Early Music by Candlelight Summer Festival 2008

Charivari Agréable perform exceptionally good early music in magical surroundings.
Exeter College Chapel, Fri July 4th - Sun August 17th 2008. For full listings see Charivari Agréable's website.

July 27, 2008
Choral music, by its very nature, is about restraint, balance, harmony. This concert exemplified these qualities both in the dexterous and sonorous organ playing of Kah-Ming Ng and the perfectly-rehearsed and exquisitely controlled singing of Henry Jones (counter-tenor), Alastair Carey (tenor) and Jon Stainsby (bass). The fiercely restrained harmonies of those three exquisite voices in the acoustically perfect setting of Exeter College chapel were divinely beautiful, all the more so for the occasional glimpses of the power that was being deliberately reined in.

The concert’s title, Singing in Secret, refers to a time when you couldn’t raise your voice to praise the lord with reckless abandon because the current regime’s way of expressing its unwillingness to tolerate your religious practices might involve disgrace, imprisonment and possibly death. Catholics in England under Elizabeth I were prohibited from celebrating Mass and had to do it secretly and (it goes without saying) quietly. They still wanted to have music with their devotions, so there was a need for a new kind of liturgical music – religious chamber music, as it were, modest in scale, for domestic performance.

The concert brought together a broad selection of Catholic liturgical music from both British and Spanish composers. It celebrated the work of two exceptionally successful survivors – Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Tallis somehow contrived to prosper and have a very distinguished career at the Chapel Royal under the successive regimes of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I; his younger assistant Byrd, a much more overt Catholic, remained out of prison even though records show an unfortunate gentleman was chucked into Newgate in 1605 just for having a copy of Byrd’s “papistical” Gradualia in his pocket. Gradualia, like the Mass in Three Parts from which four items on the concert programme were taken, was music Byrd had written for Catholics who had to conduct masses in secret in their own houses. Other British contributions came from Oxford’s John Bull, Peter Philips and Richard Dering, all of whom went to live and work abroad in order to have the freedom to compose what they wanted. Spanish contributions came from the Seville genius Francesco Guerrero, blind organist Antonio de Cabezon, and priest-composer Juan Vasquez.

July 20, 2008
The Three Countertenors
20th July & 5th August
Another evening of fun with Charivari Agreable. Fun? Yes indeed – a group perhaps better known for a rather austere approach to early music have provided a program designed for maximum enjoyment. What’s more remarkable is that in doing so they have sacrificed none of the high-mindedness, intelligently selected programmes and willingness to explore the stranger byways of the baroque era that have made them so successful in the past.

The opening gambit, a Schütz pastoral, was pretty, if ever so slightly dull, However, things then rapidly took off with an italianate madrigal by Dering that was Gesualdo-like in its tonal ambiguity, and kept rising with a couple of transcendent Monteverdi pieces. The first, the lovelorn ‘Interrote Speranzi’, was an intense, continuo dirge that showcased the passionate melancholy of the countertenor voice in general, and the virtuosic skill of Nicholas Clapton in particular.

Clapton, along with director Kah-Ming Ng, also hosted the evening with learned good humour – even lightly sparring with Ng over the provenance of the concert’s big showpiece. This was a frenetic arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Sound the Trumpet’ in which the trumpet’s voice was replaced by Roderick Morris who, despite being the youngest of the trio, showed a mature restraint and subtlety.

In the second half, matters lightened considerably. We opened with a pair of comic pieces by Couperin (suffering slightly from the echoey nature of the venue) and then, a solo by Morris, moved on to a trio of popular songs by Porter, Weill and Gershwin, performed by the trio with clear and infectious enjoyment. This was particularly evident in ‘I Got Rhythm’, where Rupert Griffin’s genially physical performance raised some unexpected audience laughter.

After the evening’s single misstep – a bit of sentimental tosh by film composer John Jarvis, we closed (officially at least) with an extraordinary little mid-20th century mood-piece by Harold Noble, ‘Northern Dusk’, whose rich and shifting harmonies, characteristic of British composition of that period, made for an affecting experience.

It was admirably modest of the group not to have prepared an encore, but on their third curtain call they agreed to a recap of ‘Sound the Trumpet’ that was clearly as much fun for them the second time around as it was for us. Judging by the raucous applause from all sections of the audience, it looks like this was an all-round crossover hit – something to be welcomed by all but the most resolute musical snobs.

