MUSIC Life without sax

Medieval Music Festival Cambridge
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The Independent Culture
The second Medieval Music Festival promoted by Magenta Music was this year held in two venues: what was heard in St George's Brandon Hill, Bristol, one night was performed in Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge, the next, and vice versa. Snow spread rapidly from west to east on Thursday's opening night, but failed to disrupt this schedule or, in Cambridge at least, to deter audiences.

Of course, medieval music is now enjoying an unprecedented vogue, if the current success of some of its exponents is anything to go by. We did not get the monks of Silos (who have just released a video of their bestselling chant album), but there were concerts by the American all- female group Anonymous 4 and the Hilliard Ensemble, both of whose recent CDs have made it to the top of the charts.

The Hilliard Ensemble were saxless on Friday, and I could not help but wonder if this made them less sexy in many eyes - or ears. The truth is that they have long commanded a loyal following, and their programme of what might be termed "state-of-the-ars musica" motets from the later Middle Ages was as esoteric as anything I have heard them do. This was certainly not music to ease modern-day stress - as has been claimed for the Silos recording - but rather to excite admiration for the sheer skill and daring invention of "early modern" composers such as Ockeghem, Busnois and Compre.

The one piece of chant in the programme, the antiphon Venit ad Petrum, is in itself astounding for its final extended melisma on the word "caput", sung with tremendous vocal poise by the tenor Rogers Covey-Crump. This forms the starting-point for a densely textured, intricately woven Mass setting by Ockeghem which the four singers performed with conviction. Perhaps the highlight of the concert, however, was their graceful hocketing in a 14th-century motet, the text of which courteously urges singers not to take audible breaths during rests.

Jesus College Chapel has a warm but not too reverberant acoustic which, on Saturday, served the home team of Gothic Voices particularly well in a selection of songs by Machaut, Binchois and others. Like the Hilliards (saxophone aside), they are an a cappella group and their distinctive sound in this repertory, characterised by the vocalisation of the lower voice parts, is immediately beguiling whether in the strangely dissonant idiom (strange even for modern ears) of Machaut or the sweet, if somewhat lugubrious, melodiousness of Binchois. Of the "new blood" singers in the ensemble, the tenor Paul Agnew was outstanding.

Instruments abounded, on Friday evening, in the concert by the Dufay Collective. Plucked strings and percussion dominated their North African- inspired selection from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a vast collection of songs compiled at the multi-cultural court of Alfonso the Wise (1252- 84).

It is a few years since I heard the Dufay Collective live, and their interpretative approach has become markedly more sophisticated. Their instrumental improvisatory skills have long been recognised, but here I was just as impressed by their vocal input in the refrains to these irresistible songs. This was fresh and invigorating, as was the solo singing of Vivien Ellis, who narrated the extraordinary tales of the miraculous intervention of the Virgin with great verve. Paul Bevan wielded the mighty long trumpet with suitable decorum.

A late-evening recital that night by Red Byrd whisked us from North Africa to North Scotland and a 13th-century Scottish Lady Mass. This essentially simple, note-against-note two-voice polyphony was the perfect musical nightcap, consonant and soothing. The next chart-topper?

Tess Knighton