Now in its fourth year, the Keble Early Music Festival continues to grow in ambition and vision. Once again the programme features some of the most critically-acclaimed exponents of music from the pre-Classical era, culminating with a performance of the Bach B Minor Mass in the Butterfield Chapel on Saturday evening, February 25th.
On Thursday, the Festival evoked one of the most significant periods in the development of Western music. Abendmusik ('evening music') was a recreation of the Advent recitals that took place in the late 17th century at the Marienkirche in Lübeck, where two of the most celebrated musicians of the day were the organists.
Franz Tunder held the post from 1642 to 1667, and it was he who initiated the Sunday concerts in the church. He was succeeded by Dietrich Buxtehude, under whose direction the Abendmusik grew in renown, capturing the imagination of one Johann Sebastian Bach, who travelled all the way from Arnstadt to hear the great composer and virtuoso play. His music, and therefore nearly all that came after it, was profoundly influenced by what he heard.
Music from all three composers was included in the programme for Keble's evening of Abendmusik. It featured countertenor Simon Ponsford and two musicians from the Oxford-based ensemble Instruments of Time & Truth: Persephone Gibbs, viola, and Asako Morikawa, viola da gamba. Organist and musicologist Edward Higginbottom, who is a director of Instruments of Time & Truth, directed the performance.
The evening began with Buxtehude's Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor (BuxWV 146) for solo organ, followed by Tunder's Salve mi Jesu for solo voice and strings. An arrangement for strings of the Sonata in A, opus 1/3 (BuxWV 254), by Buxtehude was next, and Simon Ponsford then returned for the only Bach piece, Schliesse, mein Herze (BWV 248).
Edward Higginbottom's second solo organ piece, Tunder's Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, was the penultimate work and the evening closed with Buxtehude's Jubilate Domino (BuxWV 64) for solo voice, gamba and continuo.
If you know Keble's glorious Butterfield Chapel, you will know that the manuals of the splendid Tickell organ are set in the gallery over the side chapel, which was built to house Holman Hunt's The Light Of The World. The organ itself, with its ornate prospect pipes, is placed immediately above the gallery in the transept loft, which allows it the full benefit of the chapel's superb acoustics.
The musicians gathered around Edward Higginbottom in the gallery and only Simon Ponsford's elegant head and shoulders were visible to the audience. This was a fortunate arrangement, notwithstanding the considerable visual appeal of the ensemble, because it privileged the music and the surroundings above the performers.
We sat in flickering candlelight, quietly awed by Butterfield's magnum opus, while the music soared with formal majesty around us. Simon Ponsford's poignant and disciplined countertenor shimmered above the wistful strings, with the organ providing the profound harmonic foundation.