July 20, 2008
Consonanze Stravaganti
18th July & 12th August
I don’t think that I have ever reviewed a concert of instrumental music before – so please excuse any ignorance of etiquette or precise language on my behalf.

This concert (for harpsichord and two violins) is part of the Early Music by Candlelight Summer Festival that is now an annual feature of the Oxford music scene. Charivari Agreable are certainly an ambitious and talented group of musicians who have a wide field of interests and a huge amount of knowledge of their genres.

Consonanze Stravaganti is billed as an examination of Vivaldi’s Musical Heritage and it is certainly a wide-ranging programme. Given my lack of knowledge of Italian chamber music from the 16th – 18th centuries, this repertoire was completely new to me. I have heard a fair amount of Vivaldi (no, not just the Four Seasons) and it is clear from the one piece of his that was part of the evening that he was far ahead of those around him at the time.

I must admit that I found some of the pieces rather indistinguishable from others. That probably says more about my lack of knowledge of the genre but they did seem to rather blend into one another without any real character.

The playing was clearly superb. The interplay between the violinists was a joy to watch – you could clearly see the way that they were communicating by eye and gesture to create a real conversation between their instruments. There is something very generous about the acoustic in Exeter Chapel – which meant that the harpsichord was somewhat lost in the balance for much of the evening.

The chapel – as I am sure everyone who visits it will say – is a delightful setting. A perfect gem of Victorian design – elegant, ornate and full of pattern. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the baroque music that Charivari present there.

So, to conclude, whilst I may not have appreciated every piece in the programme, I did enjoy the experience and certainly can feel privileged to have witnessed some expert musicianship.

July 10, 2008
A Sweet Concord of Winds
10th July, 1st and 10th August
Arrive early if you want to go to this concert of baroque music in Exeter Chapel! The chapel has limited capacity and this is a popular and very accessible collection of musical pieces.

Kah-Ming Ng directs Charivari Agréable, he plays the harpsichord and he also introduces the pieces, giving you background on the composers, the music, the instruments and the period in an informative but gently humorous way. Through him we learn that the trio was the favourite form in baroque times, two equal voices and a bass. And here’s another good reason to go early and get seats near the front: it is certainly worth hearing what Kah-Ming Ng has to say and that is difficult from the back of the chapel.

There are two pieces by Bach, the first a trio sonata for voice flute, baroque flute and harpsichord and the second a sonata for baroque flute and harpsichord, the latter rather an atypical piece for this composer. If you are used to conventional recordings of Bach, then you think there will be no surprises in the music, but the instruments and the sounds they produce are truly surprising – and wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the second sprightly sonata.

The second piece, a Ciaccona by Pachelbel for harpsichord, has an interesting history. Ciaccona was apparently a very rude dance from Latin America which was shunned by polite society. It moved to the northern hemisphere and was still fairly raucous in Spain but got steadily more stately as it moved north. Pachelbel’s Ciaccona leans towards the stately although reminders of its livelier past are still audible and Kah-Ming Ng’s performance brings out all the subtle nuances.

There are also two pieces by Vivaldi. The first is a concerto but not in the form to which we are now accustomed, with one soloist pitted against an orchestra (a form which was not known in the baroque period), but a trio with recorder, baroque oboe and harpsichord. The second piece, a sonata for baroque oboe and harpsichord (atypical for Vivaldi who wrote mostly for the violin) was perhaps my favourite piece of the evening, the lyrical music blending with the beautiful surroundings.

The last piece was a trio sonata by Telemann, a delicate harmony of different voices and a fitting end to a most enjoyable evening.

A quick note about the other musicians, Jane Downer and Rachel Moss: I can only guess at the degree of difficulty in playing instruments that are, by today’s standards, very limited, but the music they produced was beautiful and interesting and surprising and delightful.

July 8, 2008
French Suites
8th July & 15th August
A candlelit harpsichord recital by Kah-Ming Ng of predominantly French Baroque music is interspersed by colourful stories told by the musician about the lives of the composers featured. The 6 musical pieces performed are used to present Bach in context to his emerging European contemporaries in this Victorian Gothic chapel. The evening begins with a free form prelude of Louis Couperin’s ‘Suite in F major’. This instantly makes the eyes lift upwards towards the vaulted ceiling as the four flowing movements Ng has selected at random offer the mind space to unwind. The ease and humour with which the musician himself speaks to the audience draws the listener towards many rich memorable insights. Ng makes the minutiae of this period of baroque highly accessible for the newcomer. French music stresses the value of taste whereas Italian music puts greater emphasis on passion - an observation that immediately opens up the audience’s ability to appreciate D’Anglebert’s theatrical ‘Les Songes agréables’ performed after the 15 minute interval.

