CLASSICAL Aldeburgh Early Music Festival Snape Maltings, Suffolk

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The Independent Culture
The Aldeburgh Early Music Festival has rapidly established the roots of a tradition, its setting blessed this year with mild weather and the miraculous absence of an easterly wind. Two Snape Maltings concerts - offered back-to-back on Easter Sunday, yet separated by 600 years of history - shared the common bond of story-telling, with Philip Pickett's New London Consort injecting life and colour into a programme of 13th-century Marian songs, while Mark Rowlinson and Sherona Joshua reached into the heart of Schubert lieder.

Pickett's roving archival researches have here brought him to Gautier de Coincy's Miracle de Nostre Dame, a monumental and popular verse narrative in honour of the Virgin Mary written between 1214 and 1236. Gautier's predilection for spoonerism and double entendre may have been lost in translation, but the freshness of the Grand Prior of Soissons's poetic imagination and the skill with which he adapted and composed melodies for his text, were powerfully conveyed by the New London Consort.

Piquant parallel harmonies, for instance, in the polyphonic accompaniment of "S'amour dont sui espris" highlighted baritone Simon Grant's observation that "even the most vice-befouled person will be cleansed" if he submits tearfully to the Blessed Virgin. Grant and his admirable soloist partner, Julia Gooding (soprano), suggested an affinity with Gautier's ideas on music, expressing the words with natural tenderness and conviction: "God listens to the intention," wrote Gautier, "not to the voice or the instruments."

The intention in this performance was clearly to engage the audience, an aim achieved with great energy and no little artistry by the New London Consort. The hypnotic beauty of Gautier's "Ma viele", potentially the most tedious of the songs on offer, was delivered with noble dignity by Grant and fiddler Pavlo Beznosiuk, direct and affecting in their response to the devotional text.

Iberian colour and inflexions provided the second-half contrast, tinged with Arabic influences and inspired improvisations from Tom Finucane's lute. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, whether written by King Alfonso the Wise or merely compiled at his court, are clearly royal in terms of their magnificant melodic richness, suiting especially Julia Gooding's warm, colourful soprano and appealing to her skills as a story-teller.

Mark Rowlinson, better known as a senior Radio 3 producer, could happily give up his day job in favour of a singing career. His late-evening Schubert recital was arguably weighed down by the singer's informed, entertaining, but occasionally overlong introductions. Even so, Rowlinson's choice of songs to poems written by Schubert's friends and his shrewd delivery of them provided full compensation.

The danger of talking before singing was exposed in the first stanza of the Abschied von einem Freunde, with Rowlinson struggling to find the placement required to navigate its high tessitura in an otherwise tender- hearted, intelligent account of the song. Indeed, the balance between the emotions and the intellect were set with unfailing good taste throughout this recital, aided by Sherona Joshua's alert fortepiano accompaniments and impassioned contributions to such miniature dramas as Der Jungling und der Tod and Der Zwerg.

Andrew Stewart

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