REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Joglaresa, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 6

Joglaresa: “Slightly anarchic flavour”

THE founder and guiding light of Joglaresa, Belinda Sykes, died only three weeks before this event after a long illness.

But those she has left behind have maintained the big-hearted energy that she brought to everything she did with the group – and they incorporated no fewer than five of her compositions and arrangements into this lovely seasonal programme, entitled ‘Lullay Myn Lykyng’. So she was all but present here.

All seven of the performers sang and all but two of them played at least one instrument as well. Their singing style was distinctive: straight tone without vibrato, slightly nasal, very much what you might expect from dyed-in-the-wool folk singers.

Thus whether they were dealing with a mediaeval Spanish cantiga (love-poem) or Gustav Holst’s Lullay Myn Lykyng written 700 years later, the sound was very similar, with a certain flexibility of tempo. Not that either piece was ineffective. Quite the contrary.

The programme bounced around the centuries almost at random. So we had a setting of the Corpus Christi Carol by the modern American troubadour John Fleagle wedged between two traditional Shetland reels on one hand and a Belinda Sykes arrangement of a tune from Piae Cantiones (16th century) on the other.

It was a stimulating merry-go-round, and thoroughly good for shaking the audience out of the stupor of expectation. You simply never knew what was coming next.

Both the two Sykes compositions used 15th century English texts. Gabriel That Angel Bright was mildly macaronic – using a Latin refrain – and cast as a lament, chorally treated with percussion underlay. Her take on Lullay Myn Lykyng also had a mediaeval feel, although tinged with modernity. Both were strikingly effective and sung with notable determination.

But perhaps the most surprising piece of all was another cantiga attributed to Alfonso the Wise, filled with Spanish decorations in the voice, presumably influenced by Islamic music, which bordered on coloratura they were so ornate.

An anonymous French pastourelle (basically a romp involving shepherds and shepherdesses), given instrumentally, began with two fidels and ended in something like a full-blown ceilidh.

Even Woodward’s arrangement of Ding Dong Merrily harked back to its French origins (1588, the year of the Spanish Armada). It was a salutary reminder of just how old some of our Christmas music really is.

With its slightly anarchic flavour (there was, in truth, a little too much byplay between the performers to which the audience was not party), this programme was never less than stimulating. Belinda Sykes would have been proud.

Review by Martin Dreyer