REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen, NCEM, York, December 3

The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen poster for December 3’s York Early Music Christmas Festival concert

York Early Music Christmas Festival: The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen, National Centre for Early Music, York

IT did not take the festival long to find a proper Christmas theme. On this second evening, “To Bethlehem in haste!” was the banner proclaiming some unusual fare. Two brief anthems by the Czech composer Šimon Brixi and an anonymous English Messiah of 1720 – the bulk of the evening – were topped off by familiar Purcell.

The Harmonious Society consisted here of a quartet of singers and ten players, a string quintet with trumpet, flutes, oboe and keyboard. There was no conductor, except in the Purcell, which was led by the group’s bassist and director Robert Rawson. It was a happy experience, even if much of the music was less than completely satisfying.

Brixi, who operated during the first third of the 18th century, was the best known of a family of musicians in Prague. He was the first to use the Czech language in church music, where Latin was the norm.

An offertory with an alto aria at its centre, in Latin, was followed by a gradual in Czech, which somehow felt more authentically joyful about the holy birth than its predecessor had done. Perhaps Brixi was happier in the vernacular.

Neither, however, offered any threat to the greater names of the era. Nor did Messiah: A Christ-Mass Song, which is based on a libretto by the Oxford tutor Anthony Alsop, although its composer remains in decent anonymity. The score was presented to Durham Cathedral in 1720, the only clue to its date. Its value may lie in Charles Jennens, librettist of Handel’s Messiah (1742), having heard it in Oxford and then had ideas of his own.

After ‘borrowing’ its overture (from Corelli’s ‘Christmas’ concerto) – a not uncommon practice, which Handel regularly espoused – it deals with the Christmas story in two main scenes: the shepherds in the fields, who include the Arcadian archetypes Corydon and Lycidas, and the Magi with the subsequent gathering at the manger.

The bass soloist’s narration is closer to arioso than recitative. There are strong grounds for claiming this as the first English oratorio, with its mix of choruses, recitatives and arias.

The composer was clearly influenced by Venetian style, especially in the use of trumpet and oboe, and understood how to handle instruments. His/her writing for voices is less clever and treats them instrumentally, which means that there are few memorable melodies, apart from a jaunty “alternate pastoral for shepherd boys” in rhyming couplets given to soprano and alto.

Among its best moments was an early bass aria with trumpet obbligato (Will Russell), which was given zesty treatment by Edward Grint. The Magi were bass, alto and tenor respectively, with the latter’s aria notable for telling pauses and well handled by Nicholas Mulroy; all three then chorused joyfully.

The arias for Corydon and Lycidas were oddly allotted to the same singer, soprano Philippa Hyde, whose overall projection improved considerably when she actually faced her audience after the interval. The alto Ciara Hendrick, by comparison, brought real charisma to her diction.

The band clearly relished the score which, while unexceptionable, always displayed a certain charm. That said, it does not challenge Handel at any level. Purcell’s cantata Behold, I Bring You Glad Tidings brought us back to safer ground, if with only strings and organ in support, and received the respect it deserved.

Review by Martin Dreyer

York Early Music Christmas Festival continues until December 9; www.ncem/yemcf/

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Opera North in ‘eco-entertainment extravaganza’ Masque Of Might, Leeds Grand Theatre

Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous, Xavier Hetherington as Scrofulous and Matthew Brook as Sceptic with Chorus of Opera North members in Masque Of Might. All pictures: James Glossop

APART from Dido & Aeneas, Henry Purcell’s main contribution to drama lies in what Roger North was pleased to call “semi-operas”, no doubt with a slight sneer in his voice.

But there is plenty of drama, too, in his choral music, notably his odes for Queen Mary’s various birthdays and for St Cecilia’s Day and even – appropriately for Leeds – in The Yorkshire Feast Song of 1690.

These and more, including sacred music, provided the treasure-trove from which David Pountney cobbled together 44 musical extracts for Masque Of Might, a crazy extravaganza whose world premiere run he directs here.

Anna Dennis’s Witch in Opera North’s world premiere of Masque Of Might

There is no spoken text of any kind, merely what Pountney himself calls “creating a narrative by the law of zany juxtaposition”. In truth, Purcell’s semi-operas are not compellingly coherent either, rather the opposite. So this exercise has its justification. But it can only be understood as masque: searching for a narrative thread here is distracting, and ultimately self-defeating.

Fittingly for Opera North’s Green Season, Masque Of Might is described as an eco-entertainment. Its storyline, such as it is, subsists around dictatorship and ecology and their impact on one another. At its centre is a dictator, handily named Diktat, whose birth into a giant pram is celebrated by Tousel Blond and Strumpet Ginger, two countertenor sycophants (cue ‘Sound The Trumpet’ and ‘Come Ye Sons Of Art, Away’), and frowned on by the watching gods, Nebulous and Elena.

The latter becomes Diktat’s prime antagonist throughout. Several climate change activists are thrown into prison by an angry Diktat (‘Hear My Prayer, O Lord’), after he is warned of the earth’s declining health. One is murdered and Elena laments (‘The Plaint’ from The Fairy Queen).

