REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Bojan Čičić, J S Bach Sonatas, NCEM, York, 10/12

Bojan Čičić: “Magical sounds”

York Early Music Christmas Festival: Bojan Čičić, JS Bach’s Sonatas for solo violin, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 10

SEEING is believing. The magical sounds that Bojan Čičić coaxes from his baroque violin have not only to be heard, they need to be seen.

In 1720, while part of Prince Leopold’s court at Cöthen, Bach wrote six sonatas and partitas (effectively suites) for the unaccompanied violin, three of each, in response to the violin’s newly developed capability to play chords. This meant the possibility of adding a bass line to a melody.

They represent the Everest of the solo violin repertoire (not forgetting the Paganini caprices) and are fiendishly demanding. But they hold no terrors for this supremo. He is playing all six at this festival on consecutive Saturday lunchtimes and began here with the three sonatas. All fall into four movements.

The first is invariably slow, giving the player time to find their feet. The second, believe it or not, is a fugue, allowing the possibility of two or even three lines to overlap or seem to do so. The third is slower, often with origins in the dance, and the fourth is (very) fast.

Bach demonstrates throughout his intimate understanding of violin techniques at what was the cutting edge in his own day. The first two sonatas are in minor keys – G and A – and their opening movements have an elegiac quality. The third sonata, in C major, has a positively chordal opening, almost like a chorale.

All three are deceptive, because the succeeding fugues sound unplayable by a single instrument. In all, but especially the first, Čičić delivered incredible clarity, even playing down the countersubjects so that they did not overshadow the main subjects. There was also a touch of sheer bravura at the end of the second fugue.

The stately siciliana of No 1 demanded intense multiple-stopping – two or three notes at once – and the Andante of No 2, also a third movement, was so dense that you could have sworn that you were hearing several instruments.

All three finales took the breath away. The first was a high-speed moto perpetuo, allowing the player no respite. The Allegro of No 2 began innocently enough, but turned fierce, even including echo effects. The dazzling virtuosity of No 3’s finale brought the house down.

Čičić’s bow is a magic wand, but he does not brandish it at all pompously. On the contrary, his approach is almost self-effacing. The result is all the more sensational.

I cannot recommend his recital of Bach’s three partitas on Saturday (17/12/2022), at 1pm, highly enough. On this evidence, it is a totally mouth-watering prospect. Box office: 01904 658338 or

Review by Martin Dreyer

The Marion Consort. Picture: Nick Rutter

REVIEW: Spiritato with The Marian Consort, Inspiring Bach, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 11

THIS was almost two concerts in one, combining two groups – instrumental and vocal – who normally lead quite independent existences.

Spiritato, led from the violin by Kinga Ujszászi, is a chamber orchestra of some 18 players, dedicated to rekindling the unique sounds of the mid-17th century.

Joining them in this exploration is the 12-voice Marian Consort under its director and countertenor Rory McCleery.

Their programme, entitled Inspiring Bach, dealt with some of the bigger names that preceded the great man. The most notable of these was Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703), who is widely regarded as the most important member of the Bach family before Johann Sebastian himself (and not to be confused with a later JCB, Johann Christian, the ‘English’ Bach). He was a composer and organist, who spent virtually all his career as harpsichordist at the Duke of Eisenach’s court.

The first of JC’s two contributions here was an elegiac cantata featuring McCleery’s countertenor (though he sang it on ground level more or less behind a pillar). More compelling was Es Erhub Sich Ein Streit, (‘There Arose A War’, a Picander text which JSB used for his Cantata 19) in which a bass duet was accompanied by two trumpets, before the brilliant tutti of the final chorus.

Given that there were no less than four trumpets on hand, all valveless and without finger holes, they were bound to capture the spotlight – and thrilling they were.

Possibly Sebastian Knüpfer’s last work, written just before he died in 1676, was Die Turteltaube Lässt Sich Hören(‘The Voice Of The Turtle Dove Is Heard’). It made clever use of soloists across the choir, building towards a final chorus in which the trumpets truly blazed.

On either side of this, we heard both Pachelbel’s and Bach’s settings of Christ Lag In Todesbanden (‘Christ Lay In Death’s Bonds’), based on a Lutheran Easter hymn – not especially seasonal, but good pieces anyway.

