St John's Smith Square in London (Photo by Amy T. Zielinski/Getty Images)
Artillery Row On Music The Critics

Some very healthy early music canaries

Helen Charlston & Toby Carr; Siglo de Oro (LFBM, St John’s, Smith Sq)

Helen Charlston and Toby Carr — “Battle Cry: She Speaks”; Siglo de Oro — “A Good Companion”: Lassus in Venice (London Festival of Baroque Music, St John’s, Smith Square)

Every couple of months someone will write an opinion piece, usually titled something apocalyptic like “The Crisis of Classical Music” or “Opera is Dead”. The ensuing jeremiad will wring its hands over audience demographics (too old), ticket sales (too few), subsidies (too high) and so on, before pronouncing the patient beyond salvation. 

For proof of life, just look at early music

But the thing is, classical music has been dying almost since its birth. As musicologist Charles Rosen put it so succinctly: “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” If you won’t take his word for it, how about contrarian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who wryly points out that, “The more opera is dead, the more it flourishes.” For proof of life, just look at early music. With its smaller forces, venues and costs, this repertoire is the canary in the classical coalmine: where it goes safely, the lumbering symphony orchestra and Verdi chorus will eventually follow. Flatter hierarchies and fewer institutional monopolies allow younger performers to step up sooner — and it shows.

If early music isn’t taking over pubs (the OAE’s The Night Shift; Bjarte Eike’s Alehouse Sessions), it’s occupying warehouses in Peckham with Punchdrunk-style performances of Dido and Aeneas (Opera in Space) or staging Handel in a former nightclub on Shaftesbury Avenue (La Nuova Musica). 

But innovation is only part of the picture. Most exciting, arguably, is the next generation of musicians who are taking tradition and quietly making it their own — brilliantly showcased over the past week by the London Festival of Baroque Music. Take Helen Charlston, for example. The British mezzo’s recital with theorbo-player Toby Carr couldn’t have been simpler. A stage, a singer and an accompanist: if a couple of time-travellers had strayed in from the seventeenth century they would have been right at home.

But within this framework Charlston’s provocations were substantial. A programme with female voices at its centre took its heroines — the abandoned Arianna, the brutalised Philomela, warrior-queen Boudica and poet Sappho — from object to subject, offering them fresh right of reply in the mezzo’s sternly beautiful delivery of songs and arias by Monteverdi, Purcell and Strozzi, her own spoken commentary between sets developing the theme.

Charlston gave us a self-contained, self-deceiving Arianna

Charlston gave us a self-contained, self-deceiving Arianna, her pain keener for turning its blade inwards. Meanwhile the unnamed speaker of John Eccles’ “Restless in thought, disturbed in mind” darted from bliss to doubt and desire in its freewheeling, rhetorical outpouring — a canvass for Charlston’s textural reinventions, playing up womanly sensuality one moment; lean, androgynous cool the next. Best of all were songs by Barbara Strozzi — the seventeenth century’s answer to today’s singer-songwriters — all erotic flame and fierce emotional truth. The friction between their charged texts and Charlston’s intelligent restraint was telling. 

And in case we thought that Carr’s theorbo (lanky, voice-broken cousin to the lute) was just an echo of the past, the recital opened up contemporary possibilities with a newly-commissioned song-cycle from composer Owain Park (whose outstanding vocal ensemble The Gesualdo Six had taken us to sixteenth century Venice at lunchtime) and poet Georgia Way. Battle Cry meets its historical and mythological heroines on their own musical turf, taking the patterns, textures and conventions of baroque song and twisting them into intricate and unexpected shapes. If a recital makes you feel, it’s a job well done. When it makes you think as well, that’s when things get really interesting.

Helen Charlston and Toby Carr (Photo credit: Toby Carr)

Plenty of ideas were also knocking around Siglo de Oro’s late-night concert later in the week. This vocal ensemble — of one of young groups coming up hard behind veterans like The Tallis Scholars and The Cardinall’s Musick — marry a blossomy, supple sound with research by music director Patrick Allies that reliably supplies some unexpected music. Here a celebration of Venice traced out the musical lineage between teacher Orlando di Lasso and his two generations of Gabrieli pupils, uncle Andrea and nephew Giovanni. 

It’s a narrative that just tips from renaissance into baroque — a sonic time-lapse taking us from the tight-woven, imitative polyphony of Lassus’s Inclina domine to antiphonal choirs, passing joy back and forth in Giovanni Gabrieli’s Jubilate Deo. Highlights included Andrea Gabrieli’s glowing ceremonial motet Lucida ceu fuluo (whose “sycophantic” text brings the patronage structures of the period into sudden focus) and the rapt stillness of Andrea’s Maria stabat ad monumentum, Mary Magdalene’s tears swelling softly through the voices.

If the group is markedly more comfortable with the restraint of the sacred repertoire than the extrovert drama of the secular (hard not to imagine what I Fagiolini might have made of Lassus’s heart-tugging madrigal Solo e pensoso), it’s a trade-off that worked here in the mellow, lean-back context of a late-night recital. A thoughtful end to an eclectic week of music, led by the next generation of classical performers. 

When it comes to early music, the kids are definitely alright.

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