Susanne Abbuehl, Holywell Music Room, Oxford <br></br> The Parley of Instruments / Holman, Wigmore Hall, London

Click to follow

Susanne Abbuehl, Holywell Music Room, Oxford

Holywell is one of Europe's earliest purpose-built concert venues, and the shadow of Handel – who once played there – loomed rather heavily over this "showcase" British debut by the Swiss singer Susanne Abbuehl and her young band. Newly signed to Munich's ECM label, an imprint not previously known for its affection for vocalists, Abbuehl and her trio of piano, clarinet and drums, rather struggled to establish themselves within the formidable acoustic space, whose PA system lent a decidedly unforgiving ear to the leader's subtle but tremulous art.

Abbuehl's album, April, is a beautifully poised collection that draws heavily on poems by ee cummings, set to music by Carla Bley and Abbuehl herself, as well as an eccentric, Indian-themed, version of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight". Heard live, Abbuehl – who studied with the late American jazz diva Jeanne Lee and the Hindustani singer Prabha Atre – successfully embodied her mentors' lessons in phrasing and timing, but didn't appear to have much of a natural voice to add them to. The result was a touch disconcerting; the art was there alright, but the artifice sadly lacking.

After opening with an unaccompanied solo, Abbuehl – who had neglected to provide a set-list for her band, leading to much messing around – went through the material from the album. In the first half of the concert, the musicians were so evidently intimidated by their surroundings that they played as if a large poker had been installed in their collective backsides. Without any real sense of swing or commitment to sugar the pill, the relentlessly high-art repertoire engendered a rather resentful feeling, in this listener, at least. You can quote ee cummings all you like, but if you can't actually sing, what is the point?

In the second half, things improved considerably. Abbuehl broadened the repertoire to include versions of "Black Is The Colour" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child", among the cummingsisms. At last, the band relaxed a little and began to cut loose. The pianist Wolfert Brederode played a bellows-driven Indian harmonium for "Round Midnight' to great effect, and Abbuehl's voice started to sound more natural, occasionally achieving a rare, delicate, charm. Come the end, we were all won over, more or less. You could even imagine Handel himself giving a slightly dubious thumbs up. What poor old ee cummings would think of it all, goodness only knows.

Phil Johnson

The Parley of Instruments / Holman, Wigmore Hall, London

Upward of 90 minutes' music for one or two Renaissance violins, with their edgy, almost vibrato-free tone, supported by no more than a bass viol and a small chamber organ, might not seem to promise the most exciting listening – especially as this concert, entitled The Golden Age of English Consort Music, was unrelieved by the more sumptuous textures of the viol consort repertoire.

But then, the four players of The Parley of Instruments have been refining their approach to English 17th-century performance for 22 years, while their founder-organist Peter Holman is a recognised expert. The effect of a humid evening on gut strings may have posed occasional problems for tuning and intonation, yet the concert proved cannily planned, not only to suggest the evolution of some 70 years of music, but to offer the maximum possible contrast between items.

As an opener, Holman had drawn, from the celebrated set of nine Fantasias of Three Parts, which Orlando Gibbons published around 1620, the five that seem to be written for two violins and bass rather than three viols: classics of early 17th-century instrumental part-writing, from which the concert's second item already seemed a startling departure. This was the Fantasia-Suite no 7 in D minor by Charles I's favourite chamber musician, William Lawes: a sequence full of jagged lines and moodily wayward harmonies, including a strange passage in its "Air" where Lawes seems to compose a deliberate breakdown and then recovery of continuity in the upper parts, relished by violinists Judy Tarling and Theresa Caudle.

Inventive pieces by John Jenkins completed the first half, including his tone-poem Lady Katherine Audley's Bells, with its evocation of change-ringing and funeral tolls.

The second half encompassed developments after the Restoration, with such composers as Matthew Locke and John Blow attempting to resist or absorb Italian influence, according to temperament. Bass violist Mark Caudle aroused particular admiration for his eloquent virtuosity in a florid Sonata in D major by Gottfried Finger. But it was the concluding group from Purcell that haunted the homeward-bound ear: a pair of richly worked Pavans in A from his youth, and the passionate Sonata No 6 from his posthumously published 1697 set in four parts, which wrapped up a century of musical change.

Bayan Northcott