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Grave and Bubbly

Basil Ramsey listens to early music at a festival

Chelmsford Cathedral in Essex (England) last week hosted, as part of the Chelmsford Festival, a concert with Emma Kirkby and the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood. Its level of communication with the listener was exceptional in my experience, even for such a professionally skilled group. We heard supreme music-making in an ideal acoustic, and the choice of music also lent itself to these accolades.

Andrew Manze, for instance, pitched into the Bach A minor Violin Concerto as though a newly-discovered work. He was directing the orchestra, thereby drawing the players into his vivacious overview. Graceful as the slow movement is, Manze held it poised on a knife edge to rest exquisitely in the larger picture. The raw edge of excitement was back in the finale: speed, fire and precision.

Emma Kirkby offered us a rarity: Bach's solo wedding cantata Weichet nur, Betrubte Schatten BWV 202, which survives only in a copyist's hand. The music responds to the poet's imagery with delicious ideas, a combination perfectly designed for Emma Kirkby's clear, acrobatic voice. The effect is quite magical (this cantata is on a new CD). Her special qualities reappeared at the programme's end with Handel's Latin motet, Sileti venti. Its self-borrowings -some quite familiar - and enchanting changes of mood and tempo culminate in a mercurial flash of Alleluias to finish. Earlier, we also heard an energetic sample of Geminiani's concerto grossi 'after Corelli', a vigorous mixture of the two composers in excellent form.

Nobody with a shred of music in their soul can resist the disarming manner in which early music is presented by the Academy. Grave or bubbly, it is resurrected to vibrant life.

 Copyright © Basil Ramsey, May 19th 1999