York Early Music Christmas Festival: James Gilchrist and Matthew Wadsworth, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 10
THERE is nothing quite like a late-afternoon song-recital, especially when the singer is as intelligently persuasive as tenor James Gilchrist.
Add in the nimble fingers of Matthew Wadsworth, who is an equally dab hand as accompanist on lute, theorbo or guitar, and you have a recipe for delight.
In a programme divided equally between sacred and secular, they opened with Purcell and closed with Dowland, with a brief Christmas diversion and three Schubert lieder as the filling in the sandwich. It was tasty indeed.
Both performers sat, so this was more like a fireside chat, albeit with contrasting themes of ‘Divine Love and Earthly Passions’. Two settings by Purcell of poetry by William Fuller, an ardent royalist who became Bishop of Lincoln in 1667, found Gilchrist relishing their chromaticism, with his typically mobile torso lending emphasis.
Both songs, Evening Hymn and Lord, What Is Man?, have extended hallelujahs, bringing them to positive conclusions, which Gilchrist underlined here with almost chuckling delivery of their dotted rhythms. Between them, Pelham Humfrey’s extremely penitential A Hymn To God The Father was succulently remorseful. Wadsworth’s long-necked theorbo added pleasing detail.
A brief seasonal interlude came with Michael Praetorius’s sweetly-scented Christmas rose and the second of the plainsong Advent antiphons, O Adonai, a nice touch.
So to Schubert, where Wadsworth switched to a 19th century guitar, slimmer and less bulbous than the modern model, and thus more intimate. Schubert’s Ave Maria is not a setting of the ‘Hail Mary’ but a translation of Ellen’s prayer to the Virgin in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady Of The Lake, which others have fitted to the Latin words of the prayer.
Still, it’s a fine piece and Gilchrist had the legato to bring it off. He might have improved its mood still further had he kept more still, but he found an ideal pianissimo for its second stanza.
He followed it with the last song Schubert wrote, Die Taubenpost (Pigeon Post), which, as Gilchrist rightly pointed out, is quite devoid of the angst that riddles Winterreise. Contentment and peace of mind coloured his polished performance. There was also a clever blend of confidentiality and ecstasy in his treatment of Ständchen (Serenade).
Finally, we had four songs by Dowland and one by Campion, now with lute accompaniment. The first two celebrated lovers’ joys amid springtime frolics – a nice diversion – but the last three homed in on Dowland’s relish for melancholy. These suited Gilchrist to a tee.
If Flow, My Tears was slightly matter-of-fact, His Golden Locks – an astute setting of poetry by Henry Lea – became an eloquent elegy on the fading charms of youth, and In Darkness, Let Me Dwell (with the lights lowered) distilled the essence of despair.
An odd ending, perhaps, but Dowland (and Gilchrist too) at the peak of his powers. Wadsworth was with him every step of the way. A pleasing, and thought-provoking, entertainment.
YORK Early Music Christmas Festival will be back in full swing this season, combining live concerts with a later online programme of festive music.
Running from December 3 to 11, then on demand from December 17 to January 14, the festival promises Christmas carols, candlelight, Vivaldi, Corelli, Bach, Handel, Purcell, Schubert, mulled wine, mince pies and Mexican melodies.
In the medieval St Margaret’s Church, in Walmgate, this celebration of Advent and the festive season will go ahead with Covid safety measures in place: seating will be socially distanced and proof of two Covid vaccinations or a negative Lateral Flow Test will be required. “No proof, no admission,” will be the strict policy, and the wearing of masks will be actively encouraged too.
To adapt to the prevailing circumstances and smaller capacities, five of the festive programmes will be performed twice, at 5.30pm and the more conventional 7.45pm.
“The philosophy is short concerts, no interval, and still selling to a limited capacity, so that people feel more comfortable because there’s more room and they don’t have to spend too much time together indoors in winter,” says festival director Delma Tomlin.
“In dark December, earlier evening concerts will appeal to a certain demographic, who can get home in good time for supper. It’s all about understanding people’s wishes as we return to going to concerts, and it’s much more practical to do two concerts in an evening, as we don’t have the same level of visitors for afternoon concerts.”
