SCARPIA / Breathing life into fossilised music: The role of critics, early music, Tenebrae and Scottish Early Music Consort reviewed

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The Independent Culture
THE LAST contribution I made to this column was veiled in anonymity but such is the intimacy of the 'early music' world that it was only a day or so before I received a phone call of complaint about something I had written.

That incident was compounded recently by a controversial article by Robert King, a well-known early music specialist, on the subject of critics. The issues he presented were well-worn, but I'm still pondering his condemnation of music criticism on the grounds that it can wreck reputations, given that his own success (had he but the grace to admit it) owes as much to favourable criticism in the press as anyone's.

For all its immense contribution to the musical world at large, the early music scene remains a small pond in which inflated egos seem peculiarly prone to splash around in their own insecurity. Is it that those who believe they are on a quest for truth - or 'authentic' performance - are more prone to deafness when it comes to constructive criticism? In other words, because what they are seeking to do is unarguably 'right', they cannot be wrong about anything? There are two problems here, and distinction is too rarely made between them, either by critics or by the performers themselves: firstly, there is still an awful lot we don't know about how to perform early music - the process of inquiry has only just begun - and secondly, we must still judge the sheer musical quality of an interpretation, however politically correct it may be in terms of 'authenticity'.

Take, for example, the concert given by the Scottish Early Music Consort at Snape Maltings on Good Friday. I had set out on a deliberate quest for unusual music during Easter week, avoiding the St John Passions and finding a well- presented series of Renaissance polyphony based on the theme of the sorrows of the Virgin and a welcome repeat of Andrew Parrott's reconstruction of Easter Day Vespers in early 17th-century Venice on Radio 3. Music'n'art programmes dominated television's cultural contribution to the Easter weekend, with the Hilliard Ensemble performing a wide range of repertory from plain-chant to Arvo Part. The Scottish Early Music Consort's monodic medieval Easter dramas also attracted a good audience to the Maltings (including a very appreciative guide dog whose barking swelled the applause).

This project presented the problems facing the early music world in a nutshell. We know so little about how such representations of the Passion and Resurrection were performed in the Middle Ages that question marks must hang over the whole enterprise. This is not to say that such pieces should never be performed, but simply to emphasise that what is presented by way of a 'concert' to a modern audience cannot always be based on concrete musicological evidence, but involves flights of the imagination. Somehow they must make the music, preserved like a fossil, come alive.

This can involve some difficult decisions, but one way to do this - and one that has all too easily been accepted as true to the spirit of the music - has been to add the colour of assorted musical instruments to what was clearly conceived as purely vocal music. On this occasion, Warwick Edwards, director of the SEMC and himself a musicologist, resisted the temptation to 'orchestrate' the Latin-texted monody (except for a simple and quite beguiling harp accompaniment to the Stabat mater), but not the urge to link the three short plays with instrumental ensemble pieces entirely inappropriate to them.

This was a pity because, although they lent a spurious structure to the evening as a whole, I felt they detracted from the more compelling atmosphere of the dramas themselves. These, unlike the instrumental items, were performed with conviction by most of the singers (though Scottish connections had clearly influenced choice more than vocal suitability), and were enacted in a sequence of attractive tableaux that owed much to 14th-century art. I found it harder to trace the influence of a musical style based on 'the oral traditions which still flourish in certain Romance-language areas of Europe to this day'; if that was really the aim, the singing was far too refined and bland in expression.

Refinement - and perhaps even blandness - was exactly what is called for in Francois Couperin's Lecons de tenebres, for while James Bowman is a singer who excels in the former, his interpretation of the first Lecon was perhaps simply too characterful, as if he were unable to contain those qualities that makes him such a great singer of Handel opera. But he made an important contribution to the debut concert of the group Tenebrae by attracting a large crowd to St Luke's, Chelsea. The singers of Tenebrae are drawn from the male voices of Westminster Cathedral Choir, who usually perform in the shadow of those wonderful boys. Their accounts of Tallis's two settings of the Lamentations as well as two of his larger Latin motets were quite marvellous: sonorous yet never ponderous, conveying perfectly their contemplative essence. They were moving in the way only fine performances of Renaissance polyphony can be.