Once more, with feeling

EARLY MUSIC: Music from the Royal Courts of Europe SBC, London
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The Independent Culture
Recent events gave an unexpected poignancy to the South Bank's Early Music Weekend, a short festival devoted to sacred and secular music from the royal courts of Europe. The artistic director Philip Pickett's shrewd programming captured the full range of courtly patronage, embracing everything from 14th-century royal dances to Handel's Water Music and offering a generous helping of former musical riches on a tight budget.

The Tallis Scholars proved able to seduce the ear even in the unhelpful acoustics of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, delivering their survey of works associated with the Tudor Chapel Royal with customary musical precision and clarity of sound. It goes against the grain to criticise a vocal ensemble so committed to the value of accurate intonation and able to produce an uncanny balance of individual voice parts. And yet there was a restraint in the music-making here, especially so in the earlier Latin-texted works, that all too often ran contrary to the spirit and even the sense of the words being sung. Such was the case with Tallis's brief Jesus antiphon Sancte Deus, lightweight and monochrome in this performance despite the imploring nature of the text and the composer's genuine response to it. Likewise, the dramatic word setting and deliberate dissonances of his Loquebantur variis linguis were sanitised and kept in check by the director, Peter Phillips.

This concert began shortly after the Requiem mass held nearby at Westminster Abbey for Diana, Princess of Wales, in which the balance between simple chant and complex polyphony had so powerfully underlined the emotional force of ritual music. While the Tallis Scholars may put forward a persuasive case for presenting motets and mass movements in isolation from their intended liturgical context, it seems strange that they should wish to apply a universal stamp of tonal beauty and expressive reserve to works as diverse in style and spirit as Taverner's Quemadmodum and Byrd's impressively grand Tribue, Domine.

Tonal beauty was abundantly present in the work of the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, although not at the expense of expression. The derivation of the recorder ensemble's name is the stuff of trivial pursuit addicts' dreams, partly conditioned by its association with Dutch television's immortal Loeki the Lion character. No more need be said, other than that the Stardust boys are masters of their trade, each able to swap from the mighty great bass recorder to any of its smaller relatives with convivial ease and to negotiate the trickiest of musical divisions. Their programme focused on consort music from 16th-century Spain, crowned by outstanding performances of a Salve regina by Diego Ortiz and a boisterous ensalada by Aguilera de Heredia.

Pickett's New London Consort held up Telemann's water music pieces to comparison with those by his friend Handel, balancing the scales in the former composer's favour thanks to scrappy playing in the more familiar repertoire. Given the eloquence and energy extracted in the concert's account of Telemann's so-called "lster-Echo" overture and the conductor's strong views on the instrumentation and effect of the Handel score, it was disappointing that so many moments should be marred by lapses of concentration throughout the band and an unacceptably high number of accidents in the natural horn department. Andrew Stewart