CLASSICAL MUSIC / A festival, but not of Britain

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The Independent Culture
THE ENGLISH Bach Festival is not a festival, it has nothing to do with Bach, and having been run for 30 years by an indefatigable Greek woman on diminishing reserves of Argentinian money, its Englishness is hardly pristine.

But details of nomenclature aside, it was a good idea when Lina Lalandi set the thing up in the Sixties - when it was a festival - and in those early years it led the field in the period staging of pre-classical opera. Rameau, Cavalli, Vivaldi and Handel all resurfaced, courtesy of Ms Lalandi, in ways modern audiences had never seen before: awash with ostrich feathers and baroque gesture, outcamping Julian Clary, yet defining an approach to what was then regarded as 'authentic' opera that almost no one else in Britain had explored.

EBF was too successful an evangelist for its own good. Others came in, annexed the product and made it more sophisticated. Meanwhile, the EBF stayed put and became, itself, a period object that was comparatively shabby, tacky and forlorn. Never was this more obvious than last Sunday, when Ms Lalandi hired the Royal Opera House for a one-off staging of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo. The set was skimpy, a single painted backdrop; the production, by Tom Hawkes, uninspired and under-rehearsed; and the music miserably scraggy, with no rhythmic drive, brilliance or semblance of ensemble.

Individually there were some good performances, from Della Jones as a magisterial but affecting Messaggiera, and from Russell Smythe as an uncommonly strong, dark-voiced, baritone Orfeo (more usually a tenor role). The instrumentalists, too, were individually players of distinction, culled from other period bands. But split into two continuo groups on the far sides of the stage, each cued by the keyboard player opposite from the other (whose beat was lost in semi-darkness), what chance of coherence was there? It was too vast a space to encompass. No doubt, Monteverdi's continuo would have been similarly divided, but recent research suggests that L'Orfeo was probably written for performance in a room measuring 30 metres by 10. (As this means the strings and brass could only have been accommodated outside, I don't suppose that would have done much for the ensemble either.)

There are aspects of the past that even the most dedicated period performer shouldn't want to reproduce, and tawdry execution is among them. If L'Orfeo were a rare work, you would be grateful for the chance to see it and make allowances. But L'Orfeo and its like have passed into the repertory; and unfortunately for the EBF, which has played an honourable part in making that possible, other people now do it much better.

One of them is Philip Pickett, whose band, the New London Consort, was also playing in London last weekend, at the Purcell Room. His soprano, Catherine Bott, was cold- struck, and it happened to be one of NLC's most taxing programmes: the one they call The Garden of Earthly Delights, which profiles Dufay and his immediate predecessors in a vocal orgy of Renaissance humanism (Earthy Delights would be a better title). It includes Oswald von Wolkenstein's bizarre parody song 'Der Mai' - a 15th-century 'Old MacDonald', but twice as fast and 15 times as difficult. But though croaky, Bott was quite magnificent: fluent, controlled and measuring her performance with awesome artistry - as though she could sing it backwards (which she probably can). That the house was full, with a queue for returns, is a mark of how powerful the NLC has become as an advocate for what was once an arcane corner of music history. In the NLC's case, no one does it better.

The Park Lane Group do a comparable job, but at the other end of music history. If you were a concert promoter you'd probably steer clear of young, unknown artists and new, unknown works. You certainly wouldn't programme them together; and unless you entertained a death wish, you wouldn't programme them together for a week of concerts, two a night. But that's exactly what the PLG does, every January. And the process of programme planning and artist selection is always so superbly done that the week has become a major event in the South Bank calendar: an opportunity to survey a sort of open exhibition of recent work (organised around a couple of 'featured' composers) and to do some serious talent-spotting.

This year the composers were Brian Elias and Nicola LeFanu, two almost exact contemporaries with absorbingly contrasted routes into British music: Elias as an outsider (born in India) whose work has passed through serialism to embrace the experimental and exotic, and LeFanu very much an insider (the daughter of Elizabeth Maconchy), who works within narrower confines.

As for the performers, it was once more the ones who played on less than mainstream instruments who impressed me most. I remember a few years ago being startled by a PLG debutant called James Crabb who forced me to sit up and take the accordion seriously as a virtuoso instrument. This year I sat up for an Australian harpist, Marshall McGuire, and for a guitarist of outstanding musicality called Gary Ryan who played works by Tippett and Ginastera with an impeccable but pliant strength that handsomely defined the contours of the writing. Both were in their mid-twenties; both deserve significant careers; and after the exposure of the PLG, I hope they get them.