REVIEW: The Telling – Christemas Past

The Telling - Clare Norburn, Ariane Prussner, Kaisa Pulkkinen with Hastings Early Music Festival projection
The Telling - Clare Norburn, Ariane Prussner, Kaisa Pulkkinen with Hastings Early Music Festival projection

Traditional carols from Finland, Spain, France, Germany and the earliest English Medieval Carols. At St Barnabas Church, Hove, Friday December 8, 2017 (7.30pm). Clare Norburn, soprano; Ariane Prussner, mezzo, hand drum and harp; Kaisa Pulkinnen, harp, recorder; Zoe Ross, reader.

In the history of music-making there has been surely been no greater fountain of inspiration than Christmas. And, Horatio, there is far more Christmas music than we will ever know. The Early Music revival of the 1970s has led to 40 years of investigation into the vaults and traditions. The worldwide delve back through time, from the Victoria era which spawned the carols we know by heart, has been exciting.

We know many tunes are forever lost but handed-on folk performing tradition and manuscript have yielded music, text and poetry which enables us to bring alive ancient Christmas merrymaking from secular toots as well as religious. Archives have enabled us not only to visualise and auralise, but re-enact festivities and ceremonies past, in radio programmes or in live performance, on instruments unearthed or reproduced, and in voices marking older British dialect and pronunciation as well as exploring foreign translations.

This Christmas I am seeking to bring to general notice alternative live professional musical presentations of experiences that capture secular expressions of seasonal joy as well as the religious.

Coming to Worthing with one evocative atmospheric winter offering is popular top innovative multi-guitarist Richard Durrant with folk fiddler Nick Pynn and singer Amy Kakoura. His touring Candlelit Christmas Concert again includes All Saints Church in Findon Valley’s Cissbury Drive on December 21 (7.30pm).

The Telling are an authentic international ensemble of fluid line-up, performing early music, specialising in medieval and presenting events that develop the familiar concert experience. To their body of Christmas songs and instrumental music, they have this year added poetry to their ‘Christemas Past’ programme they have been taking to Hastings, Hove the Stroud Green Festival at London’s Finsbury Park.

In Hove on a near-freezing evening, but candlelit, I watched The Telling open the door to their Christmas time capsule they bring to audiences annually. Their line-up this time comprised English soprano Clare Norburn, German mezzo Ariane Prussner, Finnish medieval harpist doubling recorder, Kaisa Pulkkinen, and debut-making Zoe Ross, an English reader.

All the song and carol texts were provided, a written introduction about carols and Medieval concentration on Advent themes set the scene, and Ross read poetry from contemporary back to the Middle Ages sometimes with almost bedside intimacy befitting a long winter’s night.

Sometimes, processional singing lifted the visual aspect away from the plinth-bound, statuesque placing of performers which weighs down conventional. This enabled sound to surround the audience, and singers to answer each other across the space - a simple but arresting addition to the atmosphere. The pace was always gentle, yet the captivation continuous, constantly renewed. Poems and harp or recorder instrumentals switched and varied the aural textures and sequence.

Two French items set the flavour: Veni Veni Emmanuel came from 13th century France, we learned, and Il Est Ne, le Divin Enfant followed, and later came a sweetly featherlight Patapan, from Burgundy. The finish arrived with words from a Mummer’s play, then the 14th century English salutation carol Nowell Nowell which, rather than being driven forward, as the Mediva version I have heard, instead with The Telling expressed more subtly the palpitating cross-rhythms of Gabriel’s message ecstatically received by the mother to be.

Ther Is No Rose (15th century English) is one of The Telling’s showpieces in vocal perfection, this time starkly in just two parts. From the priceless Piae Cantiones source book there was Gaudete and a Verbum Caro both from Finland, both already familiar, and on recorder Pulkkinen gave us another native melody, Heinilla harken Kaukalon.

There was a wassailing song, read by Ross, and also on the subject of sustenance the Catalan traditional El noi de la Mare amiably asked what food to bring to the manger. Prussner is a Spanish music specialist and Riu Riu Chiu the Kingfisher, boosted by two harps together, similarly showcases spirited southern European Christmas celebration.

Simplicity of utterance and timbre pervaded the evening, although from Germany, Bach was in there to intensify harmony with a chorale (O Jesulein Suss), and from the German Middle Ages, Maria durch ein durnwald ging described the pregnant Mary exploring a thorny forest in which roses opened into bloom as she passed by.

The more widely-known I Sing of a Maiden was a carol read as a poem – a welcome format that reacquaints us with verse already beautiful before musicians took it up.

This is a kind of concert every music lover should know about. It visits a fundamental Christmas world our modern society can never know. Prussner and the more animated Norburn, the two anchor members of The Telling, sing in duet with the expressive synchronicity of devoted sisters. The various instrumentalists alongside enrich the pleasure they give.

I am looking forward to Richard Durrant’s different look at the riches of the Christmas repertoire which in some cases we didn’t know was there.

Richard Amey