Music For Severall Friends festival South Bank Centre, London

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The Independent Culture
The South Bank Centre has been justly criticised for its quiet August programme, although Philip Pickett's early music festival did much to enliven the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room last week. On offer was a diverse, arguably quirky, yet highly pleasing mix of concerts ranging in content from humble ale-house songs to JS Bach's Goldberg Variations. If choice of the festival's subtitle, "For Severall Friends", was subliminally influenced by predictions of ticket sales, then Pickett and his colleagues can be content with the fair-sized audiences attracted at a time when the magnetic force of the Proms pulls most committed concert-goers in the direction of Knightsbridge.

For many, the prospect of hearing Bach's complete output for two or three harpsichords and strings at one sitting, a South Bank first and cause of great rejoicing among early keyboard fanatics, appealed thanks to the novelty value of seeing four harpsichords on the same stage. And yet this "event" proved an irresistible evening of quality chamber music-making, thoroughly justifying David Roblou's decision to work through the book of Bach's multiple harpsichord concertos.

The six three-movement works, written for performance in one of Leipzig's coffee houses, supplied Bach with a diversion from the drudgery of various day-jobs and an excuse to have fun with his musician sons and star pupils. Likewise, Roblou and his soloist accomplices drew great pleasure from performing this music, none more so than Richard Eggar, face beaming, eyebrows twitching, generally exuding enthusiasm; something of a comedian at the keyboard but certainly no joker. His nifty fingerwork in the final movement of the Concerto for Three Harpsichords (BWV 1084) highlighted a prodigious technique, with the contrasting but no less accomplished styles of Gary Cooper and Paul Nicholson contributing to a gripping account of the Concerto for Four Harpsichords, Bach's splendid transcription of one of Vivaldi's most flamboyant L'estro armonico string pieces.

Roblou's elegant, stylish phrasing and sense of rhythmic freedom, comparable to the best elements of jazz musicianship, amounted to playing that surely would have appealed to Bach; always poised, yet never short of passion. The solo team was nobly supported by five seasoned campaigners from the New London Consort, happy in their accompanying work, injecting life and lightness into Bach's rich string counterpoint.

Far less satisfying, although not without its moments, was Stephen Preston's supposedly lewd anthology of Restoration titbits, billed as an entertainment in dance and song, performed by the curiously named MZT and stitched together as "a brief diversion up the skirt of the 17th century." Preston and his merry bunch of skirt-lifters rarely got much further than a few inches above the hem-line, with Mhairi Lawson's sensuous, seductive performance of Purcell's "Fairest Isle" proving infinitely more erotic than the striptease danced to music from the same composer's The Fairy Queen. Those expecting bare-arsed bawd, as suggested in Preston's programme notes, would have found the production tame, well short of the earthy wit of Pepys or Purcell.

ANDREW STEWART

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