The intricate carvings inside the chapel enhance Baroque music by offering an opulent setting. The mosaic altar triptychs and stained glass windows portraying a Florentine colour palette empower the audience to imagine the life of the monarchs who defined the courts where early composers would hone their craft. Ng helps the listener consider just how important survival of court politics is to a successful baroque musician. He shares recent findings that suggest Francois Couperin, whilst previously believed to have been unsuccessful at courtly politics was in fact engaged in composing for the exiled James II. However simply having the surname Couperin traditionally guarantees a good career at court for a French musician. Francois Couperin’s ‘Les Baricades Misterieuses’ is one of the more challenging yet playful pieces of the evening. It's likely interpretation is of women’s hoops: worn under skirts these barricades prevent the entry of gentlemen. Although this is an evening of French Baroque music composed just before and after the turn of the eighteenth century there is a shot of German compositions by Bach’s one time agent Georg Bohm. The heavy Germanic Fugue turns into a French Chaconne at the end of the piece by Bohm; the Chaconne being one of the many forms that Ng executes to perfection with the repetitive bass line running continually through the melody.

The ‘French Suites’ programme lasts just under 2 hours and shows the versatility of both the period instrument itself and of Ng who plays the harpsichord with both scientific precision and intense humanity. The range of feelings inspired by the pieces is diverse and it is a treat to sit in the chapel and let the music dictate the mood. Highly moving is the flowing piece by Johann Jacob Froberger, composed to mark the passing of a friend. The very end of the piece is simplicity itself, a short upwardly moving scale marking the journey of the soul to heaven, but the virtuosity of Ng turns each single note into a spine tingling experience. The optimal sound of a harpsichord is heard 15 paces away but tonight Ng fills the entire space with the energy of a single sound and holds it there.

July 6, 2008
The Fayrest Quene
4th, 15th & 29th July, & 4th August 2008
The Charivari Agréable Summer Festival began in style, with a larger audience than I've ever seen squeezed in to Exeter Chapel before. An eclectic mix of visitors and residents of many nationalities, we had come to hear about The Fayrest Quene. The lights went down, and the promised candlelight got brighter as the stained glass windows darkened.

With no introduction we were plunged straight into the first piece - for recorder and virginals. It was immediately clear that Layil Barr and Kah-Ming Ng are both splendid musicians, and that anyone who does not rate the recorder as a serious instrument ought to hear this and have their mind changed! The musicians seemed very together, communicating with nods and glances.

Readings (mostly of Shakespearean sonnets) and short introductions interspersed the musical offerings - read by Isobel Collyer who has a rich and beautiful voice. The Tillbury Speech is, of course, a highlight of the evening, but so too are the sonnets which are used to illustrate anecdotes about Elizabeth I's suitors. The emotional depth of her trysts, partings and banishments is fleshed out with the richness of the sonnets, which bring these lovers' tales to life.

There are some songs, and suprisingly Collyer with her deep speaking voice turns out to be a soprano. One or two of the songs seemed a little more ragged than the duets, but I would guess this is a teething problem, and will be perfected by next time. Mostly the music is duets for virginals and either recorder or viol, at which Barr seems equally proficient! The Bells, by William Byrd, is for virginals alone, and anticipates the French Suites concert, a harpsichord recital by Ng. It may not seem the right instrument for the lacy and intricate ringing patterns of church bells, but the piece is absolutely beautiful, and not one I have ever heard before.

Barr's recorder playing is shown off to the full in Greensleeves, variations on the theme of this cliched and much maligned tune. She throws the notes into great flourishes, dashing up and down scales full of accidentals. This music is late Renaissance, heralding the details of the baroque. Instead of dramatic changes in volume there are constantly changing time signatures, flitting between counts of two and three in a bar, like a dance full of three-legged hops. It takes a little while to get into the right idiom, but once you do the music sticks in your head and you can't get it out!

I can't honestly say I learnt much about The Fayrest Quene herself, perhaps because the music drove the facts straight out again! But I did hear some really beautiful music beautifully played, in a very atmospheric place, by candlelight. I'm not surprised the Charivari Agreable Summer Festival is fast becoming an Oxford tradition, and recommend you taste it!
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