Tonight the words in the music are not the point. Tonight is a different experience altogether. With no text to read and distract, with hands tied, especially if one knows little Latin, we are forced to focus entirely on the music and how it speaks from the mind of a murderer.

Gesualdo’s slaying of his first wife and lover when discovered in his own bed makes him world famous in music. Husbands have done likewise throughout history and the richest in his time did so unpunished by their blind-eye-turning society elders. Norburn tells us that Gesualdo paraded before his second wife his subsequent extra-marital carnal voracity during his second marriage. And with an ironical, sadistic streak of brutal misogyny which progressively heaped on him mountainous further guilt.

There is no escaping eternal fate now for one of music’s heroes, at whose altar, the radically pioneering likes of Stravinsky and Schoenberg worshipped and drew inspiration. No escape for we listeners, either, though almost blissfully so, as the evening cast a spell many will recall for years hence.

We reckon we can see inside composers’ heads when, for example, they are in love or betrayed, or in mourning. Other composers undoubtedly carried horrendous hidden secrets silently to their graves. Gesualdo was a monstrous exception and Norburn imaginatively, intuitively and perceptively leads us down into the darkest dungeon of his inner being.

Those audience members seated further back and unfortunately unable to see much of the action or performers at the head of the auditorium will not have been much deprived. For this event was as purely radio as a physical concert-drama can be. BBC Radio 3 is noted for its dramatisation of the richly rewarding psychological probing of great composers or other artistes by such as the playwright David Pownall.

Norburn has a little tidying up to do — there were only eight celestial bodies in Gesualdo’s pre-Pluto discovery age — and in this building the theorbo was largely inaudible. But on national radio is where you’ll probably hear Breaking The Rules next, and want to re-live what was another remarkable and triumphant BREMF occasion. Just ensure you turn the lights off.

Richard Amey