Crowe/Byrne/Nordberg review – London international festival of early music: enchantment, engagement and swagger

London international festival of early music
Lucy Crowe, Liam Byrne and Jonas Nordberg performed music from the 17th and 18th centuries, and revelled in the graciousness of Errollyn Wallen’s brand new Angel Waters

There was a moment in the opening concert of this year’s London international festival of early music when soprano Lucy Crowe looked up towards the ceiling of St Michael & All Angels church, as if watching her final note disperse into the tall nave. The audience was enchanted – and no wonder: Crowe knows how to work a room. Her delivery of two 17th-century French songs was simultaneously refined and bawdy, her ornamentation unfussy yet expressive. Her tone tended at times towards keening, its ebb and flow precisely tailored to the acoustics of the space.

But the magic was soon dispelled. The song, explained Liam Byrne – viola da gamba player extraordinaire and, in the absence of a programme, our ultra-softly spoken MC – is about a lovesick shepherd who’s jealous because his girlfriend “also likes the dog”. A suite by French baroque viol virtuoso Marin Marais – in performance all supple phrasing and daring exploration of dynamic extremes – was apparently “from his third book from 17 … I’m going to say … 11” (cue forgiving chuckles from the crowd of early music specialists). And there were cheerful digs at Byrne’s duo partner, lutenist Jonas Nordberg, who had to retune between each item.

Such swings from enchantment into deadpan demystification characterised the entire concert. Whether you’re irritated or charmed will depend on how you like your French baroque served: straight up in concert dress? Or more like an intimate acoustic set from an indie band? In the latter mode, Byrne and Nordberg cannot be beaten. For those who prefer the former, Crowe’s more direct musical communication may have been a welcome respite.

Some kind of compromise – and a refreshing plunge into an alternative soundworld – came with the world premiere of Errollyn Wallen’s Angel Waters, which emerged, growling, from the depths of Byrne’s viola da gamba. Like the preceding suites of dance movements, the piece is episodic, spotlighting beautiful effects on each instrument in turn: a sequence of lute harmonics; a flurry of harsh viola da gamba bowing. Above all, though, Angel Waters showed Byrne and Nordberg at their best – revelling together in the piece’s graciousness and swagger, its generous sense of musical space.

• Available on Marquee TV in from 6 December.


Flora Willson

The GuardianTramp

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