REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on York Early Music International Young Artists Competition, NCEM, York, July 13

Ayres Extemporae: Picked by reviewer Steve Crowther and the judges alike for the first prize in the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition

THIS seriously prestigious biennial competition at the National Centre for Early Music showcased an outstanding concert of “emerging talent in the world of music”. Although having just quoted from the informative programme, the eight ensembles seemed pretty much “emerged” to my ears.

The first to perform were Trio Altizans (The Netherlands): Eriko Nagayama, violin; Antonio Pellegrino, violoncello; Agata Sorotokin, fortepiano.

THEIR programme, entitled Geister Medley, opened with the Largo Assai Ed Espressivo from Beethoven’s Piano Trio no. 5 in D major, op. 70 no. 1. The Trio captured the spooky, impressionistic tone of the movement. The work is nicknamed ‘the Ghost Trio’ (a response by Carl Czerny to this eerie middle movement).

The performance reminded me how Gothic the music is – creepy bass tremolos in the piano etc. The fragmentary motifs, harmonies that had an instability – quite modern stuff really, but they made a convincing narrative throughout.

From Beethoven to Schubert and the last movement Allegro moderato from the great Piano Trio no. 2 in E flat major, D. 929. I thought the performance was focused, lively and the knitting together of different themes worked well, as did the closing triumphant ending. Not sure of the ‘early music’ label here but I enjoyed it none the less.

Ensemble Bastion (Switzerland): Maruša Brezavšček, recorder; Martin Jantzen, viola da gamba; Elias Conrad, theorbo; Mélanie Flores, harpsichord.

NOW this programme, entitled Les Goûts Réunis: The United Musical Tastes “takes its name from a collection of suites by François Couperin, reflecting the high-Baroque period’s rivalry between the musical centres of Italy and France” (programme note).

The programme opened with François Couperins Échos from his Concerts Royaux. I was impressed with the stylish ornamentation and the instinctive engagement between the players. The echoes, or echo effects, were charming.

Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata IV in F major, op. 5 was originally ornament-free until composer Johan Helmich Roman (among others) had his say. This was indeed ornament-rich and a joy to listen to.

They closed with Georg Philipp Telemann’s Sonata a Flute Dolce, Dessus de Viole e Basse. This was joy too, the slow movement so gently teased out. But it was the clear canonic dialogue throughout that stayed with me.

[hanse]Pfeyfferey (Germany): Laura Dümpelmann, shawms; Lilli Pätzold, cornetto; Alexandra Mikheeva, slide trumpet, trombone; Emily Saville, trombone.

WHO could object to an early music programme entitled: Party Like It’s 1524. Their programme note didn’t start promisingly: “In addition to our unwavering commitment to authentically merge musical practice with associated musicology and theory…”

But it perked up with “…we draw inspiration from the timeless human need to enjoy good company, food, drink and music”. Amen to that.

I had never heard of the composer Ludwig Senfl so I did a bit of Google listening. I thought the conservative sacred music was quietly impressive, but it was the secular, humanist songs that we were treated to here.

These were full of life and the performers radiated energy playing the music. So too the Improvisations. The performances so seductive, so infectious and, in the case of Isaac’s Lala Höhö and Zwischen Berg Und Tiefe Tal genuinely touching.

P.S. Ludwig Senfl studied with the great Heinrich Isaac and lost a toe in a hunting exercise. Now there’s one for the pub quiz.

Apollo’s Cabinet (UK): Teresa Wrann, recorder; Thomas Pickering, harpsichord, traverso, recorder; David Lopez Ibanez, violin; Harry Buckoke, viola da gamba; Jonatan Bougt, theorbo, Baroque guitar; Daniel Watt, percussion.

THIS programme was entitled Musical Wanderlust: Charles Burney’s European Travels In Pursuit Of Harmony. Mercifully this concert was far more enjoyable than the turgid description would have had us believe. It was an attractive musical travelogue around pre-Brexit Europe through the eyes, ok the diaries, of Charles Burney.

I absolutely loved the whole set. It reminded me a little of Red Priest, who might just have been an influence. This was revisiting Vivaldi, Buxtehude and the holiest of spiritual grails, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, from another perspective; a completely bonkers one.

Of the four prizes on offer this early music band must surely be a contender for one of them. “The most fun-filled, brilliantly whacky prize goes to…”

Rubens Roza (Switzerland): Aliénor Wolteche, medieval fiddles; Matthieu Romanens, tenor; Mélina Perlein-Féliers, medieval harps; Elizabeth Sommers, medieval fiddle, viola d’arco; Asako Ueda, medieval lute, Renaissance guitar.

A PROGRAMME entitled Warblings Of Paradise didn’t seem terribly inviting. Thankfully we had a note of explanation: “In Dante’s Paradise, music is the supreme joy of mankind. The pieces we are going to perform have both sacred and secular aspects and will give full rein to the sounds of heavenly instruments; harps, lutes, vielles and voice will alternate and blend to celebrate the harmony of souls.”

THE recital opened with Guiraut Riquier’s Aisi Com Es Sobronrada (from Chansonnier Provençal – La Vallière). This is intended to be a “declaration of love made to the Virgin”. And yet…tenor Matthieu Romanens was himself seductively serenaded by Aliénor Wolteche (medieval fiddle) and Mélina Perlein-Féliers (medieval harp) without, as far as I could see, much resistance. Mr Romanens has a lovely rich tenor voice with a particularly resonant lower register, which is rare.

Following Rubens Rosa’s very engaging rustic dance, Estampie, we were back to Hail Mary, full of grace. There was a touching intimacy and a velvety richness in colour. Very enjoyable.

As indeed was Robert Morton’s instrumental N’aray Je Jamais Mieux Que J’ai, where the introduction of the viola d’arco (Elizabeth Summers) really enriched the tonal palette. Then back to Matthieu Romanens’ tenor voice in a dignified Fortuna Desperate (Anonymous). If you closed your eyes, his voice sounded more like a baritone than a tenor.

Their recital closed with a foot-tapping, rustic Laudato Sia Dio (Dindirindin). The call and response, the energy and rhythmic hemiola shifts (think Bernstein’s America) recharged the soul. Maybe.

Pseudonym (Switzerland): Liane Sadler Baroque, traverso; Maya Webne-Behrman, violin; Stephen Moran, viola da gamba; Gabriel Smallwood, harpsichord.

