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  • Miles Hedley


Updated: Nov 11, 2019

If anyone ever doubts the contemporary relevance of what’s played and displayed at the perennially marvellous London International Festival of Early Music, just remind them that most of it was created when Europe in general and this country in particular were riven by sectarian hatred. Sound familiar?

The recital programme at the 2019 Blackheath-based event was heavy on works composed between the late 16th and early 18th century, the setting for the religious and political divisions that sparked the apocalyptic Thirty Years War, the murderous English Civil War and the bloodbaths of the Jacobite rebellions.

In a world now soured by Brexit, the rise of the right, climate-change denial and the ascendancy of oligarchs like Trump and Putin, the connection is all too obvious.

But despite the underlying darkness, LIFEM is a celebration of past geniuses and a testament to our present determination to shun despair, raise our consciousness and also have a thoroughly good time through the power of great music.

This year’s three-day exhibition of instruments by makers and dealers at Blackheath Halls boasted more than 60 stands from across Europe and as far afield as Japan and Brazil. On sale were an array of historical wonders including medieval bagpipes, dulcians, curtals, citterns, gitterns, clavichords, spinets, cornetti, serpents, crumhorns, citoles, hurdy-gurdies, lutes, theorbos, psalteries, rebecs, recorders (including a 6ft-tall contrabass), sackbutts, shawms, chalumeaux, viols, harps and baroque guitars – and that’s just for starters.

And then there were the professional performers – oh my, they were amazing. Some, such as the Thomas Tallis Choir, lutenist Elizabeth Kenny (above), recorder queen Sarah Jeffery, choral group Solomon’s Knot and baroque superstars Red Priest are world famous and you only have to spend a few minutes in their company to understand why.

Others, like the Tinka Pypker-Anders Muskens soprano/fortepiano duo, recorder virtuoso Olwen Foulkes and recorder ensembles Parandrus and Palisander (pictured top) may be less widely known but must surely be destined for global recognition one day very soon.

The recitals – all at St Michael and All Angels in Blackheath other than the Thomas Tallis concert at St Alfege’s, Greenwich – produced any number of highlights: a heartbreakingly gorgeous version of Tallis’s Lamentations by Solomon’s Knot (above), a lovely take on Byrd’s Susanna Fair by Parandrus and mezzo-soprano Sarah Anne Champion, the musical pyrotechnics of Red Priest’s performance of Tartini Devil’s Trill, Elizabeth Kenny’s renditions of 400-year-old lute and theorbo compositions by Hieronymus Kapsberger and – my favourite of all - Palisander’s magical transposition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue In D minor from organ to four recorders.

In common with thousands of other music-lovers, I have been going to this Early Music Shop festival for years and it never disappoints. But was this year’s the best ever? I reckon so - till the next one.

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