Brighton Early Music Festival Live! Showcase, St Paul's Church, Brighton, review: old songs given new, unevenly varied life

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Figo Ensemble, who performed in the Brighton Early Music Festival Live! Showcase
Figo Ensemble, who performed in the Brighton Early Music Festival Live! Showcase Credit: FIGO Ensemble

What is that mysterious thing called “early music”? “Anything from the 12th to the 19th centuries”, was the answer this concert gave. It was a showcase of five young ensembles fresh out of conservatoire, none of them comprised of more than four musicians, who are being mentored by the Brighton Early Music Festival.

The afternoon proved that, though “early music” may no longer be fashionable, it’s still attracting young performers willing to make that special effort needed to master curious obsolete instruments, and – even more importantly – penetrate the mystery of a long-vanished style of performance, so far as that’s humanly possible.

We heard exotically remote songs of sacred and profane love from the 13th and 14th centuries, smoothly polyphonic 16th-century songs from Spain, rather more dramatic 17th‑century English and Italian songs, graceful French-style ballet music, and a fascinating arrangement of a Mozart symphony reworked for domestic performance, decades after the composer’s death.

In terms of musical variety, the concert could hardly have been bettered. In terms of performance, however, things were more mixed. Top of the list in the festival’s mentoring notes to the groups should be: never be tentative, even when the music’s emotional tone is one of delicacy and inwardness. The Comalli Consort’s rendition of Spanish song had a few such moments, and a tendency to let the rhythmic life drain at the end of a stanza – which was a shame, as their feeling for colour and ornament was strong. More forthright were Voice, a trio of unaccompanied female singers. Their tuning and bell-like sound made their performance of Francesco Landini’s “L’alma mia piange” the most sheerly beautiful thing all day.

As the concert progressed, the music became less exotic and more familiar. The ballet and instrumental music by 17th-century German composer Georg Muffat often had a balletic lilt, brought out with pleasing grace by the quartet Figo, even if their tuning went a little awry here and there. In terms of sheer energy, the palm must go to Pocket Sinfonia, who managed to make Mozart’s brilliant Haffner Symphony burst with the energy of an orchestra; what’s more, the little pauses from pianist Emil Duncomb infused it with a real chamber-style rhythmic pliability.

Even more personable was the tenor Rory Carver: he, lutenist Jonatan Bougt and player of the Baroque-style cello Harry Buckoke make up the trio Dramma per musica. Carver made the gusts of erotic passion in Stefano Landi’s song “Augellin” seem real, held a lovely sustained line in Purcell’s “Evening Hymn”, and at the climax of Henry Lawes’s song “A Storm”, he summoned the afternoon’s only genuine fortissimo. He’s certainly one to watch.