This year's Brighton Early Music Festival
Guts and Glory! – Spiritato! in Brighton Early Music Festival at St George’s Church, Kemp Town, on Friday 10 November 2016. Line-up: 5 natural trumpets, timpani; 2 violins, 2 violas (1 extra doubling both), 2 bass violins (early cellos), 1 Violone (early double bass), Dulcian (early bassoon), Theorbo (long-necked lute), Harpsichord/early organ.
Bold with their brass, filling the holes, pursuing another path in British early music reproduction and interpretation - Spiritato!
They returned to BREMF in a blare and ushered their enthusiastic audience into the war-strewn Central European 17th Century for a ‘tribute to the trumpeter’ while they picnicked and wined to the music. Needless to say the presence of brass and timpany in among the strings of Spiritato! uplifted and emboldened the listeners into giving a thorough ovation at the end of the evening.
The human ear has responded that invigorated way to trumpets throughout history and we realised from this attractive programme that it’s partly to trumpeters that armies from the 16th to 18th Centuries owed their victories and defeats in the cause of right and wrong.
We learned that before trumpeters became bannered ceremonial and pageantry performers in modern times, they were historically privileged people in battle. As well as vital auditory signallers in the service of procedure and tactics, they also heralded dialogue, as diplomatic heralds free to move across front lines to initiate talks between warring sides. High status was theirs, as observers and skilful diplomats during that act, strongly protected by guild and battlefield protocol.
Immediately, Spritato!’s five trumpeters took the stage and stood and delivered in heroic stance, long trumpet outheld in the right hand, with left hand sitting on left hip. As on horseback, the left hand holding the reins, which was explained by one of the five, William Russell, who as MC of the evening and programme notes writer, also apologised that grant funding precluded equine content.
If not horses, trumpeters Russell, Katie Hodges, Russell Gilmour, Gareth Hoddinott and Richard Thomas might persuade the Spiritato! bursar to stretch funds to special uniforms for them, but they looked amply imposing - and sounded so. Would a 17th-Century Katie Hodges have performed in male disguise? I dare Spiritato! to unearth (or invent) a matching legend to supplement an already colourful and revelatory narrative, graced in the brochure with a poem by a German field trumpeter describing his job.
Modern valved trumpets improved on ones with finger holes – in the relative comfort of which Spiritato! were accused of luxuriating by an early music purist in Marseilles. So they joined the French in this field and pulled away the rug by using unembellished tubes of brass to recreate a natural trumpet to challenge their intonation and embouchure, and increase their authenticity. Likewise our admiration and education, and our listening enjoyment of the occasional frailty that took us back in time.
So these five trumpets take Spiritato! along this new British path, which tours a number of less familiar composers. Their evening kicked off with some primal trumpet signals by the Dane, Magnus Thomsen, sounded from the St George’s galleries but from the start punctuated gently by some strings. The concert then took off, through the work of Viennese and Salzburgan court and church-employed composers from Austria, Moravia and Bohemia - Biber, Schmelzer and Vejvanovsky.
The 10 all-gut string players plus keyboard support soon made their own mark, not only with their obvious antiphonal role against the brass, but with the virtuosity of Hungarian leader Kinga Ujszászi in exuberant reflection of Biber’s personal violin prowess.
Inga Maria Klaucke occasionally switched sides between strings and brass (have Dulcian players a history of duplicity?) and in Biber’s Bataille for strings only, depicting of an army in and out of engagement, the players pictorially stamped their feet, viciously plucked to imitate gunshots, and pitched drunkenly. While trumpeters increased their reputational stock, that of musketeers here plummeted.
The composers skilfully contrasted and combined the opposing instrumental forces to show that these court trumpeters were nobly not all-conquering in their playing. And after a deeply-felt Schmelzer tribute to his dead Emperor, Ferdinand The Third, a new nationality suddenly stepped in with the piece that concluded the concert with a final lift. Antonio Bertali’s rather grander Sonata Sublationis gave us a hint of Gabrielian glories of the Venice just before his time.