Pachelbel omits trumpets and timpani from his version, but contrasts vigorous, optimistic choruses with lighter episodes. Bach’s more familiar setting was distinguished here by an exciting acceleration into and through the Alleluia of the opening chorus and a brisk fugal finale.

A Buxtehude sonata, spotlighting violin and viola da gamba, allowed a brief excursion northwards into Denmark. It all amounted to a delightful concoction                                               characterised as “music of healing in a time of catastrophe”.

Best of all, there was never a feeling, from either trumpets or strings, that the use of authentic instruments was in any way detracting from our enjoyment. On the contrary, these on-the-sleeve sounds enhanced our pleasure.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Orlando Consort: Bidding farewell after 35 years

REVIEW: Orlando Consort, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 15

ORCHESTRAS may go on forever, but smaller groups tend to have a more limited life-span. The Orlando Consort has existed for no less than 35 years.

Astonishingly, two of its members have lasted the full course since 1988, tenor Angus Smith and baritone Donald Greig. Its other current members are countertenor Matthew Venner and tenor Mark Dobell, who took over from Robert Harre-Jones and
Charles Daniels respectively.

Between them, these six have established the Orlando as a world-class ensemble. Now the group has decided to call it a day and will give its last performance in June. So this final
appearance in York, where it has become a familiar visitor, was tinged with sadness.

A touch of nostalgia was in order and each of the singers in turn reminisced between groups about their experiences touring the world.

A seasonal start took us back to a Christmas trio from the Winchester Troper, whose earliest scribe began work around 1000 A.D. It included some fascinating stresses. A Machaut group from around 300 years later was more melismatic – multiple notes to a single syllable of text. A countertenor solo here was wonderfully expressive.

Before we embarked on a continental tour, two English composers gave a good account of
themselves. An anonymous Credo from Fountains Abbey dating to the early 15th century was positively bouncy, especially in its upper two voices. John Plummer’s Anna Mater Matris Christi was delightfully studded with imitation between the parts, highlighting the two tenors.

The three lower voices delivered a nicely tongue-in-cheek farewell to the wines of Lannoy, while the three upper ones made the complications of Vergine Bella, also by Dufay, sound ridiculously easy.

The quartet was more full-throated in Hortus Conclusus by the Spaniard Rodrigo de Ceballos, but without endangering its smooth ensemble. Italy yielded the incredibly busy Plaude Decus Mundi by Cristoforo de Monte (early 15th century), again dispatched with cool panache.

The Flemish masters were kept back for the finale. Josquin’s imitative techniques depend on singers alive to where the shifting spotlight should fall among them. The Orlando did not disappoint: in two motets, one with refrain, the tension ebbed and flowed beautifully.

Nicolas Gombert’s Quam Pulchra Es, sung last, was the most intricate and varied piece of the evening. It was stunningly fresh, with interest revolving between the voices, no mean feat after a full programme sung without vibrato.

These singers have flown the flag for Britain with distinction in all corners of the globe. They deserve our wholehearted thanks. Any just society would deck them with medals. In the King’s next birthday honours perhaps? Let’s hope so.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Who’s playing at 2022 York Early Music Christmas Festival and on NCEM’s festive online box set? Full programme here

Solomon’s Knot: Premiering Johann Kuhnau’s Christmas Cantatas on December 16. Picture: Dan Joy

YORK Early Music Christmas Festival 2022’s combination of music, minstrels, merriment, mulled wine and mince pies can be savoured from December 8 to 17.

The live festival will be complemented by a festive online box set, comprising highlights of seven concerts available to watch on demand from 12 noon on December 19 to January 31 2023.

Run by the National Centre for Early Music (NCEM), at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, the 2022 festival features both Early and folk music performed by an array of artists from Great Britain, Europe and York itself.

“The NCEM welcomes old friends and new faces for this musical celebration of Christmas,” says director Dr Delma Tomlin. “As well as concerts from some of the world’s foremost exponents of Early Music, this year’s Christmas programme brings you festive cheer from The Furrow Collective, Green Matthews and The York Waits, thanks to a special Events and Festivals Grant from Make It York.

“This is the perfect choice for an atmospheric Yuletide evening away from the crowds as the York Early Music Christmas Festival transports you to a magical Christmas past, with mice pies and mulled wine available at most concerts.”

La Palatine: Opening York Early Music Christmas Festival 2022 with Fiesta Galante concert

Returning after their sparkling debut in York last year, French baroque ensemble La Palatine open the festival on December 8 at 7pm at the NCEM with Fiesta Galante, a festive and colourful spread of different musical genres marking the accession of the Bourbons to the Spanish throne in 1700.

