Early Music; New London Consort: Ars Subtilior Purcell Room, London

Complexity has infrequently been a good end in music. Any form of creativity that states its own sophistication to the point where it becomes a theme of the work is righteously nailed for decadence and pointlessness. Think of "Progressive" rock. So Philip Pickett's latest extractions from the codices of late-14th century France and Italy were to be approached nervously.

In its own time, Ars Subtilior (or "the more subtle art") was regarded as work of absolute sophistication. It came billed last weekend on London's South Bank as medieval "avant-garde" music; music purposefully cultivated to advance the formal and notational precepts of the period and, perhaps, to idealise its composers' ability to do so: ars for ars' sake, in other words - a frightfully negligent notion in the late 20th century but a worldly, bordering on naughty, one in the time of Machaut and Dufay.

After all, the high medieval aesthetic thesis held that art should be a mirror and lens to God's creation in all its elaborate naturality, not a pander to Man's vanity, in all its appetites. So it is proper to consider Ars Subtilior in its historical context, which is high medievalism in decline. The late 14th century in western Europe was a period of governmental breakdown, brigandage, sectarianism and uprising; it saw the division of the papacy, the beginnings of the banking system, the beginning of the end of feudalism. Perhaps more significantly, it saw plague.

The quiet lutes, fiddle, recorder and soprano voice of the New London Consort did not describe a clashing world riven with disease and social and economic uncertainty. Mostly they described courtly feelings and birds. But for all that, there was amazing intensity to the Consort's delivery, partly derived, as they happily conceded, from the difficulty of the music in performance.

The difficulty of the music on the ear was altogether more interesting, however, its awkwardness arising not from amplitude, harshness or excess vigour but from extremity of delicacy. "He, tres doulz rossignol joli", "Or sus, vous dormez trop" and "Par maintes foys" were so convoluted in their curly decorations, fragmentary rhythms and sound effects (lots of nightingales, ladies, sighs and dying hearts) that after a while one heard only decorations, appreciated only Catherine Bott's control over her large ornithological range.

Similarly, some of the less accessible texts - "La douce chiere", for example, which mostly comprises verbal heraldry - were set in filigreed cages of notes that baffled and dissembled and concluded with unresolved cadences to lyric puzzles. Here, complexity exceeded this listener's powers to assimilate it.

In the end it took a beautiful serpentine lament, entitled "Helas pitie" by someone called Trebor, in which Bott exceeded herself for control in restraint, to unravel things a little and demonstrate that even if we do not have the means to rationalise this music to the full, then we do still have the means to feel it. One felt anguish and thought of ballads by Ornette Coleman.

n The Purcell Room's early music series continues to 13 June. Details: 0171-960 4242

NICK COLEMAN

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on