Looking forward to a festival with plenty of concerts sold out already, Delma says: “Christmas in most circles is a time for celebrations, a time of fanfare, ceremony and feasting. At the heart of the celebrations is a very human story which is often so beautifully illustrated through music, and we invite you to find peace, serenity, alongside mince pies and mulled wine at this busy time – and to enjoy some really fabulous music too!
“There is 500 years’ worth of glorious Advent, Christmas and winter music to go at, and frankly we all need a bit of cheering up right now.”
Opening festival proceedings will be an ever innovative, entertaining and engaging British ensemble, the Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, whose 5.30pm and 7.45pm performances of A Baroque Christmas on December 3 have both sold out. Concertos by Corelli, Manfredini, Torelli and Vivaldi will be complemented by Handel’s Pastorelle from Messiah and works by D Scarlatti and JS Bach.
Replacing Ensemble Caladrius’s O Magum Mysterium in the festival’s first NCEM Platform Artists’ concert on December 4 at 12.15pm will be French ensemble La Palatine, presenting Il n’y a pas d’amour heureux.
The raw emotions of love, betrayal, disenchantment and loss infuse the songs and opera arias of the early baroque in Italy, as explored by Marie Theoleyre, soprano, Noemie Lenhof, viola da gamba, Jeremy Nastasi, theorbo and baroque guitar, and Guillaume Haldenwang, harpsichord, in the works of Tarquinio Merula of Cremona, Domenico Mazzocchi in Rome and Claudio Moneteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna.
Travelling further afield, the festival takes a Mexican theme with Siglo de Oro’s Christmas In Puebla, a sold-out 6.30pm concert on December 4 that evokes the spirit of the warm breezes of South America, on Christmas Eve in Puebla Cathedral, blending dance-infused villancicos with traditional 17th century carols under the direction of Patrick Allies.
“This will be Siglo de Oro’s York debut,” says Delma. “Somewhat delayed, though, because they were supposed to be here two years ago.”
York favourites The Gesualdo Six return to the NCEM once more, this time with In Winter’s House, on December 5 at 5.30pm (sold out) and 7.45pm (tickets still available). Director Owain Park’s programme of music evokes a sense of mystery and joy, from works of the Tudor church to the 21st century by Judith Bingham, Joanna Marsh and Sally Beamish. “They will be wallowing in the deliciousness of both old and new music,” says Delma
The second NCEM Platform Artists’ concert, supported by the NCEM’s Creative Europe-funded programme EEEmerging, will be given by Prisma, a German ensemble comprising Franciska Anna Hadju, violin, Elisabeth Champolion, recorder, Alon Sariel, lute, and David Budai, viola da gamba, on December 7 at 5.30pm and 7.45pm. “They’re so much fun, so cheerful, and a very delightful group to welcome at Christmas,” says Delma.
Their programme, A Baroque Christmas, will be wrapped around baroque trio sonatas and dances, inviting the audience to rediscover Christmas songs by Castello and Fantana in fresh arrangements laced with joie de vivre.
Pocket Sinfonia’s Mozart And A Miracle concert, on December 9 at 5.30pm and 7.45pm, aims to re-create the atmosphere of 19th century living-room parties, where the intimacy of a chamber music performance was applied to orchestral-scale pieces.
Rosie Bowker, flute, Eleanor Corr, violin, Thomas Isaac, cello, and Emil Duncumb, piano and fortepiano, will be taking a journey through the dark wintery nights of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, onwards to the Christmas cheer of Mozart’s Sleigh Ride, in a new Pocket Sinfonia transcription, and Haydn’s Miracle Symphony No. 102 in B flat.
“Two members of the ensemble are from Norway, with dual nationality, and they’ll be making their debut here after I saw them on Zoom in a showcase they did in Brussels last year, and booked them on the strength of that,” says Delma.