Callum Thorpe as Diktat with the Masque of Might dancers at Leeds Grand Theatre

Act 2 sees Diktat at first displaying his machismo by killing a boar, but gradually the tide turns, as those who have praised Diktat now acknowledge the empty flattery that surrounds him. A series of nightmares forces Diktat to face up to nature’s cries (‘’Tis nature’s voice”) – melting glaciers, forest fires, a trembling earth – and to visit a fortune-teller for a vision of the future (Saul and the Witch of Endor).

Warned that he will forfeit his kingdom, his power crumbles and he is destroyed. Light returns and the earth’s recovery begins (‘Welcome, Welcome Glorious Morn’).

Mere narrative alongside a handful of the better-known Purcellian extracts omits episodes that see-saw between the faintly ludicrous and the deadly serious. These include slapstick clowns struggling with ironing boards; a huge sci-fi insect; a Putin look-alike puppet dangled by a Seer; a vision of Stalin as adviser in a caravan (imported from the same season’s Falstaff); death by electric chair and a chainsaw-wielding chorus.

Anna Dennis as Elena and Andri Björn Róbertsson as Nebulous in Opera North’s Masque Of Might

While Leslie Travers’s sets emphasise the value of the everyday, David Haneke’s video designs take us from circling planets to catastrophic natural events brought about by climate change and Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s kaleidoscopic costumes change moods and eras at will.

Callum Thorpe’s forthright bass exudes authority and gravitas as Diktat, a commanding presence and an admirable hate-figure. Anna Dennis’s chic soprano lends style to the otherwise under-written role of Elena and doubles usefully as the Witch. James Laing and James Hall pair well as the sycophants, although neither has quite the strength in their lower range so often demanded by Purcell from his countertenors.

Xavier Hetherington’s ringing tenor makes the most of his four roles, notably as Seer and Saul. Both Matthew Brook and Andri Björn Róbertsson offer strong baritone contributions in a variety of cameos.

Going green in Opera North’s Green Season: Chorus members in Masque Of Might

The chorus sings confidently and holds its own well in Denni Sayers’s lively choreography alongside several professional dancers, finishing as pompom-wielding cheerleaders. Harry Bicket’s expertise in earlier musics everywhere shines through his eager orchestra, whose momentum is untiring.

Although Huw Daniel is cited as editor of the musical numbers, David Pountney deserves the laurels for mounting this extraordinary show, which at the very least introduces us to parts of Purcell that others never reach. He sticks quite closely to the original texts but is not averse to making subtle alterations that fit his scenario, in a period literary style that essentially disguises their newness.

There is, for my money, not enough character-building outside that of Diktat and there is over-emphasis on baritone and countertenor voices. But as a highly imaginative revitalisation of masque, it deserves immense praise.

Further performances in Leeds until October 27, then on tour until November 16. Box office:

Review by Martin Dreyer, October 14

Jonny Aubrey-Bentley, left, Rose Ellen Lewis, Ruby Portus and Ben Yorke-Griffiths as the Masque of Might dancers in Opera North’s world premiere

Eboracum Baroque combine with brewery for rowdy Purcell And A Pint virtual gig

Eboracum Baroque: Not only here for the beer on Saturday

YORK ensemble Eboracum Baroque are teaming up with Calverley’s Brewery for a rowdy YouTube and Facebook concert on Saturday (20/3/2021) at 7pm.

“It’s called Purcell And A Pint and is a virtual 17th century pub gig with catches, folk tunes and broadside ballads with a bit of beer tasting in the interval too,” says director and trumpet player Chris Parsons.

“It should be good fun and we hope audiences will be able to sing along at home for some of the programme.”

Eboracum Baroque’s collaboration with the Cambridge brewers will transport Saturday’s audience back to the alehouses of 17th century England for a night of rowdy drinking songs, popular fiddle tunes and folk songs that would have been performed in taverns across the British Isles.

“Have your drinks at the ready and join us for a good sing-song,” says Chris. “We’re delighted to be joined by Calverley’s Brewery, who will present a beer-tasting interval, readying us for the pubs re-opening later this year.” 

Among the highlights of the The Purcell And A Pint programme will be I Gave Her Cakes And Ale, Your Hay It Is Mow’d from King Arthur and The Jovial Broom Man and other classic folk tunes of the 17th Century.

“Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was notorious for liking a trip to the pub,” says Chris. “One story about Purcell’s death goes that he was late home from a rather heavy night and his wife locked him out and he succumbed to the cold.

“His bawdy catches and well-known broadside ballads would have been popular tunes to sing when having a pint. The raucous surroundings overflowed with music, alcohol, sex, gossip, fights, fumes, shouting, singing, laughing, dancing…our performance won’t have all of those!”

Eboracum Baroque’s poster for Saturday’s virtual concert

Taking part in Saturday’s concert alongside Chris will be baritone John Holland Avery; tenors Nils Greenhow and Gareth Edmunds; violinist Kirsty Main; recorder player Miriam Monaghan; cellist Miri Nohl and harpsichordist Seb Gillot, with audio and video editing by David Sims.