PROGRAMME entitled Broken Colours. The notes describe this theme as: “To showcase the wide range of colours and sonic possibilities of this instrumentation, Broken Colours draws on various collections from different composers published throughout the first decades of the seventeenth century. Together they represent a cohesive survey of the prevailing instrumental genres and compositional hallmarks of the time…”

The recital opened with Dario Castello’s Nona Sonata à Tre (from Sonate Concertate In Stil Moderno, Libro Primo, 1621). To be honest I know very little about Dario Castello’s music but what I have heard I liked immensely. As the description “moderno” suggests, his music is progressive, exploring “new formal structures and means of expression” (programme note). I think this freshness did come across; the performance was tight, stylish and full of energy.

Other Baroque pioneer composers also featured in the recital. I thought the ensemble’s performance of Tarquinio Merula’s Ballo Detto Eccardo was extremely expressive and gave Liane Sadler (traverse flute) an opportunity to shine. Which she did. Biagio Marini’s La Foscarina, Sonata a 3, Con Il Tremolo was pretty amazing too. The players really caught the inventive, expressive nature of Marini’s writing, this time giving violinist Maya Webne-Behrman an opportunity to shine, and she duly did.

The recital closed with Andrea Falconieri’s rhythmically driven Ciaconna And Pseudonym clearly enjoyed playing it as much as we did listening to it. An infectious, foot-tapping pleasure. What a way to sign off.

Ayres Extemporae (Belgium): Xenia Gogu Mensenin, violin; Víctor García García, violoncello piccolo; Teresa Madeira, violoncello.

UP to this point, I had forgotten that this was a competition. That was until Ayres Extemporae walked on to the stage and opened their recital with an X-rated, blistering account of Heinrich Ignaz Biber’s Sonata for violin and continuo in E minor, C.142.

Xenia Gogu Mensenin’s violin playing – technically brilliant, musically utterly hypnotic and completely fearless – immediately demanded attention. To be sure, there was some respite to be had in the beautiful Aria but this couldn’t last and didn’t; Ms Mensenin got her second wind, the violin bursting free of the constraints of the song, then regained the narrative of “torment” and headed for the finish line with indecent haste.

This was beyond ‘redemption’, nevertheless this remarkable Trio gave it their best shot with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Erbarme Dich from Ich Armer Mensch ich Sündenknecht, BWV 55 (arr. for violoncello piccolo, violin and continuo).

This wonderful aria is (obviously) from the St Matthew Passion. Erbarme Dich (Have Mercy) represents Peter’s weeping and distress at having denied knowing Jesus three times. Here the violoncello piccolo ‘sings’ the tenor aria.

The performance by Víctor García García was very persuasive: meditative, expressive and genuinely moving. Whether it was persuasive enough, however, was to be found along the “path to forgiveness”. Once again, the Trio turned to Bach, this time the Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord in G major, BWV1027 (arr. for violoncello piccolo, violin and continuo).

In this version, “the cello piccolo takes the role of the viola da gamba, and the violin and the cello play respectively the right and left hand of the harpsichord part” (programme note).

The E minor Andante had a haunting quality. The violoncello (Teresa Madeira) gracefully weaving through the arpeggiated progressions. The performance was so moving and soul searching. The final Allegro moderato was a dance, a bourrée and fugal.

Thus, giving all three of these outstanding performers the chance to show how well they intuitively understood and communicated this music. A real joy and, to quote Tina Turner, Simply The Best?

Before I typed this review, I thought I knew who the winner might be. I just wished I had behaved like a true, blue-rinsed politician and popped out to place a bet before the coronation.

Friedrichs Nebelmeer Ensemble (Switzerland): Pablo Gigosos, flute; Mei Kamikawa, oboe; Claudia Reyes, clarinet; Andrés Sanchez, horn; Angel Alvarez, bassoon.

HAVING lived and breathed contemporary music for most of my adult life, I am not a great fan of the 20th-century Wind Quintet repertoire (Birtwistle and the tedious Schoenberg works spring to mind, and back out again). But this Baroque repertoire of Franz Danzi, Giuseppe Cambini and Anton Reicha played by the charmingly enthusiastic Friedrichs Nebelmeer Ensemble was just delightful.

We were told to “expect some fun after a seven-hour concert’”, and we did. The problem is, however, that zippy exchanges – the musical flair in, for example, the Finale: Allegretto of Reicha’s Wind Quintet in E flat major, op. 88 no. 2 – can mask the technical brilliance.

This closing movement is an energetic rondo and all of the performers embraced the solos on offer. I loved the intimacy of the sound the Ensemble generated.

The Larghetto Sostenuto Ma Con Moto from Giuseppe Cambini’s Wind Quintet no. 2 in D minor was so sweetly sung; it’s not often you hear a wind quintet blending as beautifully as this. Again, so intimate but this time with a velvety sensuous colouring.

Their recital actually opened with Franz Danzi’s Allegrettos no’s I and IV from his Wind Quintet in G minor, op. 56 no. 2, a work dedicated to Anton Reicha. Crisp staccato playing, perfect handovers of the musical motifs, lovely clear balance; and yes, it radiated enjoyment.

I do have critical observations and suggestions – not all the performances were uniform, at times not all the balance was quite as democratic as it might have been, and there were a few slips.

But given the quality of these Young Artists and the fact that they had two days of “informal recitals” with completely different programmes and in the company of Steven Devine, then discretion and humility are surely the order of the day.

But I will say that the programme notes, although informative and indeed often insightful, veered towards the academic, seldom a good thing, and a bit dull.

Not surprisingly the “tell us a bit about yourselves and your programme” bit was a distraction at best. To this end, I would suggest drawing from the “everyday” anecdote of Steven Devine himself.

Here Mr Devine took us through a typical York ginnel to the Three Legged Mare pub. There was a folk-blues band playing and he popped in for a pint. Through the window, he noticed some members of an ensemble looking in. He bought them a drink and left. When he returned one of the players had joined in.

One can take many things from this lovely account: that this could never, ever happen at a “classical” music concert; that this musical experience belongs to the working class, pop, rock, folk, blues culture, or that the beer in the Three Legged Mare is decidedly better than that on offer at the NCEM.

For me, it is about the love and importance of music and music making. And what an enriching experience this is. Bob Dylan and John Adams are both great composers, just different.