Tenor James Gilchrist and lutenist Matthew Wadsworth reflect on love, passion and loss in Divine Love And Earthly Passions on December 10 at 5.30pm and 7.45pm, as they open with Purcell’s Evening Hymn and close with Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me Dwell on their thoughtful, sometimes melancholic, always engaging journey, with a sprinkling of Schubert and Praetorius as a taster of the festivities to come.
In A Contest Of Equals, on December 11 at 1pm, Bojan Cicic, violin, Gawain Glenton, cornetto, and Silas Wellston, organ, celebrate the late-16th and 17th century rivalry between the violin, the irreverent newcomer, and the cornetto, the older, aristocratic instrument, with music from Italy, Germany and Spain. Who will emerge victorious? Let Battaglia! commence.
The 2021 live festival concludes on December 11 with Yorkshire Bach Choir’s 7pm to 10pm performance of J S Bach’s Mass in B minor with the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists under conductor Peter Seymour. On solo duty will be Bethany Seymour, soprano, Helen Charlston, alto, Matthew Long, tenor, and Johnny Herford, bass.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to hear the Yorkshire Bach Choir again at the festival after two years, and especially to hear them doing the Bach mass,” says Delma. “It’s such a cracking piece.”
In addition, but separate from the festival, Joglaresa will be presenting Lullay Myn Lykynge, a stand-alone concert on Monday, December 6 at 5.30pm and 7.45pm, complemented by a live-streaming of the second performance.
Their programme will offer encouragement to celebrate Yule effervescently and chase out the chill from the Celtic fringes of Europe with traditional carols, lullabies, dance tunes and wassails from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. Armed with fidel, harp, bells, bagpipes and voices, Joglaresa will be ringing in Christmas and the New Year.
Tickets remain available for concerts unless stated otherwise at ncem.co.uk/york-early-music-christmas-festival/ and on 01904 658338.
IN the York Christmas Box Set, seven concerts from the 2021 York Early Music Christmas Festival will be available to watch online throughout the festive season.
Billed as “the perfect festive gift for music lovers” by the National Centre for Early Music, the £40 filmed concert package can be viewed on demand from 10am on December 17 to Friday, January 14.
First prompted by pandemic restrictions, the NCEM continues to share many of its festival highlights online, reaching ever-growing audiences from as far away as Japan and Australia.
The seven festival highlights in the box set are:
Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment, performing A Baroque Christmas;
Siglo de Oro, celebrating Christmas with dance-infused 17th century Mexican music;
The Gesualdo Six, returning to York after sold-out summer concerts to present In Winter’s House, Christmas music spanning many decades;
EEEmerging artistsPrisma, bringing Baroque joy with fresh arrangements of Christmas music;
Pocket Sinfonia, conjuring up the atmosphere of 19th century living-room parties with Mozart and more;
Festival favourites James Gilchrist & Matthew Wadsworth, performing Divine Love And Earthly Passions, featuring music by Purcell, Schubert and Dowland;
Battaglia, the combative trio of Bojan Čičić, Gawain Glenton and Silas Wollston, staging an exuberant musical battle between the violin and cornetto, once considered rival instruments.
Festival director Delma Tomlin says: “We’re delighted to be able to bring you this fabulous array of concerts online with this wonderful Christmas Box Set, filmed at our home of St Margaret’s Church during this year York Early Music Christmas Festival.
“We’re continuing to share our music online, so those of you who aren’t able to join us in York will be able to enjoy this fabulous feast of music in the comfort of your own homes – and it’s the perfect gift to share with family and friends.
“We hope that our online friends will enjoy seeing the beautiful surroundings of our medieval home and we hope to welcome them in person in the future.”
For tickets and more information, go to: ncem.co.uk/events/york-christmas-at-home-festival-pass/
THE National Centre for Early Music, York, has received a “generous grant” from the City of York Council’s Additional Restrictions Grant fund to help with the cost of staging this year’s York Early Music Christmas Festival.
This discretionary scheme supports York businesses affected by the lockdowns but not eligible for Lockdown Restrictions Grant and the Local Restrictions Support Grant (Closed Businesses) payments, thereby helping businesses that, while not legally required to close, were still severely impacted by Covid-19 restrictions.
