REVIEW: York Early Music Christmas Festival: Palisander, Mischief & Merriment, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 4, evening
THE latest lockdown ended just in time to allow York Early Music to open its Christmas festival before a real audience.
There were only about 30 of us, to be sure, seated at small tables in ones or twos, but what a difference over livestreaming. Best of all, it inspires the players. Palisander confessed that these two performances – there had been one in the afternoon – were their first for nine months. You would not have guessed.
The period of Advent, or preparation for Christmas, has lost much of its original intent. It was once a time of strict fasting – not a bad idea in these days of sedentary constraint – to be followed by a 12-day yuletide blowout of Mischief and Merriment, the title of this concert.
Palisander’s quartet of recorders ranged all over the Tudor and Stuart periods, with occasional sorties into traditional and modern repertory, an invigorating mix.
Recorders cover a vast rainbow of colours, from the pipsqueak garklein, barely six inches long with only three finger-holes, to the avuncular contrabass, which stands over six feet tall. The whole panoply was on display here.
Players changed instruments on the move, so that as many as ten different ones were heard in a single piece. Toes began to tap at once in dances by Susato and Arbeau, which prepared the ground for a lively quintet of English numbers, three by Antony Holborne, marked by subtle use of staccato.
Several carols were woven into the tapestry, most with tasty but idiomatic harmonies arranged by one of the group, Miriam Monaghan. They included the spring song from Piae Cantiones (1582), nowadays better known through Good King Wenceslas.
Most of the mischief and merriment in the Elizabethan court was organised by the Lord of Misrule. He would surely have selected Toby Young’s Recorder Revolution!, which was pleasingly anarchic and lots of fun. Similarly, a theatre suite, played in masks, reflected Stuart customs. All were given with enthusiasm and joie de vivre that were infectious.
I had not previously thought that an hour of nothing but recorders could be so entertaining. You live and learn.
Review by Martin Dreyer