Rhinegold Photo credit: © ROBERT PIWKO

Adrian Horsewood


5:13, 9th March 2017


The sea breeze wafted us to various venues over three autumn weeks in pursuit of music reflecting the BREMF’s themes of nature and science. The opening concert in the spacious 18th-century neoclassical church of St George’s Kemptown was dedicated to the German Baroque music theorist Athanasius Kircher, who in 1650 published in Rome an enormous treatise, Musurgia Universalis. (His reputation suffered a little through his not totally serious invention of the Katzenklavier, by which cats would mew at different pitches when stimuli were applied to their tail.) The seven musicians of L’Avventura included two of his pieces in their programme, a curious, rhythmic exercise and an exuberant tarantella from his theory that dancing was not a symptom – as others thought – but a remedy of the disease tarantism, supposedly brought on by a tarantula’s bite. He believed music could penetrate the pores of a patient’s body and ‘incite him to dance which begets him a perspiration in which poison evaporates’. Kircher’s theories on birdsong, medicine and alchemy were the excuse to programme a wide range of other short works from Telemann to Pachelbel, some with only spurious links to Kircher. The sinuous recorder tone of Emily Baines was a particular treat, with works by Biber and Rameau. Kircher writes much about melancholy and under that heading soprano Grace Davidson performed the first verse of Gray’s Elegy, revealing a gem of solemn mood-painting. She sang two ‘Addio’ works, one a poignant Sephardic dance, the other Monteverdi’s moving ‘Addio Roma’, because Kircher had landed in Rome by mistake, his boat having drifted off course. He considered it fate and made his life there.


The Sunday matinee of Bach’s The Art of Fugue by the viol consort Fretwork took place in the secular Ralli Hall in Hove. Bass viol Richard Boothby introduced each of the 12 movements when they would usually otherwise have been played straight through with the waffle confined to a programme note, and it was ultimately frustrating that this was not also the case here. More entertaining was the later concert in the massive Victorian Gothic All Saints Church, given by the BREMF Players with a line-up of young singers. There was no obvious allusion to the science and nature theme in Purcell’s Ode to St Cecilia Welcome to all the Pleasures’, but the three ex-choral scholar soloists sang with carefully turned Baroque phrasing, unknown before the early music movement began 60 years ago when the doyen of festivals started. In the incidental music to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, soprano Angela Hicks sang the folksong Dorinda’s Song with delicious tone but at slightly ponderous speed. There remains a tendency among early music practitioners to treat the music with too much deference and gentility. The Restoration pit orchestra is sometimes credited with more politeness than it deserves.


The following Sunday, Trio Goya occupied Ralli Hall and sent us home spinning on the delights and laughter of early Beethoven. His piano trio Op.1, No.1 frothed and bubbled down the 10-note scale of the finale’s theme, the musicians swept along by their own hell-for-leather, immaculately kept tempo. Keyboardist Maggie Cole admitted that she too had wondered how to satisfy the science and nature theme and concluded quite rightly that it was the science of instrument-making that gave the first impetus to the early music movement in the 1960s. Her light bouncing tone of her 1795 Anton Walther fortepiano copy was exactly what also inspired the 25-year-old Beethoven. The natural gut and wood of Kati Debretzni’s violin and Sebastian Comberti’s cello made clear sense of the latter’s interesting Diabelli sonata and the former’s sparkling Beethoven’s Spring Sonata. One could almost see the blossom ahead.



During his international performing and teaching life, Professor Robert Spencer (1932–1997) of the Royal Academy of Music collected manuscripts, instruments and prints of inestimable value. At his death, his employer acquired a collection so vast, the process of cataloguing it has only just finished. In celebration, an exhibition of its contents opened in January and runs until March 2018.


Spencer was lutenist and singer, and the collection is rich with lute and lutesong manuscripts. He did not quite complete the collection of John Dowland song books published between 1597 and 1612, but did acquire the Margaret Board Lute Book, which was never published and takes pride of place in the exhibition. Board, a student of Dowland, copied most of the pieces herself, but an Almande by Dowland is in a different hand, presumably his.


Similar is the Richard Mynshall Lute Book, written around 1597 and likewise unpublished. Mynshall has doodled and practiced his signature inside the cover. Another prized exhibit is the much later Burwell Lute Tutor of 1662 which read one way contains lute manuscripts, but in another, remedies for ailments from flatulence to the plague.


A dozen or so pocket-sized Playford Dancing Masters tell the tale of Spencer’s collecting obsession, which drove him to hunt down multiple editions of a single work. A small amount is on display but details of the 3,500 pieces of 18th- and 19th-century guitar music, the solo lute repertoire, early English songs, plays and dancing manuals can be read on the wall panels. Spencer’s many chordophone acquisitions are represented by six guitars, five lutes and a cittern. Most are from the 16th- and 17th-centuries but the exhibition also has a modern copy by Ian Harwood to show the extraordinary quality which contemporary lute-making has been able to achieve.


Reviewer Rick Jones

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