REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on James Gilchrist and Matthew Wadsworth, 10/12/21

James Gilchrist: “Intelligently persuasive”

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.

Review by Martin Dreyer

‘We all need cheering up,’ says director Delma as York Early Music Christmas Festival returns for live and online concerts

Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment: Opening the 2021 York Early Music Christmas Festival with two sold-out concerts on December 3

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.”

La Palatine: French songs of love, betrayal, disenchantment and loss on December 4

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.

Siglo de Oro: Mexican melodies

“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.

Pocket Sinfonia: Dark journey through wintery nights

“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.”

Joglaresa: Carols, lullabies, dance tunes and wassails

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;

Prisma: Baroque joy in the York Christmas Box Set

EEEmerging artists Prisma, 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/

“Financial help from the ARG Fund ensures that we can stage the annual York Early Music Christmas Festival,” says director Delma Tomlin

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.”

L’Apothéose in the grounds of the National Centre for Early Music, St Margaret’s Church, York, in 2019. Picture: Jim Poyner

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 yorkcomp@ncem.co.uk.

Review: York Early Music Festival Online, July 9, Iestyn Davies & Elizabeth Kenny; July 10, Matthew Wadsworth; Steven Devine; Richard Boothby

How it looked when watching from home: Lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and countertenor Iestyn Davies performing at the National Centre for Early Music, York, in Thursday’s live streamed concert

IF, like me, you enjoy the arts and sport, you will have rejoiced in a bumper week. First, we had the

Government giving an unprecedented £1.57 billion fillip to the arts, thereby drawing a graceless murmur of thanks from the generally Tory-hating lefties that populate the arts sector.

Then, the cricket season resumed, to the familiar sound of England wickets tumbling. Finally, one of the world’s top three early music festivals, has returned, albeit online and in much-shortened form.

But we must be grateful for small mercies these days. Here we had a bunch of stalwart pros who refused to roll over and succumb to a mere virus. All had travelled to York and recorded musical offerings on the theme of Method and Madness; eight events – three of them talks – over three days.

First out of the blocks, on July 9, was York’s own countertenor Iestyn Davies, partnered by lutenist Elizabeth Kenny, a world-class pairing if ever there were. Their programme was devoted to that master of melancholy, John Dowland. If you want to be modern about it, you can class melancholia as an aspect of mental health. The Elizabethans called it a disease but made light of it too.

Melancholy was something to be enjoyed, even revelled in, and not excluding self-pity. We all know the feeling. Melancholy has been the counterpart in English song – though not the same – to the German Sehnsucht (yearning). Think of all those aching pastorals lamenting the passing of rural idylls, most of which were figments of the imagination anyway. We all enjoy a little angst.

We need not explore the many facets of Dowland’s melancholic psyche any further. Here we were reminded – by a letter he wrote from Nuremberg in 1595 – of his early exile, separated from the country, the queen and the family he loved by having to earn a living abroad, because his Catholic faith disqualified him from acceptance at court. Davies read this and other illuminating texts, mainly of the period, but including Leo Tolstoy and Rose Tremain too, to amplify Dowland’s many moods.

The music was not without technical shortcomings, not by the performers, but the technology: pictures that moved jerkily and occasional breaks in the sound. But a CD would not have been more satisfying.

It was a joy to get back to seeing live performers revelling in their art. Davies delivered reams of easy, liquid tone that underlined Dowland’s incomparable skill as a songwriter. His words were not especially clear, even with a text to hand, but that may have been due to insufficient ‘miking’.

Harpsichord player Steven Devine recording his 2020 York Early Music Festival concert at a deserted National Centre for Early Music in York

Kenny’s pluckings not merely supplied a rhythmic foundation. She improvised magically in her intros and in the space between verses (ritornellos); she also contributed several mood-lightening dances.

It was hard not to feel that we were experiencing Dowland’s songs exactly as they would have sounded 400 years ago, not in a dusty, ancient way, but as a living art as relevant today as Shakespeare. We may remember that Dowland’s Third and Last Booke of Songs was published in 1603, the same year as Hamlet – that arch-melancholic – was first printed.

The last word goes to Dowland himself, from his dedication to Lachrimae, a book of dances: “Pleasant are the tears which music weeps”. Indeed.

Matthew Wadsworth continued the Dowland theme on lute and theorbo at lunchtime on Friday, alongside the music of other contemporaries. There was as a wide a range of moods here as there had been in the songs, with bolder declamation from the long-necked theorbo with its deeper resonance.

Wadsworth flowed fluently over the strings and the close camera work emphasised the music’s intimacy.

During the afternoon, Steven Devine played the second half of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, the preludes and fugues Nos 13-24, on a two-manual Michael Johnson harpsichord built in Fontmell Magna in 1997. He proved a deft exponent, though on such a bright-toned instrument he might not have coupled the manuals quite so frequently. But at least we were able to marvel anew at the breadth of Bach’s ingenuity.

The evening brought in Richard Boothby playing a lyra viol, the smallest of the three kinds of bass viol. He began both halves with music by Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, an Englishman of Italian descent who was especially prominent at the Jacobean court. Pairs of dances amply contrasted the gentler alman with the altogether friskier coranto, with its skipping rhythms.

Similar pairings from William Lawes and John Jenkins led into two brilliantly virtuosic variations by the little-known William Corkine and ‘divisions’ (variations) on Dowland’s famous Lachrime melody. Boothby introduced his music, which made the whole presentation much more personal.

We may be grateful to all these musicians for their labours in front of an unseen audience. The festival concluded with the ace choral group Stile Antico on Saturday evening. Watch this space for the review.

Review by Martin Dreyer