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  • Miles Hedley

EARLY MUSIC FESTIVAL at Blackheath Halls

The annual International Early Music Festival returned to newly revamped Blackheath Halls this year with its usual array of the unusual.

Shawms, curtals, crumhorns, rebecs and serpents lined up alongside tambors, theorbos, hurdy-gurdies, gitterns and psalteries to catch the public’s attention in the exhibition that attracts buyers, sellers and makers from around the world.

And there were dozens of performances by expert players of instruments that now seem to us to be downright bizarre.

Take the theorbo, for example. It’s a giant lute that, standing on its end, is the same height as an average British male.

And speaking of lutes, why did some of them have half a dozen strings while others had more than 20? The most likely explanation I heard was that rich medieval folk who could afford such things liked showing off.

During the three days of the festival, there were regular 40-minute recitals round the corner at the church of St Michael and All Angels, a strange Victorian gothic confection that perfectly reflected the festival’s sense of oddness.

The best of the performances I saw was by Wezi Elliott who brilliantly revealed the”l subtle delicacy of the might theorbo.

Each lunchtime and evening All Saints parish church hosted lovely concerts by the likes of Junior Trinity, the dazzling Flanders Recorder Quartet and acclaimed chamber ensemble Da Camera.

And each night there was a gala concert featuring major early music stars, including a programme of wonderful melancholic music by the Chelys viol consort at St Margaret’s and, as a grand finale for the festival, a barnstorming celebration of Handel at St Alfege’s by the marvellous Thomas Tallis Society Choir and the Orchestra of The Sixteen.

If you’ve never been to this festival, do your ears – and your soul – a favour and buy yourself a ticket next autumn. It’s an absolute joy.

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