Arts: Classical: Beware flying willow

New London Consort QEH, London

MISSIONARY ZEAL and secular violence may have spread the Christian message throughout the medieval world, yet old pagan habits proved remarkably resistant to change. The Roman feasts of Lupercalia and Saturnalia were transformed into church celebrations of the Nativity and Christmas, while dancing, drinking and healthy self-indulgence remained a feature of the new holy days.

Philip Pickett's Nativitas programme offered a rich slice of medieval Christmas life, its ingredients ranging from pious songs to the Virgin to a slapstick mummers' play and wild instrumental numbers.

The concert's emotional content was equally diverse, counterbalancing groups of serious and contemplative pieces with ancient pop tunes and folk-drama to evoke genuine feelings of melancholy and mirth.

Christmas inspired a wealth of popular tunes and performing traditions, from which Pickett extracted around two dozen examples. The QEH's lights were dimmed for a semi-staged account of the Rouen Officium Pastorum, complete with Virgin and child, a candlelit procession and subtle additions to the plainchant of symphony and organ drones. Simon Grant's delivery of the verses in Pax in terris nunciatur and again in the deeply moving narrative carol Als I lay on Yoolis nicht might stand as a model for the performance of medieval song, his unforced yet powerful projection conditioned by the mood of the text and responsive to the sense of individual words. The various permutations of ensemble voices managed skilfully to balance the demands of choral blend against the need to inflect and project the text, a trick that overcame the potential blandness of the first-half group of polyphonic conductus.

Since early music became a serious business in the 1980s, much of the fun once associated with its revival has been replaced by the po faces of performers desperately seeking inclusion in the mainstream. The New London Consort, now a fixture of the musical establishment, has never lost touch with the pioneering spirit of characters such as David Munrow, nor with the folk bands who dipped into the medieval past for inspiration.

The second half of the Nativitas programme ran from Walter Frye's sublime three-part Ave regina setting to the shenanigans of a St Nicholas' Day mummers' play, enacted with vigour by Albion Morris. The loudest laughs from the stalls presumably came from insurance brokers gleeful at the prospect of seeing precious replica instruments damaged by willow-branch shrapnel, although the stick-wielding antics of a Marty Feldman lookalike (decked out as St George) were sufficiently bizarre to amuse even the most unfestive among the capacity audience.

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