AIA – Three Intermedi For A Living Planet. Brighton Early Music festival at St Bartholemew’s Church on Saturday 12 November 2016 at 3pm & 7.30pm (this review). Devisor and director Deborah Roberts.
Singers - BREMF Consort of Voices (dir, Roberts), Onde Sonore (Roberts & Christina Thaler sopranos; Natasha Stone alto, Matthew Pochin & Dominic Bevan tenors, Andrew Robinson bass), Lacock Scholars (dir Greg Skidmore), BREMF Community Choir (dir, Robinson) whose late member Andy Watson was the concert’s dedicatee. Other soloists: Dominic Bevan (Zephyrus), Duncan French (Lirindo), Agata Rybicka (Corilla), Elizabeth Kelly (Venus), Nara Clapperton (Cupid).
The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble (Gawain Glenton, Andrea Inghisciano, cornets; Stephanie Dyer, Muiguel Tanrtos Sevillano, Hilary Belsey, Andrew Harwood-White sackbuts) with Claire Williams organ, harpsichord, regal, Aileen Henry harp, Toby Carr chitarrone, Alison Kinder bass viol. Anonymous 2 Dance (Sebastian Blue Pin & Tom Shale-Coates). Laura Shipsey, yoga.
Film by Zen Grisdale, plus footage from Sid Duit & Oliver Martin. Lighting & screen projection: Pitch Black. Costumes: Gladrags Community Costumes Trust.
The signature event of BREMF 2016, whose theme was ‘Nature & Science, observation, discovery, invention, creation’ spawned this gigantic reverential offering from the Festival’s artistic co-director Deborah Roberts. It followed her seriously large and adventurous highlight of the 2015 Festival, the first surviving opera by a woman composer, The Rescue of Ruggerio from Alcina, staged at Hove’s Old Market.
Looking at the above cast . . . no, it did not lack only the kitchen sink: for each type of ensemble employed there was another was omitted. But the flood of the performing forces burst the banks of St Bart’s, forcing compromise from the audience of more than 400, the majority of whom who could not hope to see everything on show and resigned themselves to a 2½-hour experience of incomplete dimensions.
To deliver Roberts’ comprehensive undertaking to climax this 2016 Festival, by venerating Renaissance Music and positioning it as prelude then soundtrack to film that records Planet Earth and the Universe as we know it five centuries later, required an ideal venue that I doubt exists in this city, if indeed anywhere.
I sat in the sixth row with 14 more stretching back behind me, all unraked, trying to see 100 performers sitting at the same ground level at the top end of the nave. The temporary stage hosted some operatic action, but the sight to most people of mainly heads and shoulders diminished the further back in the church one sat. And there was some ballet in which any choreography on the floor of the stage defeated its object, and to be followed continually across the stage and back laid down an impossible task for most viewers.
The mindset became adjusted to seeing the lighting effects and the film on screen with the surtitles but resigned to missing a lot of action. But the deprivation carried the compensation of being present among a prolonged mass-audience commune with musical sound in a building and acoustic unparalleled in Europe.
The Prologue: The Emergence of Complexity was awe before shock. In darkness, The BREMF Consort of Voices, singing a capella behind the audience, slowly and inexorably built up Josquin’s 24-part canon Qui Habitat into an ecstasy of sound. The film was of earthly life in all its forms.
This set the scene for Intermedio 1, of Earth’s Centre as first the Living Core, with the sublimely mellow sound of brass cornetts and sackbuts in a Malvezzi sinfonia, then they with the Consort of Voices creating a massive sound with the Kyrie and Gloria of Brumel’s Earthquake Mass, to the dramatic spectacles of seismic activity and volcanic landforms. Then came The Underworld in an edited Act 3 of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, featuring all the choirs and instrumentalists.