In keeping with other arts organisations, the NCEM was forced to close its doors for several months but it continued to stage concerts and festivals digitally, sharing specially commissioned concerts all over the world, reaching audiences from as far away as Australia, Japan and the United States.
The return of a week-long York Early Music Christmas Festival from December 3 is one of the NCEM’S most important and high-profile events, attracting not only York residents but also audiences from all over Britain and beyond.
The NCEM, at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, is fully open once more, staging its year-round programme of concerts, not only Early Music, but jazz, folk and world music too.
NCEM director Delma Tomlin says: “We’re delighted to receive this generous grant from the City of York Council. Financial help from the ARG Fund ensures that we can stage the annual York Early Music Christmas Festival, a week of music celebration featuring a line-up of world-class performers.
“The festival is hugely popular with residents and attracts visitors from all over the UK, who make it part of their Christmas calendar. It’s wonderful to see the city coming back to life and we’re very proud to be able to be part of its fabulous programme of events celebrating the festive season. We can’t wait to welcome audiences back to our beautiful home of St Margaret’s Church.”
Councillor Derek Smalley, executive member for culture, leisure and communities, says: “York’s live music scene is a crucial and vibrant part of the city’s cultural offer. We recognise the ongoing challenges venues are facing as we ease out of the national restrictions and people get used to a new ‘normal’.
“We are committed to working with the sector to provide all possible support, including promoting the great experiences on our doorstep thanks to the many brilliant live music venues across our city.”
CALLING young ensembles of the world: the deadline for applications for next year’s York International Young Artists Competition is January 14 2022.
This prestigious longstanding competition for young ensembles will take place on Saturday, July 16 at the National Centre for Early Music as part of next summer’s York Early Music Festival.
The first prize includes a recording contract from Linn Records: a £1,000 prize; opportunities to work with BBC Radio 3 and a concert at the 2023 York Early Music Festival.
Other prizes include: the Friends of York Early Music Festival Prize; the Cambridge Early Music Prize and a prize for The Most Promising Young Artist/s endowed by the EUBO Development Trust.
The competition is open to Early Music ensembles with a minimum of three members; ensembles must have an average age of 33 years or under, with a maximum age of 37 years for individuals.
The ensembles must demonstrate historically informed performance practice and play repertory from any period, spanning the Middle Ages to the 19th century, on period instruments.
The competition is recognised as a major international platform for emerging talent in the world of early music. Attracting musicians from all over the globe, it offers a boost to young professional careers with opportunities for performance, recording and broadcasting and international exposure.
NCEM director Delma Tomlin says: “We are so pleased to be staging the 2022 competition, which brings together young musicians of the highest calibre from the UK and all over the world.
“This is one of highlights of the York Early Music Festival and we are always overwhelmed by the superb quality of the performances from these fantastically talented young artists. The competition provides a joyous, optimistic finale to our festival and we are delighted to be able give these rising stars many exciting future opportunities.”
2019 winners L’Apothéose say: “Winning the York competition was an extremely important and prestigious recognition of our career, and taking part was an immensely joyful experience.”
Fellow former winners Sollazzo Ensemble enthuse: “Winning the competition was a turning point in our career, bringing us to the attention of both a wider audience and professionals throughout Europe.”
Details of how to apply can be found at yorkcomp.ncem.co.uk; alternatively, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
North York Moors Chamber Music Festival: Turn Of A Century/Through War, Welburn Manor Marquee, August 16 and 17
FESTIVALS would not be festive if they delivered only run-of-the-mill fare. From time to time, as here, it is absolutely right that they plough new furrows.
Turn Of A Century looked at two works written by composers before they had become famous, Richard Strauss and Béla Bartók.
Strauss was a mere 20 years old when he finished his Piano Quartet in C minor (1884). It is the work of a young man striving hard to make an impression but by and large falling short.
