MUSIC / Wrap it up: Tess Knighton on early music at Aldeburgh

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The Independent Culture
Easter weekenders in East Anglia have for many years been able to include a Good Friday concert at the Snape Maltings as part of their holiday schedule - a concert, almost invariably, of early music. Now this tradition has been expanded into an early music mini-festival, with concerts and other events (a recorder jamboree and pre-performance talks) spread over the entire weekend, and with Philip Pickett as artistic director.

Pickett has already proved himself a competent planner with the early music series in the Purcell Room, and has strong ideas about the 'selling' of early music to the general concert-going public. He insists on technical flair (preferably of studio-ready standard) and cogent programming, and both were to be found in this Easter's performances by Trio Sonnerie on Saturday and by Pickett's own group, the New London Consort, on Easter Monday.

Both presented interesting (and by no means populist) programmes which they executed with consistent brilliance. Trio Sonnerie's telepathic sense of ensemble would rival that of many of the world's finest string quartets. Monica Huggett and Pavlo Besnosiuk, two of the most technically accomplished baroque violinists in the world, matched each other at every turn in early trio sonatas by Marini, Fontana and others. They seem so au fait with the style that they convey the experimental, and sometimes decidedly quirky, nature of this music with an ease and naturalness that belies the technical and interpretative challenge it presents. Sarah Cunningham's contribution on cello and gamba should also not be underestimated: she plays with equal insight and technical panache.

Similarly polished were the performances by the New London Consort of medieval music from along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. (My only reservation here was that soprano Catherine Bott seemed rather underpowered, especially in the first half.) Members of the audience familiar with the NLC's recent recording of this repertory might have been a little disappointed not to have been treated to the glorious 'mused band' effects to be found there, but then that's the economics of live music-making coming into play.

The more economical (in every sense) combination of fiddle, lute, recorder, organistrum and percussion is, in any case, probably truer to the Middle Ages. But how many of the audience realised the extent to which these performances were 'composed' by the NLC? A brief note on performance practice attempted to justify following certain 'Islamic' musical traditions, but failed to mention that all that survives of this music are the melodies and that the rest is invented by 20th-century musicians. Much of what had been invented appeared to have been written out (necessary for recording), so that there was little in the way of free improvisation and spontaneity. It certainly resulted in greater polish, but perhaps also gave a rather misleading aura of certainty. By all means 'sell' the music to the audience, but make sure they know how it's packaged.