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  • Miles Hedley

THE LONDON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF EARLY MUSIC Online with headline concerts filmed in Blackheath

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Online arts are playing a vital role in keeping up our spirits and feeding our souls during the Covid lockdown. And while no one would suggest a digital concert can ever be as rewarding as a live performance, this year’s London International Festival of Early Music was about as good as it can get in cyberspace with a series of fabulous recitals, a world premiere by a rock god and exhibitions of some of the most beguiling instruments mankind has ever created.

The festival is normally based at Blackheath Halls with recitals staged at local churches. All the concerts at this year’s pandemic-hit event, run in partnership with the Early Music Shop and Marquee TV, were filmed in advance at St Michael and All Angels on the Cator Estate then live-streamed on given days. The whole festival programme will remain online for the rest of the year.

It’s invidious to talk about star turns when there was so much virtuosity on hand but there’s no doubt that one of the highlights of the week-long festival was the world premiere of a work written by John Paul Jones, (above) Led Zeppelin bassist and multi-instrumentalist who is now a prolific composer across all genres of music.

He was commissioned to write a piece for internationally acclaimed viol consort Fretwork and created an 11-minute, three-movement delight called The Tudor Pull, inspired by an annual Thames rowing event that commemorates the royal barges that once ferried the likes of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I between their London palaces.

Jones, who went to school in Blackheath and spent many happy childhood hours at the National Maritime Museum, wrote the work during lockdown and its freshness was almost palpable, paying tribute to the glories of the Tudor musical tradition while remaining resolutely 21st century. To my ear, it’s a masterpiece. And it was interpreted magnificently by Asako Morikawa, Emily Ashton, Joanna Levine, Sam Stadlen and Richard Boothby of Fretwork.

They also played works by 16th composers Anthony Holborne, John Bull, Christopher Tye and Joseph and Thomas Lupo then brought us back up to date with a mesmerising take on Arvo Pärt’s minimalist 1980 Magnus opus Fratres. It was an amazing concert.

Another headliner was German recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus (above) who was joined by accordionist Samuele Telari to give us a repertoire covering 500 years of European music from renaissance madrigals (even Tabea’s name sounds like a medieval Latin canticle) to an astonishing modern composition cycle for solo recorder called Rotations by Jan Rokus van Roosendael which saw her playing - and sometimes simultaneously singing - while moving round a circle of 12 music stands. It was a bravura display of musicianship and theatricality.

The third headliner of the festival was American-Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani (below) whose programme covered the crossover point between Tudor and Stuart England. It was a fascinating journey, taking us from the dying days of the Elizabethan age to the origins of baroque through the likes of Orlando Gibbons, John Bull, Giles Farnaby, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck – Mahan’s version of his Fantasia Chromatica was a joy – Samuel Scheidt and the genius of William Byrd, whom Esfahani described as the Isaac Newton of music.

Every day during the week, the festival exhibition acted as a marketplace for anyone wanting to buy hard-to-source sheet music and impossibly rare instruments that are still being made by craftspeople of extraordinary skill and dedication. Items for sale – new or used – ranged from a £15,000 harpsichord to a bowed psaltery for just £95. In between was the usual bewitching array of instruments, including curtals, theorbos, shawms, viols, violas da gamba, harps, lyres, lutes, rebecs, citoles, guitars, balalaikas, spinets, virginals, bagpipes, flageolets, flutes, crumhorns, sackbutts, cornetti, serpents, chalumeaux, cornamuses and recorders.

Meanwhile, the LIFEM Young Ensemble Competition prize was shared by Ensemble Hesperi and Ensemble Pro Victoria, both of whom will play live at next year’s festival.

And each lunchtime saw a series of brilliant ensemble recitals from around the world. They included two concerts from the Netherlands by the Royal Conservatoire The Hague side by side with the Orchestra of the 18th Century, soprano Lizzie Robbings singing Purcell in the chapel at Trinity College Cambridge, an ensemble from the University of the Arts in Cuba, the Royal College of Music Junior Department Baroque and Recorder Ensembles featuring youngsters as young as 12, Chinese violinist Ruiqi Ren with the Shanghai Camerata and astounding countertenor Meili Li, and the historical performance department of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, whose programme ended with a sensational Zoom finale in which soprano Helen Vincent, alto Yu-Sen Chu, tenor Timothy Burton and bass Wan-Tat Cheah sang a Josquin canonical motet in 24 parts for four choirs of six voices.

The final recital of the festival was from New York City where musicians from the Juilliard School also used Zoom to create lockdown magic, particularly the opening sequence featuring a quartet of violin, viola da gamba, harpsichord and chittarone. It was a gorgeous ending to a gorgeous festival. For details of how to watch all or any of these recitals online, go to

Picture Credits: Dustin Rabin (JPJ), Kaja Smith (Esfahani), Kaupo Kikkas (Debus).

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