These rising stars of Creative Europe’s EEEmerging+ programme – to support the development of young professional ensembles – will be performing acrobatic sonatas, dancing cantatas and guitar pieces, capturing how the new Italianate spirit spread through Spain. Led by soprano Marie Théoleyre, the highlight will be Nebra’s sacred cantatas.

“The relationship with Europe (through EEEmerging) has been fabulous, allowing us to share these wonderful musicians’ skills,” says Delma. “Post-Brexit, the bridges will still be there; they still want to collaborate, and so do I.

“Last December, La Palatine made the audience cry…in a very positive way with the beauty of their music, especially the last song. Marie Théoleyre is such an engaging singer. People were still not getting out to many concerts, and there was such a sense of joy in being there.

“La Palatine will be here for a few days, and as part of their residency, for Restoration, a UK network of Early Music promoters, they will be presenting a private concert to be shared online, giving the promoters the chance to talk to the artists with a view to further engagements.”

Ensemble Augelletti: Invitation to Pick A Card! Picture: Luke Avery

Expect to hear fantasias as they have never been played before when improvising violinist Nina Kumin gives an illustrated concert as part of this University of York PhD student’s doctorate in Telemann’s Fantasy: The Genius Behind The Music (NCEM, December 9, 12.30pm, free admission).  

Looking at how fantasias capture the style and the spirit of the Baroque, this Peter Seymour pupil will open with Telemann’s fantasias for solo violin, then will address two questions: how did baroque musicians create fantasias, and from where did they gain inspiration?

Kumin, by the way, has taken over as the director of the Minster Minstrels, the NCEM’s Early Music ensemble for school-age musicians.

In Pick A Card! (NCEM, December 9, 7pm), London’s Ensemble Augelletti explore playing card designs from the 14th century to the present day, connecting each card to a different piece of music to tell seasonal stories of people, places and animals in winter.

Olwen Foulkes, recorders, Ellen Bundy, violin, Carina Drury, cello, Toby Carr, lutes, and Benedict Willliams, keyboards, play music by Handel, Corelli, Rossi, Purcell and Ucellini to conjure up cosy evenings of playing cards around a fire, an ancient pastime for family celebrations and gatherings.

Clowning around in Ensemble Molière’s Good Soup performance on December 12

Audiences can enjoy a brace of intimate yet extrovert celebrations of JS Bach’s music in solo violin lunchtime concerts over the festival’s two weekends. Festival favourite Bojan Čičić returns to the NCEM to interpret Bach’s Sonatas (December 10, 1pm) and Partitas (December 17, 1pm), ahead of the release of his latest recording with Delphian.

York’s Yorkshire Bach Choir and the Yorkshire Baroque Soloists return to the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York (December 10, 7pm to 10pm), with soprano Bethany Seymour and Hannah Morrison, tenor James Gilchrist and bass Johnny Herford as the soloists for Handel’s Brockes Passion.

After languishing in the margins of musical history, Handel’s only Passion setting – first performed in Hamburg in 1719 – receives its debut performance in the North of England, with its vivid mixture of chorales, choruses and emotive recitatives, under conductor Peter Seymour.

Baroque ensemble Spiritato and York vocal group The Marian Consort join forces at the NCEM (December 11, 5pm) to present Inspiring Bach, an exciting, moving and profound performance featuring music and composers admired by Johann Sebastian Bach: Pachelbel, JC Bach, Knupfer and Buxtehude.

“These large-scale, uplifting works, composed after the trauma of the Thirty Years War, have a remarkable resonance today,” says Delma. “Featuring composers you might surmise were inspired by Bach or inspired the man himself, this is music form the very soul of the 17th century, crowned with soaring melodies and the glorious sound of trumpets and drums.

Ensemble Molière: NCEM’s New Generation Baroque Ensemble

“We’re delighted Spiritato are returning to York; they’re an absolutely smashing young ensemble, working incredibly hard to present unfamiliar repertoire and making a real go of it.”

To celebrate French playwright Molière’s 400th anniversary, Ensemble Molière, the first NCEM/BBC Radio 3/Royal College of Music New Generation Baroque Ensemble, re-create a time of environmental catastrophe, war and pestilence set around the table of the Sun King, Louis XIV, in Good Soup at the NCEM (December 12, 7.30pm).