Anyway, back to the competition. A panel of experts in the field of Early Music, Bart Demuyt, Philip Hobbs, Elizabeth Kenny, Lionel Meunier and Emily Worthington judged that Ayres Extemporae were the winners of this prestigious York Early Music International Young Artists Competition.

Additional prizes went to: [Hanse]Pfeyfferey (Cambridge Early Music), Ensemble Bastion (EUBO Development Trust) and Apollo’s Cabinet (Friends of York Early Music Festival).

So, what a way to close this remarkable festival: with renewal. Talking of which, none of this could happen without the dedication, professionalism and creativity of Delma Tomlin MBE, director of the internationally acclaimed National Centre of Early Music (NCEM) and the York Early Music Festival.

Unfortunately, I am all out of superlatives, so how about “National Treasure”? Sorry Delma.

Belgian trio Ayres Extemporae win the 2024 York Early Music International Young Artists Competition

Ayres Extemporae: Competition winners stand outside St Margaret’s Church, the home of the National Centre for Early Music, York

AYRES Extemporae were awarded first prize at the York International Young Artists Competition last Saturday, against fierce competition from seven fellow international ensembles from across Europe.

The Belgian-based ensemble receives a professional recording contract from Linn Records, a £1,000 cash prize, a future paid engagement with the York Early Music Festival and recording opportunities with BBC Radio 3.

During the two days before the competition, each ensemble presented an informal recital at the National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, with the aim of giving the musicians the opportunity to adapt to the performance space and become accustomed with festival audience members in advance of the final.

These groups were selected from a pool of 48 ensembles from across the world and were judged by an international jury of Bart Demuyt, director of AMUZ/Alamire; Philip Hobbs, from Linn Records; Elizabeth Kenny, internationally acclaimed lutenist; Lionel Meunier, director of Vox Luminis, and Emily Worthington, clarinettist and University of York lecturer.

The competition provided a spectacular finale to the ten-day festival, which connected old friends and new through concerts, recitals and workshops staged in a variety of historic venues around the city. 

The recitals from this year’s final are available to watch on demand at ncem.co.uk and on the NCEM’s YouTube channel and edited highlights will be shared on BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show on Sunday, November 3 2024.

Ayres Extemporae are: Moldovan-Spanish violinist Xenia Gogu, Spanish cellist Víctor García García, playing on a five-string cello piccolo, and Portuguese cellist Teresa Madeira.

Apollo’s Cabinet, from the UK, scooped the Friends of York Early Music Festival Award, a cash prize of £1,000; Ensemble Bastion won a cash prize of £1,000, endowed by the EUBO Development Trust, for the Most Promising Young Artists specialising in the Baroque repertoire, and [hanse] Pfeyfferey scooped the Cambridge Early Music Prize, which includes a paid performance in Cambridge.

The 2024 finalists were: Apollo’s Cabinet (UK); Ayres Extemporae (Belgium); Ensemble Bastion (Switzerland); Friedrichs Nebelmeer Ensemble (Switzerland); [hanse] Pfeyfferey (Germany); Pseudonym (Switzerland); Rubens Rosa (Switzerland) and Trio Altizans (Netherlands).

The 2024 competition was presented by Steven Devine,harpsichordist, fortepianist, conductor and director of orchestral, choral and opera repertoire, and former artistic advisor to the York Early Music Festival.

At the end of the competition, Philip Hobbs, from Linn Records, who chaired the judging panel, said: “This competition is definitely one of the musical highlights of the year and Linn Records is very proud to continue this important relationship with the York Early Music Festival and with the National Centre for Early Music.

“Today’s concert illustrated an array of extraordinarily inventive musical talent, and I would like to congratulate all eight ensembles who performed.”

Delma Tomlin, NCEM director and festival administrative director, said: “It was wonderful to welcome these eight ensembles from the UK and Europe to what is always an enriching experience and an amazing opportunity to share music and enhance their skills.

“I would like to thank everyone who appeared today, once again the standard of performance was of the highest calibre. I would also like to say a huge thank-you to our panel of judges for their hard work and support and also to Steven Devine for his expertise and invaluable help.”

Winners Ayres Extemporae said: “We’re absolutely delighted and honoured to receive this amazing prize and would like to thank everyone who has supported us – our time in York has been a wonderful experience and everyone has been super-friendly.  

“We’d like to thank all the other ensembles for their encouragement, friendship and brilliant musicianship, it’s been a real pleasure spending time with the other musicians. We’re really looking forward to returning to York and recording with Linn Records.”

York Early Music Festival celebrates at York Mansion House

Utopia: Flanders musicians played at National Centre for Early Music, York

THE 2024 York Early Music Festival enjoyed not one, but two celebrations in the presence of the Lord Mayor of York, Councillor Margaret Wells, last week.

Young musicians from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and even Mexico arrived in York to take part in the York Early Music International Young Artists Competition, held in the city every two years.

The musicians were welcomed with a drinks reception and enjoyed a tour of York Mansion House with the Lord Mayor, who revealed some of the resplendent Georgian building’s hidden secrets.

The next day, the Delegation of Flanders to the UK hosted a reception to mark Flanders Day – a major national holiday in the Belgian region – in celebration of a new partnership with the York Early Music Festival, in association with the Alamire Foundation and AMUZ, with support from the Flanders government.

Bart Brosius, General Representative of Flanders in the UK and Ireland, welcomed the delegation to York and Bart Demuyt, from the Alamire Foundation in Flanders, extended a warm thank-you to the National Centre for Early Music director Delma Tomlin for her continued hard work, giving aspiring young musicians from the UK and beyond the encouragement and recognition they deserve.

Guests included: York Central MP Rachael Maskell; Claire Douglas, Leader of City of York Council; Joan Concannon, University of York; Philip Nelson, Harrowells Solicitors; Adam Butterworth, Department for Business and Trade, and many other guests from the Flanders delegation.

Audiences enjoyed concerts by two ensembles from Flanders, Utopia at the National Centre for Early Music and Cappella Pratensis & I Fedeli at York Minster.

From Flanders with early music: Cappella Pratensis performed at York Minster

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on York Early Music Festival, Florilegium, National Centre for Early Music, York, July 7

Florilegium harpist Siobhán Armstrong

TO quote Anne-Marie Evans in the Daily Telegraph, “whereas the florilegia of the 17th century were created to portray the beauty and novelty of those plants brought back from the colonies, the modern florilegium may be seen as a conservation tool, instrumental in recording for posterity collections of plants within a chosen garden”.