Neither of the opening themes has much character and sound like Brahms on an off day. The Scherzo is even more bombastic while its trio has a pallid melody that lacks definition. The Andante might have been written by Schumann, but with a whiff of the salon about it. The finale uses motifs in a series of sequences that are ultimately repetitious. In short, not exactly vintage Strauss.
Daniel Lebhardt, no doubt in an effort to ‘help’ the music, brought considerable aggression to the piano role; too many of his fortes were fortissimo or louder. It put the strings at a disadvantage, although they – Charlotte Scott, Meghan Cassidy and Alice Neary – dug in and answered as best they could. There was a brief oasis of calm near the end, but otherwise it was a harum-scarum affair, good to hear once, but no more than that.
Bartók’s youth was altogether more disciplined, on the evidence of his Piano Quintet in C, composed at the age of 23. Here there were genuine precursors of his mature style, with strongly Hungarian flavours throughout.
The richly Romantic opening contrasts a lovely viola melody – played here by Timothy Ridout – with a nervy, urgent dance, which returns even more balletically in the coda. An ethnic-sounding Scherzo is paired with a Viennese-style trio, before the menacing opening of a slow movement that turns quite lush and ends with strings muted.
The finale, following immediately, starts in folk-dance style very slowly, gathering pace wittily. There are some spaces for ruminative solos, but eventually a fugal finale boils up from the piano – crisply delivered by Katya Apekisheva, on peerless form at this festival.
But all the players deserve praise for their devotion to a work not often heard: violinists Maria Włoszczowska and Vicky Sayles and cellist Jamie Walton, along with Ridout and Apekisheva as mentioned. Their teamwork was exceptional.
The following evening’s Through War heralded an English programme that required the services of tenor James Gilchrist and a dozen players. The undoubted highlight was Gilchrist in On Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams’s evocative setting of six poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, with piano quintet accompaniment.
What really made this performance special was his recitation of the poems in advance, loaded with emotional nuance. It made one appreciate even more the composer’s special feel for the English language, its intonation and rhythm.
As always, Gilchrist brought intensity to every phrase, delving well below the surface of the poetry. His contrast between living and dead voices in Is My Team Ploughing? reached a spine-chilling conclusion on “whose”.
His change of tone in Bredon Hill was telling. But he was matched every step of the way by the strings, whose orchestral sweep extended from the opening tremolos – “On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble” – to the muted ending of Clun. Alasdair Beatson’s piano rippled effectively, while underlining accents. They all got carried away at the top of Bredon Hill, where Gilchrist was briefly submerged. But it was a memorable account.
We had opened with York Bowen’s Clarinet Sonata, with Matthew Hunt dancing light-footedly through the roulades of the title role and Beatson’s piano in tight support. Hunt later cleverly blended his virtuoso instincts into the ensemble in Howells’s Rhapsodic Quintet, where he was joined by a passionate string quartet led by Charlotte Scott.
The tension of the opening slowly dissipated into a lyrical mood that led coolly to a lovely conclusion. The score sounded freshly-minted, beautifully integrated – and thoroughly English.
The Jubilee Quartet, with David Adams bravely stepping into their injured leader’s shows, revealed its versatility in Elgar’s String Quartet. Adams is widely experienced, currently concertmaster with the orchestra of Welsh National Opera and incidentally husband of the cellist Alice Neary (who played in the Howells).
Nevertheless, the voices took time to settle in an opening that was more calculated than spontaneous. Adams really found his wings in the central movement, guiding his charges into a nicely controlled ending. Then the quartet reached persuasive heights in a finale that was both rhythmically alert and bouncing with energy. The best had been kept to last.
Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 4: James Gilchrist / Finale, Leeds Town Hall, 20/6/2021
A PARTICULARLY well-structured programme, entitled O Solitude, occurred at lunchtime on the final day, with tenor James Gilchrist and his piano-partner of more than two decades, Anna Tillbrook.
Using Purcell’s eponymous song as his springboard, he then embarked on Schubert’s Einsamkeit, three of Barber’s Hermit Songs and a cycle Gilchrist had commissioned in 2017 from Jonathan Dove, Under Alter’d Skies.