“Very different from a normal baroque programme”, the evening of music, absurdist theatre, slapstick and puppetry features works by Jean-Baptiste Lully, Couperin, Marais, Dumont, Charpentier and Jean Chardevoine, complemented by clowns and performers James Oldham and Lizzy Shakespeare. Klara Kofen is the dramaturg and puppeteer; Rachel Wise, the movement director and fellow puppeteer.

The NCEM and partners will be seeking a new New Generation ensemble from next September. In the meantime, Ensemble Molière will record their debut album at the NCEM next spring, on top of their work for BBC Radio 3.

The Orlando Consort’s Matthew Venner (countertenor), Mark Dobell (tenor), Angus Smith (tenor) and Donald Greig (baritone) mark their final year of performing and recording together with Adieu, presenting a selection of pieces they have particularly enjoyed singing over the past 35 years, at the NCEM (December 15, 6.30pm, moved from 7.30pm).

The Orlando Consort: Saying goodbye with Adieu, an evening of music and conversation on December 15

The mellifluous sequence of music from across Europe ranges from the hypnotic beauty of 1,000-year-old polyphony, through the Medieval age, and onwards to the early Renaissance.

In addition, Consort members will be sharing reflections on their musical journey in a handful of behind-the-scenes touring anecdotes. That journey included a commission from Gabriel Jackson to mark the opening of the NCEM in 2000.

The main festival concludes with Solomon’s Knot’s focus on Johann Kuhnau’s Christmas Cantatas, directed by Jonathan Sells, now at the NCEM, rather than the Lyons (December 16, 6.30pm).

“Three hundred years after his death, it must be high time to bring Johann Kuhnau – the 16th cantor of the Thomasschule in Leipzig – out of the eclipsing shadow of his well-known successor, JS Bach,” says Delma.

The Furrow Collective: Opening their winter tour at the NCEM on December 2

“Thanks to the pioneering work of scholar and countertenor David Erler, his sparkling works are ever more widely available. Solomon’s Knot return to the festival to give three of them their UK premiere in York, to be followed by a second performance at Wigmore Hall, in London, the next day.

“Featuring full choir and orchestra – 25 performers in all – these cantatas will ‘raise the roof’ of our 2022 Christmas celebrations, with festive trumpets, horns, and drums providing the perfect soundtrack for Christmas and New Year.”

In further festive concerts at the NCEM, English/Scottish band The Furrow Collective present We Know By The Moon, a spine-tingling evening of storytelling and harmony, bringing light into the wintry gloom (December 2, 7.30pm), while modern-day balladeers Green Matthews evoke the spirit of Christmas past, bringing600 years of music to life in a riot of sound and colour (December 17, 7.30pm).

In the NCEM’s last Christmas concert, the stalwart York Waits celebrate the 45th anniversary of their re-creation of York’s historic city band with The Waits’ Wassail in Music for Advent and Christmas, exploring festive music from the 14th to the 17th century (December 20, 7.30pm).

For full programme details, go to Tickets are on sale on 01904 658338, at or in person from the NCEM.

El Gran Teatro Del Mundo: Part of the NCEM’s online box set

FOR the festive online box set, the NCEM concerts by La Palatine, Bojan Čičić, Spiritato & The Marian Consort, The Orlando Consort and Solomon’s Knot will be filmed and recorded by Ben Pugh and Tim Archer, formerly of the BBC’s Manchester studios, to enjoy from the comfort of home.

The set will be completed by El Gran Teatro Del Mundo’s concert, The Art Of Conversation, filmed on November 20. A festival pass costs £45 for the seven concerts; individual concerts, £10, at, and the concerts may be watched any number of times.

NCEM director Dr Delma Tomlin says: “York Early Music Festival is one of the highlights of the city’s Christmas calendar and the online programme offers the chance for everyone to enjoy these glorious concerts wherever they are in the world, giving access to people unable to go out or attend.

“As always, we’re welcoming old friends and new to the festival, which features an extraordinary wealth of music associated with Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Our programme is the perfect accompaniment to Yuletide festivities and can be streamed well beyond Twelfth Night, so  if you can’t join us in York this year, you can celebrate with us at home from December 19 to January 31.”

York Early Music Christmas Festival director Dr Delma Tomlin: “Welcoming old friends and new”