Florilegium’s Le Roi s’Amuse: Music For A King’s Pleasure takes this delicate analogy, a musical journey around a musical flower garden, to “explore the intimate and elegant sound world of France in the decades around 1700 and perform music by composers known to both Louis XIV and Louis XV”.

An inspired concept that rewarded us with an impeccable concert of 18th-century French Baroque music. The concert opened with Jacques-Martin Hotteterre’s Suite in D major, and despite a gentle whinge by flautist Ashley Solomon at the 10.30am start, it was impeccable.

The opening Prelude set the tone of serious elegance and refinement. The flute playing by Mr Solomon was simply divine; phrases lovingly caressed, detail rich and polished. The Sarabande oozed charm and elegance, Menuet’s I & II were fresh and vibrant and the Brione’ Gigue (La Folichon) closed with a deliciously cute signing off.

Some of the movements were christened with titles such as Le Duc d’Orléans and Le Comte de Brionne. I can only assume these referred to courtiers from the reign of Louis XIV.

Jacques Morel’s Chaconne was great fun. It started out as a sweet Sunday morning chat with the flute and viola da gamba. The dialogue became a little more animated, competitive and virtuosic but the narrative always remained within the boundaries of decency, and they did kiss and make up at the end.

Couperin’s Unmeasured Prelude No. 13 is a work written without rhythm or metre indications. The score uses long groups of phrased whole notes, a bit like an instrumental plainchant. Anyhow, the performance was just superb; a quiet, melancholic jewel.

I haven’t heard of the composer Michel de la Barre. He wrote music for the transverse flute (no keys to cover the tone holes). The performance of his Suite No. 9 in G major was ensemble music making of the very highest order.

Marin Marais’s Suite in D minor was a tour de force performed with real, almost musically primal energy and vitality by Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba). The sound world was unlike anything else on offer: muscular, grainy lower register, biting articulation, dramatic dynamic range.

Such was the sheer physicality of the playing that even the wonderful Siobhan Armstrong’s harp accompaniment came across somewhat cowed, almost apologetic and the balance, not surprisingly, uneven.

Jacques-Martin Hotteterre’s Prelude: Pourquoy, Doux Rossignol proved to be the tenderest of love songs. The playing so refined, so sensitive.

Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s Sonata a Tre proved to be a worthy finale. Here, as ever, the playing was incisive, warm and polished. There was an encore, but unfortunately I missed the name and title of the work. It was very good, however.

Florilegium – Ashley Solomon, flute, Reiko Ichise, viola da gamba, and Siobhán Armstrong, harp – clearly are a world-class period instrument ensemble. And this insightful exploration and interpretation of the “intimate and elegant” French Baroque musical world of Jacques-Martin Hotteterre, Marin Marais and their lesser-known contemporaries was an absolute joy.

The performances were invariably elegant, technically flawless and, perhaps above all, transported the listener to a quite magical place.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on York Early Music Festival, The Sixteen, Masters Of Imitation, York Minster, July 6

The Sixteen: Master Of Imitation programme at York Minster

A SURPRISE introduction: as per usual the concert was prefaced by a clerical welcome plus loo, safety and mobile phone instruction. This closed with a prayer, which I thought was a bit of a no-no. But then I got the (possible) subtext: England were to embark on a penalty shoot-out. And it worked; we won!

The Sixteen’s Masters Of Imitation celebrates the art of parody in renaissance music, focusing on the works of Orlande de Lassus to link this inspired programme together.

Today we are very used to the term ‘parody’ meaning to imitate, to exaggerate the style of a particular writer or artist but to comic effect. Here Lassus’s parody works are akin to creating a musical patchwork quilt: taking musical bits, passages from his own historic compositions or his great predecessor Josquin des Prez, for example, and reworking the material into an entirely new composition. This latter process being a dedicated act of homage.

The concert opened with the timeless beauty of the plainchant Lauda Jerusalem Dominum. It was performed as a processional with the tenor calls answered with soprano responses. There is invariably a deep simplicity of beauty in these non-metric, homophonic lines and this, being The Sixteen, was no exception.

Lassus’s reworking of the plainchant (it has the same text) was a thing of beauty. Here melodies rising high into the air, the singing just glorious. But there was also a sense of fun, of joy as the music rhythmically danced. And word painting too. I think it was this sense of warmth, of Lassus’s humanity that was communicated so effectively.

Lassus’s motet Osculetur Me Osculo Oris sui is scored for two choirs and the composer exploits the different sonorities to dramatic effect, such as Trahe Me Post Te. I was reminded of the music of the Gabrielis, but doubt I’m the only one to have made this connection.

And then there was the sensuous setting of some quite juicy texts:

“Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth;

for thy love is better than wine

Thy name is as oil poured out;

therefore the young maidens have loved thee.”

Be rest assured, the Latin text gives these lines a “cloak of decency” (Bob Dylan).

To be honest, I had never heard of Maddalena Casulana. According to a leading authority in these matters, Wikipedia tells us “she was an Italian composer, lutenist and singer of the late Renaissance. [Casulana] is the first female composer to have had a whole book of her music printed and published in the history of western music, dedicated to her female patron Isabella de Medici”.

Her pretty radical dedication reads: “These first fruits of mine, flawed as they are … show the world the futile error of men, who believe themselves patrons of the high gifts of intellect, which according to them cannot also be held in the same way by women.”

Of the two madrigals I found the second much more rewarding. The choir was reduced by half, which added some welcome relief from conductor Harry Christophers’ insistence on performing the programme with a full complement of singers. Greater clarity of line and text massively enhanced enjoyment. This love song was a real gem.

It is perhaps worth noting that this rediscovery and promotion of Maddalena Casulana’s music –this may be the first time these works have been committed to a CD recording, Masters Of Imitation, available at all good record shops near you – is clearly significant.

In The Sixteen’s 2023 Choral Pilgrimage, Harry Christophers programmed the world premiere of two commissioned works by female composer Dobrinka Tabakova.

I struggled with Lassus’s eight-part Credo from his Missa Osculetur Me. There was just so much wonderful contrapuntal detail unable to escape from the Minster acoustic black hole. At times passages hung in the air, just a haze of sound, albeit a beautifully sung one. And yes, the closing coming together and Amen final cadence was delicious.

