REVIEW: York Early Music Christmas Festival, Yorkshire Bach Choir, 14/12/2019

Bass soloist Gareth Brynmor John

York Early Music Christmas Festival: Yorkshire Bach Choir/Baroque Soloists, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, December 14

THE York Early Music Christmas Festival finished brightly on Saturday with Handel’s Messiah before a packed house. Tempos were rapid, but that comes with the territory when Peter Seymour is at the helm (he sat at the harpsichord and even fingered it from time to time).

Nothing wrong with speed: it is widely thought to deliver excitement. But audiences, like electorates, are not easily fooled and Messiah is not really about excitement. Although traditionally wheeled out at Yuletide, its true focus is the message of Easter.

Mezzo soprano soloist Helen Charlston. Picture: Matthew Badham

One of Seymour’s soloists, mezzo Helen Charlston, appeared to realise this and took him on. He raced into her aria, He Was Despised – and she managed to slow him down. Thus her unaccompanied voicing of “despised” and “rejected”, with a little sob in the latter word, unexpectedly became the evening’s most telling moment.

The choir of 36 voices was impeccably on the ball, its diction superb and its staccato runs unimpeachably clear. Six tenors were not enough in this company and the bass line lacked its usual authority, but the upper voices – several countertenors included – were exemplary.

York soprano soloist Bethany Seymour. Picture: Jim PoynerJim Poyner

The best of the soloists was the bass Gareth Brynmor John, relaxed and forthright in equal measure and especially stirring in Why Do The Nations. In contrast, Gwilym Bowen’s increasingly effortful tenor verged on the operatic, although perfectly suited to Thou Shalt Break Them. Apart from her smooth I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, Bethany Seymour’s soprano arias were shrieky, with dodgy breath control.

No such problems with the tireless orchestra. Led by the spritely Lucy Russell, the strings laid a consistently stylish foundation. Yet relentless speed is only one of countless ways to treat this work. It would be nice to hear some of them occasionally.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Fieri Consort, National Centre for Early Music, York, 11/12/2019

Helen Charlston: “Some splendid coloratura”

York Early Music Christmas Festival: Fieri Consort, National Centre for Early Music, York, December 11

SORRY to pour cold water on your show, chaps, but this was not the oratorio it was billed to be. Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger, an Italian with Austrian forebears, described his theatrical piece of 1629, The Shepherds of Bethlehem, as a “dialogo recitativo” – a dialogue in musical speech – a forerunner of oratorio certainly, but not the real McCoy. That was still to come.

Now that’s cleared up, Kapsperger certainly made a hefty stab at dramatising the Christmas story and the five singers and four players of Fieri put up a pretty good case for it. So we had the shepherds and the angels battling for the spotlight, while the librettist – a pope-in-waiting – delivered unctuous praise of the present pope, Urban VIII, via a narrator.

What the work lacked in arias was pleasingly filled in with motets and other madrigal-style commentaries, mainly from an earlier generation of composers. So Hassler hinted at the Annunciation, Michael Praetorius’s rose bloomed again, Marenzio admired the Christ-child and Victoria evoked the mystery of it all.

Fieri bring plenty of meat to the table in this repertory. These are strong, modern voices quite without the preciousness once so treasured by early-music buffs, but smooth at the edges as well, so that their blend is exceptionally polished. Shading was less prevalent here. There was even some splendid coloratura from Hannah Ely and Helen Charlston, courtesy of Carissimi, and the instruments kept up tasty chatter behind it all.

Review by Martin Dreyer

York Early Music Christmas Festival will start…earlier!

Fieri Consort: taking a trip to Christmas Eve in 1629 Rome in York
THE 2019 York Early Music Christmas Festival is starting earlier, two hours earlier, to be precise, after Solomon’s Knot’s sold-out opening concert on December 7 was moved to 4.30pm.

Performing without a conductor and from memory at the National Centre for Early Music, the 14-piece baroque group will present Festive Music from 17th century France, as they make their much anticipated Christmas festival debut with a brace of Charpentier works, A Song On The Birth Of Our Lord and Pastoral On The Birth Of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

“We’re a group of singers and players who are prepared to take risks in order to communicate more directly with our audiences,” they say.

To make sure they arrive in York well in time for their 12.30pm Sunday concert, the recorder group Palisander will be travelling by car, rather than risking public transport!

