EARLY MUSIC / Middle Ages spread: Tess Knighton reports on efforts to expand the home market for one of our most successful export industries

The bottom may have fallen out of the British pop export market (as reported by Jim White in Wednesday's Independent), but British groups continue to dominate a smaller and much less well-paid corner of the music business - early music. Indeed, most of this country's early music ensembles find more work abroad than at home, whether 'doing' the European festivals circuit or touring the USA and the Far East. Their recordings sell well abroad, too. Gothic Voices' recording of music by the 12th-century Hildegard of Bingen, made over a decade ago, has sold over 75,000 copies in the States and the monthly sales figure has recently risen to about 2,000. 'Hildegard is our patron saint,' says Ted Perry, director of Hyperion, one of the leading record companies in the field, 'but the sales figures abroad are generally looking good.'

Early music is essentially a record-led market. It is easy enough to go into a shop and buy a recording by Gothic Voices, the Hilliard Ensemble, the New London Consort, the Tallis Scholars, the Sixteen, the King's Consort - to name but a few of the most prominent British recording artists. But it is less easy to get to hear them live, especially outside London.

This suggests an untapped market in this country, whose potential is about to be tested by two new festivals in East Anglia: the Medieval Music Festival held this week in Cambridge and an Easter weekend jamboree at the Snape Maltings. Both promoters, Magenta Music and the Aldeburgh Foundation, are quietly confident that the audiences are there, although the different natures of the two festivals perhaps reflect local concert-going traditions.

The Aldeburgh Early Music Festival, according to its artistic director Philip Pickett, aims to be 'as catholic as possible', and the range is indeed broad, from medieval songs of pilgrimage to chamber works by Mendelssohn and Schubert. Pickett believes that people might be put off by too narrow a theme and that new audiences will be attracted by a skilful blend of 'the known, the less known and the unknown' with the common denominator of high-class performance. 'The performers in the field are simply getting better and better,' he maintains. 'We're hearing things we've never heard before, and that's exciting.'

The Medieval Music Festival in Cambridge is a rather different animal, although, as Meurig Bowen of Magenta Music wrily points out, it also covers a large chunk of chronological time: from the ninth to the 15th centuries. While Aldeburgh is a showcase for British groups - the New London Consort, Trio Sonnerie, Hausmusik and the up-and-coming Palladian Ensemble, as well as the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra - two major foreign ensembles have been invited to Cambridge. The German group Sequentia and Marcel Peres's Ensemble Organum from France have only rarely performed here, although their recordings regularly receive glowing accolades in Gramophone. If the theme of medieval music appears to be specialist and narrow, the range of performance styles among the groups represented is quite the opposite, the strikingly different approaches stemming in part from the difficulties inherent in the interpretation of music from so long ago.

The soundworld of, say, the 13th century is necessarily elusive. While we still have some idea of how the Middle Ages looked - the publicity material for both festivals exploits the appeal of the medieval illuminated manuscript - the musical continuity has been broken, and we can never know with any certainty if our re-creation of those sounds bears any real resemblance to what would have been heard by medieval ears. Performance of medieval music always represents an act of faith, a leap into the dark, and hence the divergent approaches among the different ensembles.

An underlying sense that medieval music needs to be sold to the public has often resulted in a dangerous compromise between scholarship and showmanship. The question is, as Christopher Page, director of Gothic Voices, puts it, how far 'it is right to interest people by giving them the wrong idea'. His scholarly approach - informed, as he himself would admit, by the British cathedral tradition - is based on research showing that much vocal music (and it is mostly vocal polyphony that has survived) was performed as such, without instrumental participation. It is noticeable that such successful British groups as Gothic Voices and the Hilliard Ensemble perform a cappella. This approach is, however, generally considered austere on the Continent and the 'English sound' (however accurately it might reflect 13th-century practice) is eschewed in favour of more overtly colourful and varied interpretations.

Barbara Thornton and Benjamin Bagby, the directors of Sequentia, base their performance decisions on what they describe as a dramaturgical approach. Within the limitations of the little that is known about medieval performance practice and within the restraints of modern concert conditions, their aim is to re-create the medieval experience, with a strong emphasis on theatre. The documentary evidence is taken as a point of departure for the recreation of ambience through carefully structured and essentially theatrical programmes. Thornton believes that we must be open to the power of music as a rhetorical aid to the text; Bagby says that the performer must identify so closely with his material that his performance becomes not just an act of re-creation but a living art - 'We are not living in the Middle Ages, whether we like it or not,' he adds. Together they strive to recreate what they see as the fluid borders between music and text, a fluidity that was taken for granted then but which is very hard to achieve now.

Marcel Peres has his own way of trying to tap into the past. He sees his group as a laboratory, something essentially experimental. For some years now he has been working with a number of singers from Corsica, where musical and liturgical traditions are rather different. The Corsican women sing quite naturally in a chest voice that he believes comes closer to the singing of medieval nuns. They also have an instinct for polyphony and for spontaneous improvisation that has been lost by professional musicians trained in Western Europe, as well as a feeling for the liturgical pertinence of the chant they sing. Modern performers of sacred music, he says, 'need to feel the respiration of the liturgy and the pace of it. These singers know how to sing slowly, how you must have ornaments and a certain quality of sound.'

The results achieved by his women singers in their performance of the liturgical music in the 13th-century gradual of the abbess Eleanor of Brittany were strikingly different; a richer, more mature sound that breathed with the text and elaborated it with melodic or harmonic inflections in a natural, flexible way. Peres is clearly on to something that works for the music, whether the nuns of Fontevraux would have sung it that way or not.

The Medieval Music Festival in Cambridge continues today with concerts by Gothic Voices at 1pm and Sequentia at 8.30pm respectively in Jesus College Chapel, Cambridge. The Aldeburgh Early Music Festival takes place 31 March-4 April at The Maltings, Snape

(Photographs omitted)

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