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Music from the time of Claudio Monteverdi
at a concert in Cardiff Castle, Wales,
reviewed by REX HARLEY


There was a pleasant paradox in the fact that this concert, on 'authentic' instruments, took place in the Banqueting Hall of Cardiff Castle, surely one of the most 'inauthentic' surroundings it would be possible to find. The Castle was reconstructed in the late Nineteenth Century for the Marquis of Bute, under the direction of William Burges, and the Banqueting Hall, an over-decorated and gilded confection, is to Gothic what the buildings of the Third Reich were to Classical architecture: a monument to bad taste and megalomania. The knights in armour striding around the mural, which takes up three sides of this long room, might have stepped out of Ivanhoe, or, for those with long memories, a packet of Kellogs cereal in the early 1960s. And the whole thing is lit by three huge brass chandeliers, stuffed with bright white megawatt bulbs.

Views of Cardiff Castle - exterior in Spring, and the Winter smoking room
Views of Cardiff Castle - exterior in Spring, and the Winter smoking room

Fortunately, the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble evinced rather more subtlety than the room they were playing in, though it took them a while to get going.

The earlier pieces in the recital suffered from a cautious approach, possibly the result of lack of rehearsal of relatively recent repertoire. At all events, the players' effort seemed to be going at least as much into control as into expression. As a result, the music sounded, at best, rather 'four-square', and there were moments of uncertainty, both in terms of notes and timing. Not that this is easy music to play: far from it. But the ensemble was not playing effectively as an ensemble.

That they could do so was finally demonstrated in Palestrina's Ascendo ad Patrum, a piece at least as challenging as those which had preceded it. Suddenly, there was a brightness and confidence, and one could really enjoy the unique sound made by these two instruments. The sackbut is a more restrained version of the modern trombone, with a narrower bell, originating in the Fifteenth Century. Its partner, the cornett is to modern ears, and eyes, a strange beast, made from wood, covered with leather and emitting a sound quite unlike any other. Though serving the requirements of 'high art', it retains some of the qualities of its ancestors: folk instruments made from cow horns.

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Copyright © 7 November 2002 Rex Harley, Cardiff, UK


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