During the Purcell, given in Britten’s realisation, we could only marvel at the range of vocal invention the composer achieved in no less than 28 repetitions of a ground bass. Gilchrist positively revelled in its drooping intervals, penetrating the bitter-sweet pleasures of the Katherine Philips poem (itself a translation from Marc-Antoine de Gérard).
It cannot be emphasized enough that the Schubert is his earliest song-cycle (1818), being six poems by Mayrhofer tagged together on the model of Beethoven’s An Die Ferne Geliebte, which was written two years earlier. The poetry outlines a life-cycle, beginning and ending with a wish for solitude, after progressing through a desire for activity, good fellowship, bliss and gloom in turn.
Gilchrist brought to it his own special brand of urgency, sometimes bordering on missionary zeal, in which he contrasted the various moods with an underlying yearning for nature. Thus the rat-race was tinged with regret. Even the central waltz dissolved into rueful recitative. Tilbrook’s fine support peaked in the militaristic regions of the ‘rapture’ section. It was a splendid account of a work that is seriously underperformed.
He chose three of Barber’s ten Hermit Songs, which are settings of early mediaeval poems in modern translations. Their spare harmonies certainly speak of a less complicated era, but heard in Schubert’s wake they lacked a certain humanity. The Monk And His Cat conjured the warmest response.
Jonathan Dove selected seven cantos (out of 133) from Tennyson’s In Memoriam for his cycle Under Alter’d Skies. They deal with the solitude after a close friendship has ended, in Tennyson’s case after the early death of his close friend Arthur Hallam. Dove handles this tricky task with admirable composure and Gilchrist at first suppressed his natural enthusiasm to reflect the poet’s inner turmoil.
Change came in Tonight The Winds Begin To Rise, where the piano’s moto perpetuo was reflected in the tenor’s mounting urgency, and a ‘gleam of solace’ broke through in the upward-rushing phrases of the following song, With Weary Steps. After a return of disillusion and an ironic peace, Dove (with Tennyson) finally detects balm in nature, echoing Mayrhofer, which was pictured in a rising tide of emotion from both performers. Dove’s cycle is well worth the love that this duo lavished on it.
The whole of this programme, including the Barber cycle in its entirety, was issued only last summer on the Chandos label. On this evidence, it’s a must-buy.
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THE closing recital was a pot-pourri devised and performed by soprano Carolyn Sampson, baritone Roderick Williams and pianist and festival director Joseph Middleton. Here were songs traditionally reserved for a female voice sung by a male, and vice versa. Apart from some other musical byplay, we had a new commission by Leeds Lieder from Hannah Kendall. Finally, the audience was given a list of three dozen songs, some in German, others in English, and allowed to choose what should be sung.
Sampson opened up with two songs from Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin – normally male territory, of course. She loved it and so did we. In ‘Mein’, she soared and so did the piano. She also produced a magical ending to ‘Pause’. Getting his own back, Williams took two songs out of Schumann’s Frauenliebe Und–Leben with his tongue firmly in his cheek, enjoying every minute of it.
With gender politics now firmly on the menu, Hannah Kendall’s new work Rosalind set parts of five poems by Sabrina Mahfouz. The first-person narrator here seemed to veer between femaleness and maleness like a chameleon, reacting to outside influences – until at the end speaking boldly as a woman: “You do not get to dress me anymore”.
Kendall found a great deal more variety in her piano accompaniments than in her treatment of the voices, which was generally limited to slow-moving, ruminative lines that cannot have taxed these singers. It was hard not to feel that this was an opportunity if not wasted, at least under-exploited. But her 15-minute score fell easily on the ear and the texts emerged clearly.
The remainder of the evening relied on a roving microphone picking up viewpoints from the audience, before the brave decision to accept requests. All were accepted graciously, with Sampson excelling in Schumann’s Röselein and Williams making hay with York composer George Butterworth’s Loveliest Of Trees and Britten’s arrangement of The Foggy, Foggy Dew.
Middleton proved himself extremely versatile, as ever. The consistently high calibre of the performances made up for the improvisational nature of much of the proceedings.