Looking ahead, Eboracum Baroque are to host Story Orchestra: Four Seasons In One Day, an online project for primary schools launched by the National Centre for Early Music, York, with funding from East Riding Music Hub.

“We’re really excited to be collaborating with the NCEM,” says Chris of a project that is suitable both for pupils who are in school or those learning from home.

This specially created work, based on the book The Story Orchestra: Four Seasons In One Day, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle, revolves around a live-streamed performance broadcast from the NCEM’s home, at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, on Tuesday, March 23 at 2pm.

The performance will be available to download from and can be accessed to watch again until Friday, May 28, and it will be accompanied by a raft of resources and activities, such as arts, crafts, drawing and painting.

Purcell And A Pint will be premiered on and on March 20 from 7pm to 8.30pm. For online tickets, go to:  

Tickets for the March 23 livestream cost £15 for a standard ticket for the whole school, £10 for East Riding schools, and can be booked at:

York musicians Eboracum Baroque go virtual for Fairest Isle concert on January 23

Eboracum Baroque: Streamed concert on January 23 with Henry Purcell’s music to the fore

EBORACUM Baroque will return to the online platform on January 23 with Fairest Isle: Music from the 17th and 18th century England.

The 7pm streamed concert was recorded in October at King’s Ely, a school in Cambridgeshire, when the York ensemble was able to film with no Coronavirus lockdown in place.

Performing that autumn day were Elen Lloyd Roberts, soprano; Miriam Monaghan, recorder; Chris Parsons, trumpet; Miri Nohl, cello, and Laurence Lyndon Jones, harpsichord.

Founder Chris Parsons says: “We’re determined to keep going and provide support to young freelance musicians in these challenging times. We’re also very keen to continue to offer exciting new digital content for our audiences who we wish we could perform to in person.”

Looking forward to the January 23 stream, Chris says: “We’ll take the online audience back to 17th and 18th century England, featuring some of the great composers of the day, particularly Henry Purcell, who was held in such high regard at the time.

“The programme includes some of Purcell’s big hits from the London stage, productions that had never been seen in England until now – it must have been pretty amazing!

“Purcell’s stage works of the 1690s were huge spectacles with elaborate Italian stagecraft, and we’ve picked music from The Fairy Queen, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the patriotic King Arthur.”

What else? “Music and musicians from Europe flooded London at this time and Italianate music was very much in vogue,” says Chris. “So we’ll feature a virtuosic recorder concerto by Sammartini, who made his name in 18th century London, and a Vivaldi sonata, alongside British composers, including John Blow and an overture featuring the trumpet by William Croft.” 

Summing up that period of music-making, Chris says: “One of Ely’s famous sons, Oliver Cromwell, played a major part in shutting the theatres and not allowing concerts earlier on in the 17th century, so it was an amazing melting pot of music-making in London when Charles II returned to the throne, and for composers like Purcell an amazing place and time to be writing such brilliant music.”’

Taking concerts online amid the strictures of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a fruitful new avenue for Parsons and his fellow musicians. “Our virtual winter season was a success, when we streamed A Baroque Christmas, recorded at Wimpole Church and Wimpole Hall in our second home of Cambridge, on December 12.

“We feel incredibly lucky to have filmed the Fairest Isle concert back in October while we were able to be together, and we have some virtual projects in the pipeline for 2021.

“These include a 17th century pub concert – with beer tasting from a local brewer – coming up in February, which we hope will be an exciting online experience for our audience too.

“We’ll be embracing technology again for that one, recording parts individually and then sticking them all together. All being well, we also hope to film a concert in York in March but it’s hard to plan for the future.”

The Fairest Isle concert will be premiered on and at “We’re very keen to make our concerts accessible to all, so whether you are new to baroque music or a regular watcher of early music, we hope there is something for everyone,” says Chris.

“We introduce each piece with a background of the composer and the history of the piece to set the scene.

“So, on January 23, we invite you to sit back, relax and enjoy this varied and energetic programme from the comfort of your own home.”

The programme for Fairest Isle: Music from the 17th and 18th century England:

Hark The Echoing Air from The Fairy Queen,  Henry Purcell (1659 -1695); 

Recorder Concerto in F Major, Sammartini (1700 – 1775); 

I Allegro, II Siciliano, III Allegro Assai; 

Sweeter Than Roses from Pausanias, The Betrayer Of His Country, Henry Purcell; Overture from With Noise Of Cannon, William Croft (1678 – 1727); 

I Moderato, II Allegro, III Adagio, IV Allegro; 

Music For A While from Oedipus, Henry Purcell;

Cello Sonata in Bb Major, Antonio Vivaldi;

I Largo, II Allegro, III Largo, IV Allegro; 

Lovely Selina from The Princess Of Cleve, John Blow (1649 – 1708); 

Two movements from The Division Flute, Anon; 

I, Readings Ground, II, A Division On A Ground; 

Fairest Isle from King Arthur, Henry Purcell.

Did you know?

EBORACUM Baroque is an ensemble of young professional singers and instrumentalists, formed in 2012 by Chris Parsons at the University of York and the Royal College of Music, London.