LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF EARLY MUSIC at Blackheath Halls and St Michael & All Angels
Updated: Sep 29
Music has a unique quality among the arts – it thrives when its present embraces its past. Painting, literature, film and architecture become at best pastiches when they try to evoke earlier styles. Music, by contrast, can achieve new heights. And if you doubt me, look at the extraordinary works commissioned by the London International Festival of Early Music in recent times.
Two years ago, Led Zeppelin legend John Paul Jones composed The Tudor Pull for a viol consort and in 2021 Errollyn Wallen wrote Angel Waters for viola da gamba and theorbo. Both mix old and new to magical effect – and both are masterpieces.
This year’s festival, which runs in Blackheath from 9 to 12 November, is set to produce yet another thanks to the organisers’ decision to commission superstar composer Nitin Sawhney (above) to write a new work that delves deep into what links western and Indian classical music.
Its world premiere will be performed at St Michael & All Angels church by the acclaimed Brook Street Band, who join Taracea, Solomon’s Knot, Piva and recorder virtuoso Charlotte Schneider as this year’s LIFEM headliners.
Sawhney’s composition, inspired by Handel’s As Steals The Morn Upon The Night, couldn’t be more timely in this post-pandemic, war-torn decade because its theme is hope, guiding us from darkness into the light.
The composer said: “I’m very excited and honoured to be composing for the wonderful Brook Street Band, exploring connections between eastern and western classical ideas with particular reference to my love of baroque music, Indian classical raga and mathematical interactions through the taal system, phrasing and diatonic expansion.”
And Brook Street cellist Tatty Theo said they shared Sawhney’s excitement, adding: “We relish the challenge of working in contemporary repertoire, exploring two different musical traditions. This gives us an opportunity to look at some of our favourite baroque works in a new light, using the idea of dark night, the key and musical colours associated with it in both western and Indian classical music, and the subsequent restorative dawn as our starting point.”
The Sawhney premiere launches LIFEM on the 9th at 7pm. The following day sees the start of the popular performers' platforms, with a Royal Academy of Music recital at 11am and the Purcell School at 2pm. In the evening festival favourites and international stars Solomon’s Knot make a welcome return to Blackheath with Fürchte Dich Nicht, a series of gorgeous motets by the immortal JS Bach and his cousin Johann Christoph.
Friday begins with a midday recital by last year’s solo recorder competition winner Charlotte Schneider accompanied by lutenist Alice Letort and harpsichordist Irene González Roldán followed at 3pm by musicians from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
In the evening the spotlight falls on Renaissance collective Piva whose concert, titled The Road To Venice, will feature English and Italian music and also include the first public performance – complete with the glorious sound of rauschpfeifes - of Toby Young’s At The Fair.
A Chetham's School of Music ensemble begins the final day at 11am and at 3 o’clock you can celebrate Festival Evensong, an enthusiastically-received new addition last year. This year's LIFEM closing act is renowned Spanish ensemble Taracea who make their UK performance debut at 6pm with Desviós a Santiago, a collection of ancient pilgrimage songs, improvisations and elements of popular and Mediterranean music.
All the concerts are being filmed and will be screened by Marquee TV. But the festival, now in its 49th year, is not just about wonderful recitals.
From Thursday to Saturday in Blackheath Halls you can marvel at the usual amazing array of instrument-makers exhibiting, demonstrating and selling such delights as serpents, citterns, sackbuts and shawms – to name only a tiny handful. I’ll wager you will never see a more astonishing range of astonishing instruments anywhere else.
And at nearby St Margaret’s in Lee Terrace on the Friday you can watch prodigiously talented hopefuls taking part in LIFEM’s prestigious Young Ensemble Competition, which is being judged this year by flautist Belén Nieto Galán, cellist Tatty Theo and harpsichordist Laurence Cummings.
Festival director Chris Butler said: “After the Covid-related challenges of the past two years we are thrilled - and relieved - to be presenting LIFEM at full-tilt in 2022. This year’s concert lineup is as exciting as any that I can recall in recent years and by every measure the range and diversity of all our events is a cause for excitement and celebration.” Tickets and further information at www.lifem.org
And for a taste of the sort of wonders on offer or to relive past glories, check out our review of last years’s festival at https://www.thegreenwichvisitorblog.com/post/london-international-festival-of-early-music-at-blackheath-halls-and-st-michael-all-angels-1