Jean Guyot de Châtelet’s arrangement of Josquin, adding six extra parts to Benedicta es Caelorum Regina, was thrilling, if somewhat eccentric. There were juicy false relations and a spine-tingling Amen. This is original music composition and performance of the highest order.

Other memorable highlights included Josquin Desprez’s Benedicta es Caelorum Regina with its exquisite tenor opening, its slightly whacky atmosphere of splendour and its forceful, dramatic descending scales prosecuting the message-with-a-twist:

“The Word became flesh from you,

by whom all are saved.”

Lassus’s Magnificat Benedicta es Caelorum Regina was another, with its clear contrapuntal lines and exciting antiphonal exchanges that seemed to dissolve or evaporate, allowing the light to shine.

Although there is no doubting the brilliance of Bob Chilcott’s choral music – surely every choir in the UK worth its salt must have Chilcott in its repertoire – his music just doesn’t “turn me on” (John Lennon). But this specially commissioned sacred parody of Lassus’s secular madrigal, Lauda Jerusalem Dominum, undoubtedly called for a personal rethink.

The setting was pretty conservative – no surprises here, Chilcott is a pretty conservative composer. But there were truly magical moments. For example, the delicate ostinato soprano patterns, beautiful on their own terms, then as a gorgeous backdrop for the soaring melodies.

I would have liked greater contrasts in scoring and dynamic, but the rich tonal harmonic identity, distinctive variations in colour and ending delivered a tasty punch. The performance was of the usual exemplary quality; instinctive melodic shaping, expression and care for detail. And so musical.

The concert as a whole showed yet again Harry Christopher and The Sixteen’s deep understanding of repertory and, just as importantly, communicated an infectious engagement in the music itself. The audience response was both instinctive and rapturous.

They really are a class act.

Review by Steve Crowther

Ashley Karrell’s digital portrait of Merchant Adventurers’ Hall’s first woman governor, Dr Delma Tomlin, goes on show at Easter

Photographer Ashley Karrell with his portrait of Dr Delma Tomlin, first woman governor of the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in York. Picture: Ashley Karrell

THE Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, in York, is celebrating its first woman governor with a specially commissioned photo portrait of Dr Delma Tomlin MBE.

She was appointed to the role in 2022, becoming the first female incumbent since the hall’s foundation in 1357.

Dr Tomlin is the founder and long-standing artistic director of the National Centre for Early Music, at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, and the director of York Early Music Festival, York Early Music Christmas Festival and Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival.

Oil paintings of past governors are on display around the hall, in Fossgate, and from this Easter they will be joined by the new digital portrait by Ashley Karrell in the Great Hall.

In a move away from traditional oil painting to the 21st century digital age, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall commissioned Karrell, an award-winning director, producer, photographer and artist, to create the highly original work.

Already he had made his mark in Yorkshire as the first black portrait photographer to be commissioned for the permanent collection at the stately home of Harewood House, working on the Missing Portraits series that features Leeds West Indian Carnival founder Arthur France MBE and actor David Harewood OBE.

Karrell also made the hybrid film #BlackBoyJoyGone, nominated at the 2023 Grierson Awards, and the multi-award-winning dance theatre film Displaced.

Dr Tomlin said: “It was such an honour to take up the role of the first female governor of this venerable organisation, which has a 660-year history. To reflect this new direction, we decided to take a different approach to commemorate the occasion and commissioned the award-winning Ashley Karrell to work with us. We hope that visitors will be as excited as we are by this historic photo portrait.”

Ashley Kerrall’s digital photographic portrait of Dr Delma Tomlin. Copyright: Ashley Karrell

Karrell said: “I’m truly grateful to Dr Delma Tomlin and the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall for the opportunity of creating this significant portrait. My art is captivated by stories about human experiences, the exploration of community and social engagement.

“This image is one of one; what we created speaks of history, representation, celebration and triumph. To be a small part of the 660-year history of this institution gives me joy and I hope the audience will feel strength and humility within the eyes of our first female governor. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your story.”

The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, York’s oldest medieval building, continues to engage audiences with an innovative approach, attracting visitors from all over the world. The hall is home to many collections, including silver, furniture and paintings, which provide a glimpse into its rich history. It also remains the everyday base for the 160 members of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York.

This Easter’s unveiling of the photo portrait coincides with the launch of a free digital museum guide through the arts and culture app Bloomberg Connects. The app gives access to expertly curated content and guides to more than 350 museums, galleries, sculpture parks, gardens, and other cultural spaces.

Over the past few years, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall has reached wider audiences with exhibitions and has increased its digital offer. Visitor numbers continue to go from strength to strength, as illustrated by the Two Rivers interactive exhibition attracting a big audience with its revelations of the fascinating history and importance of the city’s rivers.

Lauren Marshall, the hall’s museum director, said: “We’re very excited about our new digital guide, which we hope will make the visitor experience at the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall even more enjoyable.

“We’ve been delighted by the ever-increasing interest in this amazing medieval building, one of the most stunning in the UK, and we’re looking forward to welcoming visitors from York and beyond in the months to come.”

Dr Delma Tomlin, DUniv, MBE: the back story

Delma Tomlin

FOUNDER and artistic director of the National Centre for Early Music, at St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, York, promoting music from the 13th to the 18th centuries.

Director of York Early Music Festival, York Early Music Christmas Festival and Beverley & East Riding Early Music Festival.

Acknowledged expert in the promotion of the medieval York Mystery Plays.

In 2000, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of York for her work in the city. In 2008, she received an MBE for Services to the Arts in Yorkshire & Humberside. In 2018, she was appointed Cultural Champion for York. In 2020, she was elected an Honorary Freeman of the City of York.

Ashley Karrell: the back story

AWARD-WINNING director, producer, photographer and artist with more than two decades of experience. His work includes films, television, visual art, theatre productions and commercial and experimental video across the UK and beyond.

Captivated by stories of human experiences, the exploration of community and social engagement.

Known for his hybrid film #BlackBoyJoyGone, nominated at 2023 Grierson Awards; multi-award-winning dance theatre film Displaced;  feature film and documentary of Geraldine Connorʼs stage masterpiece Carnival Messiah, winner of Peopleʼs Choice Award for Best Documentary at Trinidad Film Festival.

First black portrait photographer commissioned for permanent collection at Harewood House, near Leeds, photographing Missing Portraits series, featuring Leeds West Indian Carnival founder Arthur France MBE and actor David Harewood OBE

2022-24 marks the release of eight new short films, touring theatre shows and photography projects.