Lydia Gosnell, Miriam Monaghan, Caoimhe de Paor and Elspeth Robertson will perform A Yuletyde Eve on recorders of all shapes and sizes, as they return to the NCEM, in St Margaret’s Church, Walmgate, after playing there in March.

Expect an afternoon hour of “very entertaining” Renaissance music, including works by Praetorius and Tye, as well as some more familiar carols.

Owain Park, a former winner of the NCEM Young Composers Award, will direct his ensemble, The Gesualso Six, in Videte Miraculum at 6.30pm on December 8.

Inspired by Advent being a time of mystery, reflection and wonder, this two-hour journey through the ages and across borders will weave Christmas carols, such as Praetorius’s Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen, seamlessly with 21st century works, including Park’s luscious On The Infancy Of Our Saviour.

On December 9, wind ensemble Boxwood & Brass re-create A Georgian Country House Christmas at 7.30pm. Their “Band of Musick” play as a traditional Georgian militia ensemble of clarinets, horns and bassoon, regaling their audience with quintets, marches, dance music and regional carols.

Very sadly, Joglaresa’s Sing We Yule concert on December 10 at 7.30pm will be their last visit to the NCEM.  “Their leader, Belinda Sykes, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer,” says NCEM artistic director Delma Tomlin. “I shall deeply miss Belinda and her wonderful consort; she has been such a fantastic leading light of the Early Music world, and Joglaresa’s concerts here have been a joy.”

Belinda, singer and recorder and bagpipe player, will lead Joglaresa in an effervescent programme of traditional carols and wassails, lullabies and dance tunes, from Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales as they “chase out the chill from the Celtic fringes of Europe”.

On Wednesday, December 11 at 6.30pm, Fieri Consort will take a trip to Rome on Christmas Eve in 1629, where a performance of Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger’s oratorio The Shepherds Of Bethlehem is taking place in the lavishly decorated Vatican palace.

Featuring a libretto by the future Pope Clement IX, this Christmas play tells the story of the Nativity through solos, duets, trios and full choruses, interspersed with instrumental and vocal pieces by Kapsperger and his contemporaries.

A second concert is on the move, this one on account of the NCEM being a polling station for the General Election on December 12. Ceruleo will now perform Burying The Dead at St Lawrence’s Church, Hull Road, instead.

Written by Clare Norburn and directed by Thomas Guthrie, with lighting by Pitch Black and costumes by Hannah Pearson, this new theatre show for the 21st century will take the 7.30pm audience on a fictional journey into the head of composer Henry Purcell, played by actor Niall Ashdown.

Purcell is in the throes of his final illness, suffering from feverish hallucinations, wherein the past, present and fantasy collide and his songs take on a life of their own.

Fretwork’s December 13 concert with mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, winner of the 2018 Handel Singing Competition, has sold out. Their 6.30pm programme, From Virgin’s Womb, will interweave William Byrd’s In Nomines with seasonal Elizabethan music by Holborne, Peerson, Weelkes and Gibbons, the songs being accompanied by viols. Jollity meets piousness, rejoicing and reflection meet drunkenness and misbehaviour, in Fretwork’s company.

The Mellstock Band’s Philip Humphries has an interesting programme credit: not only voice, but also serpent. “Yes, this Dorset band bring real serpents,” says Delma, ahead of snakes arriving on December 14 at 1pm.

Humphries and co’s Christmas Frolics in period costumes will be an uproarious celebration of dance, drink and general misbehaviour, as carried on in many villages until a century ago, along with sobering admonitions from the puritans, parsons, preachers and angels.

Carols dedicated to dancing, bell ringing and cider will vie for attention with “the Devil’s own tunes”, complemented by the Wessex stories of Thomas Hardy and William Barnes.

The York musicians of the Yorkshire Bach Choir, under the direction of Peter Seymour, will close the festival with a 7pm performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, on December 14.Helen Charlston will be among the soloists, alongside soprano Bethany Seymour, tenor Gwilym Bowen and bass Gareth Brynmor John.

“We will echo Handel’s London performances, including some rarely heard versions,” says Peter.

All concerts will take place at the NCEM unless otherwise stated. Tickets are on sale on 01904 658338 or at

Charles Hutchinson

Copyright of The Press, York
Fretwork: sold-out concert