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  • Miles Hedley

LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF EARLY MUSIC at Blackheath Halls and St Michael & All Angels

The odds on this year’s London International Festival Of Early Music returning to Blackheath as a live event must have seemed at times almost insurmountable to its organisers due to the continuing uncertainty of Covid regulations and the often chaotic logistics of post-Brexit travel.

However, not only did the team manage to find a way through the maze of red tape and health concerns they also managed to stage an event that was as wonderful as any put on during the festival’s association with Blackheath Halls and the nearby church of St Michael and All Angels.

LIFEM director Chris Butler, artistic director Gill Graham and executive producer Ann Barkway set the tone with the opening concert – a truly magical evening at St Michael’s featuring Liam Byrne on a seven-string viola da gamba and Jonas Nordberg on theorbo with a guest appearance by soprano Lucy Crowe.

The arrangements of 17th century French music would have been enough on their own to earn the recital a five-star review. But it was elevated into the musical stratosphere with the first-ever performance of a new work by acclaimed composer and Trinity Laban professor Errollyn Wallen.

Angel Waters, written specifically for Byrne and Nordberg to premiere at the festival, was a tour de force of huge tonal and emotional shifts, evoking the remote Scottish burn that inspired it, the wild immemorial land through which the stream flows and the timeless ocean into which it empties. Despite the vastness of its vision, it was perfectly captured by these two historical instruments thanks to Wallen’s unerring gift for artistic originality and, of course, the awesome musicianship of Messrs Byrne and Nordberg.

The pair (pictured above with the composer) played it again as their encore – a brilliant decision because it burned into our memories a work that must surely become a classic.

The concert, along with the other evening recitals at the festival, was filmed by Marquee TV for future broadcast.

Byrne was back at the church next day with a programme titled Lessons For The Lyra Viol, this time playing a six-string instrument made famous by the 17th century diarist and dabbler Samuel Pepys. Byrne is as an entertainer as well as a virtuoso and he delighted the audience by telling stories in the gaps between the pieces because many of them required elaborate retuning of his viol. It was a memorable recital.

LIFEM, a charity supported by the Early Music Shop, is not only about performances – it is also an exhibition of instruments and their makers from around the world. Brexit and Covid combined to keep the number of international exhibitors lower than in previous years but there were nevertheless representatives from Japan, the US, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Switzerland as well the UK.

Their presence gave visitors the chance to see and hear some of the most extraordinary instruments that were commonplace in earlier times such as curtals, rebecs, lutes, shawms, cornetti and serpents. Several exhibitors also gave short recitals. For example, I had the good fortune to watch Morwenna Louttit-Vermaat demonstrating her beautiful harps and Rosemary Robinson, accompanied by her daughter on baroque viola and recorders, playing a gorgeous spinet made by her husband Stephen.

Day Two ended with a stunning concert at St Michael’s by Lucy Crowe, lutenist Elizabeth Kenny and harpsichordist Laurence Cummings (above) which showed exactly why these three are in such demand around the world. Crowe has a voice of exceptional clarity, range and drama, assets she showed off to full effect in her heartbreaking take on Dido’s Lament by Purcell which was a highlight of the evening for me. Another was Kenny and Cummings’ sensational arrangement of a Dieupart suite. And who could forget the uproarious encore which featured Cummings bursting into song in Happy Me and revealing he’s also a terrific tenor. The trio rightly got a standing ovation.

Covid rules meant a planned Royal College of Music pairing the next day was reduced to a solo performance by Danny Murphy (below) on lute, theorbo and 19th century guitar. It was a last-minute change but like a great pro he didn’t falter and played an impeccable programme. He’s plainly a talent to watch – at times his fingers were a blur on the necks of all three instruments.

The winners of LIFEM’s Young Ensemble award always get the chance to play full concerts at the following year’s festival. The 2020 prize was shared by two groups and both were given headline spots this year.

Ensemble Pro Victoria closed the third day - and wowed a packed St Michael’s in the process - with a choral programme paying tribute to Purcell and the English Baroque. The singing was simply fabulous, whether they were performing en masse or in ones and twos. There was a particularly thrilling moment when bass Piers Kennedy hit an almost unfeasible bottom D in They That Go Down To The Sea In Ships and the sound the ensemble produced to end the concert with Purcell’s The Bell Anthem and John Blow’s Salvator Mundi was nothing less than glorious.

Their fellow winners, Ensemble Hesperi, were handed the honour of performing the festival’s final concert, playing music made famous at the court of Louis XV at Versailles and Charles II in London. Unfortunately I was unable to be there but I’m told they were also brilliant.

The final day also featured a festival first, an Evensong concert masterminded by Andrew Watts. The reception was so enthusiastic the organisers have pledged to make it an annual event.

It’s hard to sum up this year’s festival in a sentence if only because all the superlatives have already been applied to the individual artists who helped make it such a resounding success. But given the dark times we are living through because of the climate emergency, the pandemic and global political sabre-rattling, music has a unique ability to raise our consciousness to a higher plane and, as Congreve put it so neatly, soothe a savage breast. LIFEM has brilliantly captured that ability which in turns allows the rest of us to reinvigorate our spiritual resources before having to reconnect with some of the world’s grimmer realities. And that makes the festival not only a pleasure but also a need. Congratulations, tutti – can’t wait for next year.

Main picture: Anna McCarthy

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