For more information, go to: www.AshleyKarrell.com. Social media links: Instagram – @ashleykarrell; Facebook – @ashleykarrell; X/Twitter – @ashleykarrell

NCEM welcomes global applications for York International Young Artists Competition. Entry deadline: January 15

Protean Quartet: Winners of the 2022 York International Young Artists Competition, pictured at the NCEM

APPLICATIONS from ensembles across the world are invited for next year’s York International Young Artists Competition. The closing date is January 15 2024.

This longstanding competition for young ensembles will take place from July 10 to 13 at the National Centre for Early Music, Walmgate, York, as part of York Early Music Festival 2024.

The final will take place on Saturday, July 13 with a day of public performances at the NCEM. 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 2025 York Early Music Festival.

Further prizes on offer include: the Friends of York Early Music Festival Prize, the Cambridge Early Music Prize and one for The Most Promising Young Artist/s, endorsed by the EUBO Development Trust. 

The competition is open to early music ensembles with a minimum of three members and an average age of 32 years or under and a maximum age of 36 for individuals.

The ensembles must demonstrate historically informed performance practice and play repertory 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 major boost to young professional careers with opportunities for performance, recording and broadcasting, plus international exposure. 

Festival director and NCEM founder Delma Tomlin says: “We’re delighted to be staging the Young Artists competition once again in 2024. One of the highlights of our festival, the competition takes place every two years and fills every corner of the NCEM with music and laughter. 

“We believe it is extremely important to nurture and develop young talent, and the competition provides an important opportunity for young artists and musicians not just from the UK but from all over the world.” 

Last year’s winners, Protean Quartet, say: “We were delighted and honoured to win the main prize in 2022. Taking part in the competition was an amazing experience. It was wonderful performing at the NCEM’s home, the beautiful St Margaret’s Church, and meeting the other ensemble who were taking part. The prize provides a real boost to our confidence, profile and careers.”

Protean Quartet performed at last summer’s festival, as did 2019 winners L’Apothéose, who say: “Winning the York competition was an extremely important and prestigious recognition of our career. It was wonderful to return to York for the recording of our CD with Linn Records and to appear at the York Early Music Festival last July.”

For details of how to apply, head to: www.yorkcomp.ncem.co.uk or email yorkcomp@ncem.co.uk

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Rachel Podger and Daniele Caminiti at York Early Music Festival

Rachel Podger: “Her violin and Baroque music are made for each other”. Picture: Theresa Pewal

York Early Music Festival: Rachel Podger and Daniele Caminiti, National Centre for Early Music, York, July 13

RACHEL Podger’s violin and Baroque music are made for each other. The two halves of her outgoing personality, both personal and musical, are closely intertwined and enhance one another most intimately in her approach to the Baroque. In this wide-ranging tour of the period, her accomplice was the deft Sicilian theorbist Daniele Caminiti.

Although she naturally included several of the great names – Bach, Vivaldi, Biber – her surprises lay with lesser lights and with an unusual transcription. She opened with a rhapsodic sonata (Seconda) from the early Baroque by Giovanni Battista Fontana, whose simple melodies she embellished with delightful decorations, especially at cadences.

She immediately followed that with the last of 12 instrumental sonatas – believed to be the first by a woman ever to be published – by Isabella Leonarda, an Ursuline nun who composed prolifically right into her eighties.

It opened with a soulful Adagio, and continued as if telling a story, including a lyrical Aria and a brisk Veloce in jig time with a throwaway ending; its use of harmony was astounding. Podger gave its twists and turns typically stylish enthusiasm.

Bach’s Third Cello Suite, BWV1009 in C, is not what you expect in a violin recital, but it transcribes well for the higher instrument. Its Prélude was at once a tour de force, threatening to overshadow what followed.

Yet the jagged Allemande was equally engaging and Podger kept Bach’s different voices clearly apparent. The multiple-stopping of the stately Sarabande was followed by Bourrées, in which she played with the time, but tastefully, before delivering considerable fireworks in the volatile Gigue.

Biber’s Fourth Mystery Sonata, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which calls for scordatura (re-tuning of the strings), emerged as a brilliant set of variations, coolly navigated. Predictably, Podger offered some dazzling virtuosity along the way, notably in the outer movements of a Vivaldi sonata and in the concluding race for the tape of a Schmelzer sonata.

Caminiti shadowed her, if often understatedly, throughout but provided a good rhythmic foundation wherever possible. He also contributed several solos, especially a Piccininni toccata that made bold use of his bass strings and an intricate and delicate Toccata Arpeggiata by Kapsberger. He and Podger make a useful duo but not yet a great one.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Dunedin Consort in Out Of Her Mouth, York Early Music Festival

Carolyn Sampson: “Finding fighting form as both the heroine and her nemesis”. Picture: Marco Borggeve

York Early Music Festival: Dunedin Consort in Out Of Her Mouth, National Centre for Early Music, York, July 12

RARELY has York Early Music Festival dipped its toes into operatic waters, but it conjured some real drama from this unexpected plunge. In a co-production by Dunedin Consort, Hera and Mahogany Opera, directed by Mathilde Lopez, three biblical cantatas by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre were brought together to make what amounted to a one-act opera involving three excellent sopranos, singing an English paraphrase by Toria Banks.

Jacquet was born into a family of musicians and instrument makers in Paris in 1665 and became its most illustrious member, renowned as a composer and harpsichordist. She married the organist Marin de la Guerre in 1684 and ten years later became the first woman in France to write an opera, Céphale et Procris.

Her 12 sacred cantatas of 1708, to texts by the poet and playwright Antoine Houdar de la Motte (1672-1731), deal with characters from the Bible, although she uses only a soprano and continuo plus a violin ad lib.

This means, for example, that in Susanne, the soprano must handle both the title role and that of the two elderly gentlemen ogling her swim, in addition to being narrator. It was a tall order but Anna Dennis rose to the challenge, sporting jeans and T-shirt inscribed “Keep your laws off my body”.

Wrongly accused by the disappointed gents, Susanne is acquitted in court. Hardly what you might expect from Baroque opera, but Jacquet’s concept was undoubtedly vivid. Not for the first time, Lucia Capellaro delivered a searing cello line to accompany Dennis’s well-wrought tension.

