Reviews from the Brighton Early Music Festival

The Telling
The Telling

‘The Lily And The Rose’ – The Telling (Clare Norburn, soprano; Ariane Prüssner, mezzo soprano; Leah Stuttard, harp, voice, frame drum) in Brighton Early Music Festival at St Paul’s Church, Friday November 4.

A concert of ancient songs themed on the symbolism of two flowers, the lily with its purity and brightness, the rose representing love, evidently seems not to be the kind of event into which male performers uninhibitedly unloose their talents and interpretations.

Women like these three from The Telling, two English, one German, had no such admittedly hypothetical hesitation, even though almost all the florally inflected words were written by men. Although, how frequently do female song lyrics extol a man in such imagery?

The deep, spacious church is candlelit. All the texts in their glory are in the programme. As the audience hushes, the artistes enter through the dark from the back, singing a capella, and exit likewise at the end.

One song, the first of three by Hildegarde of Bingen, the now familiar 12th Century abbess, is sung by mezzo Ariane Prüssner as she walks slowly around the perimeter of the nave. “ . . . your eyes should never yield until you might see my body full of buds.” These three female songs, pointedly placed or not, were the evening’s last words.

Leah Stuttard’s 13th Century replica harp, not ever present in accompaniment, but twice in a solo role, casts its inevitable spell in the flickering atmosphere. There was a sometimes bewildering fascination how her music often moved along its own furrow of line or harmony in complementary counterpoint to the vocalists. A far a cry from the simple, faithfully-following pop or blues accompaniments of the last 65 years.

Stuttard’s own is an occasional third voice, in either harmony or drone. Real fragrance or incense are absent, not there to smell, but they are heard, sometimes substantially, sometimes elusively, in the two importantly contrasting main female voices’ inherent sensuality and their singers’ own artistry.

The theme, echoing the 2017 BREMF one of Nature and Science, widens from flowers to greenery, and religious and secular-orientated texts interact or interweave. The Virgin Mary, of course, is one of the rose’s most commonly-celebrated dedicatees and, as usual, some songs decline to reveal if she or the love of the writer’s life is the real subject.

The evening is a plunge into medieval music of church, court and street musicians, and a tour of love and devotion, pious or earthly, around western Europe. Four Italians songs come first, followed by three English, the last of which is the only recognisable music to most in the audience. It is the carol There is No Rose of Such Virtue as is the Rose that Bore Jesu. It’s unaccompanied, and sung with perfection that is heartstopping in this sudden context.

Set against that familiarity, the three Spanish items next, the first a traditional one, jump out. Prüssner solos, performing from memory and accompanying herself on the hitherto unheard frame drum, fingered and hand-held like a bhodran. A trio of French songs features three voices singing differing texts on one song, and two voices on another.

Finally, five from Germany, whose culture gravitates, as we already realise with the carol O Christmas Tree, towards foliage, are again triggered by the deeper sound of the mezzo in a minor key. Soprano Clare Norburn follows in Under The Lime Tree and here she takes us to an elixir of sensuousness as she interprets a text veiling a subject some way distant from the Virgin Mary.

Norburn’s medieval lines and vocal decorations, with their exciting upward leaps, (sometimes to Bb), are especially touching in the French material. Prüssner scores notably in the Spanish, and creates an appetite for more such-sourced music on a future date.

Apart from the slow few verses of There Is No Rose, these songs are all substantial. Not your three-minute wonder of the modern popular domain. Is it that women might have the greater performing stamina than men?

The Telling want to record a CD of this concert’s material and they invite crowdfunding contributions before December 15, to raise £3,500. Norburn and Prüssner with Kaisa Pulkkinen (harp, recorder) return to Hove’s St Barnabas Church on December 11 (7.30) with a programme called A Medieval Christmas. Expect an occasion of similar dimensions of beauty to this one.

Richard Amey

More from the festival...

A LITTLE LESS CONVERSATION, A LITTLE MORE MUSIC...

YOU can't win them all. It wasn't only the notes which took flight at a Brighton Early Music Festival (BEMF) concert in Hove on Sunday; so did many of the audience.

An afternoon devoted to Johann Sebastian Bach's The Art of Fugue began with a near full house of approaching 200 at the Ralli Hall, but a good 20 or more people walked out before and during the interval.

World-leading viol consort Fretwork playing one of Bach's most dazzling and intriguing works was always going to be a hot ticket.

For those who left early, though, consort leader Richard Boothby's laudable eagerness to point out some of the work's most notable features, comparing the manuscript and printed versions before the performing of each contrapunctus, poured cold water on things.

His powerpoint presentation on counterpoint could certainly have done with being a lot slicker, as he got lost several times in the thicket of Bach's complicated score.

Whether the organisers rapped him over the knuckles with a viol bow at half-time is a moot point, but Boothby good-humouredly pledged at the start of the second half he would spend less time talking and more time playing.

For me, blessed with a keen ear but little theoretical music knowledge, the whole event was one of the most illuminating I've attended for a long time.

For instance, did you know that Bach really did invent jazz, as illustrated by bass viol player Sam Stadlen soloing with a handful of dotted and slurred notes from the second contrapunctus?

Those who lost patience with too much lecturing and left early might just as well have walked out halfway through The Mousetrap. The dénouement was fascinating.

The Art of Fugue was, for a long time, thought to have been left incomplete because of Bach's death.

There's a sudden tailing-off of the music in the manuscript for the 14th contrapunctus, but Boothby pointed out Bach's handwriting was as vigorous as ever at this point and could not have been the pen-work of someone who was blind when he died.

Instead, he supported the theory of New Zealand scholar and musician Indra Hughes that Bach deliberately left the work unfinished as a puzzle for succeeding generations to solve.

In short, following in Bach's mathematical footsteps, it was possible to calculate that if you integrated the theme of the first contrapunctus with the three themes of the 14th and carried out all the necessary inversions, there were 47 bars of music left to fill.

And fill them Fretwork mellifluously did, thanks to a modest Boothby – "I just worked out the links" – and his fellow musicians Stadlen, Asako Morikawa, Reiko Ichise and Emily Ashton playing the climactic notes worked out by Hughes.

One of the BEMF helpers admitted afterwards it had probably been something of a love-it-or-loathe-it "Marmite" event.

I loved it. More "Fugue, what a scorcher" than "Fugue, what a torture".

Frank Horsley

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