July 14, 2008

Culture: Fine Voices in Flawless Performance of Choral Music ; Brinkburn Music Festival at Brinkburn Priory, Northumberland

By Thomas Hall

THE second weekend of the 15th Brinkburn Music Festival was topped and tailed by the glories of English choral music, the Gabrieli Consort and Players revisiting their Purcell programme from the very first Brinkburn Festival and The Cardinall's Musick making its Brinkburn debut with a cappella music by William Byrd.

Byrd's career coincided with the reign of Elizabeth I, placing him among the recusant Roman Catholics whose beliefs put their lives in danger. But fame and friends in high places saw him through, and even as a member of the Chapel Royal his music was sung at clandestine masses.

Replacing the 8-piece ensemble's indisposed director Andrew Carwood, alto Patrick Craig seemed entirely at ease multi-tasking as singer conductor and commentator, explaining structural points in the psalm settings, motets and masses and hidden messages to the Catholic faithful in the texts. Whether in various permutations of voices drawn from pairs of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses, or all combined, the technical standards were outstanding with flawless tuning, pinpoint accurate entries and firmness of tone in even the quietest passages.

But it is interpretative choices that make a performance and every line had an inevitable flow, individual voices shifting seamlessly in or out of prominence to illuminate even the most involved counterpoints with a superb balance between the individual and the collective.

The Czech ensemble the Pavel Haas Quartet (playing Haas, Prokofiev and Dvorak) and recital partners mezzo-soprano Daniela Lehner and pianist Jose Luis Gayo made their Brinkburn debuts under BBC Radio 3's New Generation Artists scheme - their concerts recorded for future broadcast.

It was an Austrian and German theme for Lehner and Gayo who opened with a delightful set of folksong arrangements before a selection of Schubert lieder and Schumann's cycle Frauenliebe und Leben (A woman's love and life).

Young she may be in terms of singers, but Lehner already has a maturity of voice that takes her from limpid lyricism to dynamic, intense highs all with the clearest of diction and engaging characterisation.

Gayo's artistry was responsive to each subtle change of meaning and tone, playing with joyful freedom in the closing songs by Erich Korngold.

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