Alys Roberts, in full white wedding finery, sparkly top and shiny boots, represented Rachel in the second cantata, which was originally entitled Rachel and Jacob. She was called upon to play her fiancé Jacob as well as her father Laban, who effectively demolished their wedding plans by substituting his elder daughter Leah for Rachel at the altar.

Although her declamation was not always clear, there was no doubting Roberts’s commitment, forthright in her own bitter disappointment, indignantly menacing as Jacob and smugly philosophical as Laban delivering the moral that we cannot always have what we want.

Toria Banks confessed that her version moved the focus away from Jacob towards Rachel’s own feelings, in keeping with the thrust of the evening.

The third cantata Judith was much the most ferocious, with Carolyn Sampson in a silk shift finding fighting form as both the heroine and her nemesis Holofernes, fortunately playing the latter before drunkenness took hold of him. In the interlude while he fell asleep, harpsichord and theorbo were silent, allowing violin and cello gently to the fore. Otherwise, all was rhythmic fire.

The “beheading” was achieved with two large watermelons that were beaten to a pulp, their pieces collected and held up triumphantly in a bag before being kicked like a football. It was gruesome enough. But Sampson kept her head, veering between trepidation and the excitement of revenge with a determined focus.

The specially constructed stage, built higher and wider over the permanent one with the four players at the back, made for easy sightlines. The non-singing sopranos in each cantata acted as accomplices to the protagonist, giving an over-arching unity to the three scenes.

Without access to the original French, it is hard to know how close Toria Banks’s paraphrase – she calls it a “version” – steers to Jacquet’s intentions, but the production emerged as feminist polemic. What it certainly achieved, regardless, was to underline the imaginative power of Jacquet’s scores, both rhythmic and harmonic, giving them an extra impetus they thoroughly deserved.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Helen Charlston & Toby Carr and Marian & Rose Consorts at York Early Music Festival

Helen Charlston: “A voice like no other”

York Early Music Festival: Helen Charlston & Toby Carr, Undercroft, Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, York, July 10; The Marian Consort & Rose Consort of Viols, National Centre for Early Music, York, July 11

THERE is something special about a late-night recital, especially when the lights are low. The low-ceilinged Undercroft, with the audience in darkness and the performers dimly back-lit, was just the ticket for a spot of drama.

With the trusty theorbo of Toby Carr for support, Helen Charlston brought her considerable voice to bear on battle-hardened heroines.

Hers is no ordinary mezzo, as in soprano without the high notes. She has a considerable range, both high and low, but her tone is smoothly focused throughout, without sign of gear changing. Add to that a flair for diction which adds conviction to her theatricality, and you have a voice like no other. This was an exciting evening.

She opened and closed with Purcell. His most successful song in Bonduca (Boadicea as imagined by John Fletcher), O Lead Me To Some Peaceful Gloom, neatly captured the heroine’s inner conflict, and An Evening Hymn spoke of bold spiritual confidence.

She also evinced a special feel for the music of17th-century Italian Barbara Strozzi, a singer herself. The bitter-sweet pain of L’Heraclito Amoroso and the marvellously Italianate decorations in La Travagliata (The Tormented Woman) were meat and drink to Charlston’s skill.

She took her programme title, Battle Cry, from an eponymous work by Owain Park setting poetry by Georgia Way, which she premiered in 2021. It pictures intimate reactions to four ‘abandoned’ women: a lament for Boadicea, the solitude of Philomela, a prayer to Sappho and love-regret for Marietta.

Here she showed an uncommon affinity for the words, in vocal lines that were grateful even when occasionally flowery. Carr’s underpinnings were invaluable; as so often elsewhere, his rhythmic awareness added colour to the ebb and flow of passion. Its harmonies were modern but its aura evoked a much earlier era.

The highlight of the programme was the nobility in Charlston’s approach to Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, which allowed us to discern a steely centre to the heroine’s emotional roller-coaster. Her dramatic style suggested that she must soon have a future on the operatic stage.

Carr was with her every step of the way. Indeed, it would have been good to hear more from him alone than the three brief solos we were allowed. Either way, they made a powerful duo.

The Marian Consort, represented by six voices at the NCEM on July 11

THE following lunchtime saw the combination of two consorts, the Rose Consort of Viols, which harks back to this festival’s origins, and the Marian Consort (of six voices). Byrd At Elizabeth’s Court celebrated the great man’s high-wire act as a Roman Catholic under a Protestant ruler.

It also allowed anthems normally heard with organ accompaniment to be experienced with the intimate richness of viols.

At its heart lay Byrd’s carol anthem Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby, which features the Virgin Mary’s gentle retort to the Massacre of the Innocents.

Responding to a new commission from the consorts to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Byrd’s death, Juta Pranulytė sensitively chose the same text to reflect the number of children born into war, cruelty and oppression in our own day.

Pranulytė’s smooth vocal lines moved in mainly close harmony over viols required at times to produce trills and portamentos. The soprano opened at the top of her range and needed to negotiate several high semi-tonal shifts.

The atmosphere thus conjured was elegiac, combining comfort with tears, in a style reminiscent of Byrd’s own musical misgivings about the plight of Roman Catholics under Elizabeth. Apart from its prologue, which was diffuse, this was a canny piece of writing that fell easily on the ear.

Several verse anthems surrounded this centrepiece. The higher-voiced soloists mainly needed to enunciate more clearly, but choral blend was exquisite. Byrd’s rare setting of Italian, the Ariosto poem La Verginella, was delicately treated by the soprano Caroline Halls.

Other highlights included the madrigal-style Come To Me Grief, For Ever, sung unaccompanied, and a gorgeous Amen to close the New Year carol O God That Guides The Cheerful Sun. The Tallis motet O Sacrum Convivium, sung from the back of the hall, was an apt reminder of Byrd’s important mentor and (later) close colleague.

The Roses offered several pieces on their own, including a five-part Tallis fantasia reconstructed by John Milsom and Byrd’s voluntary for Lady Nevell, infused with snappy figurations. His variation-packed Browning was typical of the ensemble’s smooth dexterity.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on Yorkshire Baroque Soloists & Rose Consort of Viols, York Early Music Festival

Helen Charlston: “Alto voice so clear in both quality and volume in the lower range”

York Early Music Festival: Yorkshire Baroque Soloists & Rose Consort of Viols, Body And Soul, St Lawrence Church, York, July 11

THIS was excellent. Real refinement and clarity was the order of the day, both in texture and line. The balance was impeccable, the instrumental playing was crisp, articulate, and the singers a joy.