And so the multi-forces continued, in various combinations, singers entering and exiting down the main aisle through the audience, and as well as the interval there were necessary pauses for breathing space between the three weighty main sections.
Intermedio 2 visited The Earth’s Surface, its scenery, landscapes and seasonal rebirth, and its gods and spirits – to madrigals and scenes from Marco de Gagliano’s pastoral opera La Flora. The Community Choir had fun as Pan and the Satyrs endlessly taunting and teasing a Cupid helplessly shorn of his bow and arrows by sun god Mercury’s mischievous theft. Then the delightful betrothal of Zephyrus to Chloris, with Chloris’ renaming by him as Flora, and with the vision of the forthcoming city to be named after her (Florence) and the presence of the all-embracing earth god, Gaia.
Filmically under-exploited was a nightfall sequence but unexpected, and more interesting than the ballet was Laura Shipsey’s picturesque interjected sequence of yoga positions to, this time, the exultantly virtuosic cornetts and sackbuts augmented in Cazzati’s Passacaglio and Ciaconna.
Intermedio 3’s elevation to The Skies and The Heavens looked to birds and skyscapes, dramatic weather, the spheres of our solar system, the Northern Lights and the Milky Way. Then the final climax, The Queen of Heaven, with Isaac’s Angeli archangeli, to the sight of ceiling art of the celestial company, and Giovanni Gabrieli’s Regina caeli with orbiting satellite footage of the earth’s upper atmosphere.
Yes, a massive concert, probably not to be repeated in its entirety. But Roberts has created a thoughtfully and integrally-constructed whole which was true to her concept, but with a passionate enthusiasm for a multi-media impact which broke the bounds of total presentational practicality. Yet for its sheer size, and the vividness of its film and musical content, it has already carved out its place in BREMF history.
Sound House: MAGICAL SOUNDS BRING HOME THE BACON
AN atmosphere of childlike wonder filled the beautiful galleried interior of St George's Church, Brighton, on Sunday (Nov 13).
"Divers tremblings and warblings of sounds" wove an invisible web over a rapt audience at the final concert of the 2016 Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF).
After actor Terence Wilton – playing Sir Francis Bacon, he of the "divers tremblings and warblings" – had made his final speech, the gathering exploded into a Last Night of the Proms-style stomp to show its appreciation.
"I can't think of a more fitting close to the festival," said BREMF joint artistic director Deborah Roberts.
Sound House, devised and directed by Clare Salaman of The Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments, encapsulated perfectly the festival's Nature and Science theme.
Her fellow Society musician Alison McGillivray explained how the five-strong ensemble had spent a week in Aldeburgh immersing themselves in Bacon's 17th-century experiments with sound.
"His experiments were unique for his time," she said. "He was the first person to interrogate the natural world of things like sound and the weather."
What made Sound House so special was the melding of the eponymous "strange and ancient instruments" with the dazzling array of sampled sounds triggered by composer Jon Nicholls via – as he put it – "that most traditional of early instruments, the MacBook Pro!".
Everything from bells and gently lapping water to gurgling pipes went into a magical mix of compositions old and new.
"Add electricity to Bacon's words on the nature of sound and how it travels, and you have the modern recording studio," said Nicholls.
An apt observation, indeed, when it just so happens that St George's Church fronts on to a Kemp Town street called Abbey Road.
Not least of Sound House's attractions was the engaging way Salaman, McGillivray and the other two acoustic musicians, Jean Kelly and Jon Banks, described their instruments to the audience.
They ranged from sweet-sounding harps, viols and santouri, a contemporary Greek version of the dulcimer, to Salaman's extraordinary tromba marina, a rasping, bowed instrument roughly the height of a double bass, but looking more like an emaciated grandfather clock.
Salaman sheepishly (no pun intended) admitted that 11 sheep had gone into the making of her instrument's thickly wound sheep-gut playing string.
The sheep might not agree, but it was a superb end to a festival packed with rare educational and musical delights.
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