LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF EARLY MUSIC in and around Blackheath Halls
Updated: Feb 19
There’s a beguiling paradox at the heart of the annual London International Festival of Early Music – an unfailing ability to give a modern sensibility to revered historical forms. This year’s event was no exception and had the added delight of allowing us to make a series of journeys of artistic and spiritual discovery with some of the greatest composers who have ever lived.
Music, of course, always involves an interior journey. But over the course of four glorious days in Blackheath we also visited a magical place where east meets west, trod the genetic path that led to a musical genius, followed in the footsteps of an epic walk between London and Renaissance Venice and joined the throng of medieval pilgrims from across Europe who sang their way to a Spanish shrine.
And throughout, the old and the new, from near and from far, strode out together shoulder to shoulder, proving yet again that music is timeless and universal.
Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the festival’s opening concert at St Michael and All Angels when the acclaimed Brook Street Band (top, with the composer) performed the world premiere of Nitin Sawhney’s Early Transitions, a response to the genius of JS Bach, which melded the Baroque tradition with ancient Indian ragas to create a work of transcendent beauty that paid tribute to the past yet was irrefutably of today. I loved it.
It was part of a concert in which the Brook Street Band took us on a night-time walk, from sundown to sunup, soundtracked by gorgeous – and gorgeously played – compositions by the likes of Biber, Telemann, Montéclair, Bach, Handel and Couperin, the whole programme bookended by an enchanting Merula ciaccona.
The Brook Street Band are no strangers to LIFEM. Nor are Solomon’s Knot, an ever-changing collective of musicians who this year arrived with eight singers accompanied by organ and violone (above) to guide us down the genealogical road linking Johann Christoph Bach with his prodigious family’s greatest son, Johann Sebastian.
In a suitably reverential touch, the set-list was made up of some of the most spiritually uplifting motets ever written.
The Day 3 headliners, Piva, are also old friends of the festival. And in a terrific contrast with the tranquil beauty of the previous night they took us on an uproarious and fun-filled journey across Renaissance Europe that was more Canterbury Tales than King James Bible.
Using at least three dozen instruments, the septet (below) followed a walk by eccentric 17th century writer Thomas Coryat (Google him – he’s one of the era’s most amazing people) between London and Venice, in the process giving us a magnificent and witty cross-section of what was effectively Jacobean England’s hit parade.
The final night introduced us to festival newcomers Taracea, a Madrid-based quintet who played medieval songs sung by pilgrims as they made their way from all corners of Europe to the great Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela.
At least that’s what the programme said. But in fact they gave these ancient tunes a makeover that was entirely modern, interspersing the originals with phrases, interludes and variations that were at one moment pure Coltrane and the next King Crimson before returning to the Middle Ages.
It was absolutely thrilling, one of the most rewarding concerts I have ever had to good fortune to see anywhere. Quite rightly, Taracea (below) were given a huge ovation.
LIFEM is not just about the headliners, though – there were a string of other recitals by youngsters and established professional musicians throughout the four days.
For example, a dozen students from the Royal Academy of Music played a marvellous concert of mainly 16th and 17thnorth European music which included a simply outstanding solo spot by violinist Charlotte Spruit. The Purcell School featured their namesake – of course – but concentrated on Vivaldi. The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire took us on a fascinating tour through Civil War Britain from the Regicide to the Restoration and beyond. And teenagers from Chetham’s School rounded off their recital with a journey out of leftfield – a recorder trio who followed Alice down the rabbit-hole to Wonderland. It was, well, wonderful.
Meanwhile, international recorder and flute virtuoso Charlotte Schneider joined forces with lutenist Alice Letort and harpsichordist and organist Irene González Roldán at Michael and All Angels to take us on a spellbinding round-trip that began and ended with Palestrina in Italy and also took in Austria, former Czechoslovakia and Germany.
And down the road at St Margaret’s Church, LIFEM’s young ensemble competition was deservedly won by Basel-based trio Ensemble Pampinea. The judges not only praised their musicianship but applauded their ability to engage with their audience. One of their prizes is a full concert at next year’s festival – I can’t wait to hear it.
Making music, especially early music, requires brilliant and dedicated players. It also requires brilliant and dedicated craftspeople to make the often weird, always wonderful instruments. And for me one of the great joys of LIFEM is to walk into Blackheath Halls for the annual marketplace and showcase of these instruments (below) and be assailed by a wall of glorious noise created by punters, players and artisans demonstrating citterns, curtals, chalumeaux, cornetts, clavichords and crumhorns. And that’s just some of the ones that begin with the letter C. It’s a veritable eighth wonder of the world.
I’ve been coming to this festival for many years and each time I am amazed at the dizzying heights of the standards it sets itself. This year, however, I can honestly say it surpassed them all. And I can only repeat the words I tweeted as I left the final concert: Best fest ever? You bet!