They seemed at ease as soloists, in ensemble engagement and comfortable too in their own vocal range: this was particularly true of Helen Charlston. Not that she was the pick of an excellent quintet, but I haven’t heard an alto voice so clear in both quality and volume in the lower range. The church acoustic was excellent, and it behaved itself too.

However, my role isn’t just to soak the performance with appreciation and blessings but to review it, so here we go. 

The concert was descriptively labelled Body And Soul, which was particularly appropriate for the first-half performance of Buxtehude’s vocal masterpiece, Membra Jesu Nostri Patientis Sanctissima. The work is a set of seven short, beautifully crafted cantatas for Holy Week. The text is a medieval hymn cycle in which the author looks in wonder at the body of the crucified Christ.

We experience the mystical contemplations of different parts of his body: the feet in the first cantata, to the knees, hands, side and breast, and the heart to the face. Quite extraordinary.

Buxtehude’s music has a gentle, austere beauty to it, and this was enhanced by the economy of performers: five soloists, six instrumentalists, including Peter Seymour on organ, plus the Rose Consort of Viols.

The soloists teased out every nuance of the text. They lingered deliciously on every expressive dissonance and suspension, while the players added warmth, colour, as well as crisp commentary.

There was a gorgeously intense, yet poignant concerto Quid Sunt Plagae Istae. Maybe it was just me, but I thought the dramatic percussive opening of this third cantata suggestive of the nails being hammered into Christ’s hands. Perhaps not.

The dramatic focal centre of the work was the fourth movement Ad Cor. The Vulnerasti Cor Meum had a tortured intimacy, the singers embracing the honesty and humanity of the text. The precision in the agitated off-beat accents of the concluding Amen worked well.

Nevertheless, in the concluding four movements of Ad Faciem there is a relaxing of the tension, a meditative closure.

The performance captured a fascinating subtle layer of creative tension between the Catholic mysticism of the text and Buxtehude’s Lutheran faith. Maybe. We don’t seem to dwell on the sufferings of the crucified Christ but celebrate the “graces that flow from that suffering”, its humanity. 

In short, the performance was both radiant and illuminating. A triumph for Peter Seymour, who must have been delighted.

Two little grumbles. Firstly, although it did have the intended dramatic effect, change of colour and so forth, the introduction of the excellent Rose Consort of Viols did temporarily break the spell. But then again, I wasn’t ready or expecting the changing of the guard.

Secondly, although I invariably find (composer and) performer biographies tedious essays in vanity, I would have expected some biographical acknowledgement of these superb performers in the programme: sopranos Bethany Seymour and Helen Neeves, alto Helen Charlston, tenor Jonathan Hanley and bass Frederick Long. Violins, Lucy Russell and Gabriella Jones; cello, Rachel Gray; violone, Rosie Moon; theorbo, Toby Carr and organ & director, Peter Seymour. Take a bow.

Finally, the concert was dedicated to the memory of Klaus Neumann, an important figure in the York Early Music Festival. Mr Seymour gave a touching tribute and kept the programme photo on the organ next to the Buxtehude score. It summed the evening up nicely.

P.S. Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude was very good too.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on The City Musick at York Early Music Festival

The City Musick: Twenty, rather than seven, played at York Early Music Festival last Friday in a Renaissance Big Band line-up

York Early Music Festival: The City Musick, The Count and The Duke: A Renaissance Big Band, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, July 7

IN the YEMF brochure, director William Lyons said: “With a band of 20 musicians, The City Musick presents a homage to the iconic recordings made by David Munrow in the 1970s, but with a modern twist”. Which is exactly what we got, with a jazzy title too. The Count and The Duke: A Renaissance Big Band.

Praetorius’s opening rustic welcome was indicative of what was to come: gorgeous sounds, ripples of florid decoration, music of such intimacy and balance. Balance, I think, is key here.

The Renaissance Big Band was arranged into groups of soft instruments:  strings (the splendid Monteverdi String Band) and woodwind, plus the (not very) loud instruments – brass, keyboard, lute and theorbo, and percussion.

This also gives us a link to the ‘big band’ set-ups of the great Duke Ellington and Count Basie that were also grouped into instrumental sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm.

The way the instrumental groups engaged with each other throughout the concert was especially rewarding. Firstly, the alternating loud and soft instrumental groups meant that these contrasting exchanges were inherently employed to gentle dramatic effect.

They also reinforced the Renaissance dance music, adding another (gentle) dramatic layering. For example, the second-half collection of Masque arrangements of Robert Johnson, John Adson and William Brade.

Not only did the opening string section pass on the musical baton to the brass section, but there was also role play involved in these courtly dances. The strings asked the brass players to join the courtly dance; the music was seductive and invitational. And readily accepted.

We were also able to enjoy the musical moment as the individual ensembles embellished their own musical offerings before the exchanges and then collectively signing off. We could also savour the timbres, the instrumental tone colour.

Like the delightful intimacy of strings and theorbo in Praetorius’s Courante, the woodwind and percussion in the Suite des Bransles arrangement and the extraordinary wind sound when joined by the uniquely rasping racket in Susato’s Suite des Rondes.

The arrangement of Thoinot Arbeau’s Suite des Branles was arguably the most memorable contribution of the first set, with its ground-bass ushering in other instrumental players, metric (hemiola), syncopated gear changes and infectious foot-tapping music designed to put a smile on your face. Or as Count Basie put it: “If you play a tune and a person don’t tap their feet, don’t play the tune.”

Then there were the John Skene English Country Dances arrangements. They were performed by bagpipes and a hurdy gurdy. Bagpipes, surely not! But music for the original country dances of the (English) villages were indeed played by a bagpipe. Don’t know about the hurdy gurdy. The pastoral, chocolatey tunes were a delight.

And then we had the promised modern twist, notably in William Lyons’s arrangement of Maurizio Cazzati and Tarquinio Merula’s Ciaccona. Here a simple ground-bass is joined by weaving lines of string variations, then by the other players in a sound world reminiscent of Pachelbel’s Canon. Maybe. There also seemed to be echoes of the Penguin Café Orchestra and minimalism: the signing-off with striking woodblock hits and pizzicato strings recalled music by John Adams. Well, it did for me anyway.

Review by Steve Crowther