It’s not easy to be original in baroque music in the 21st century: the composers would appear to have been discovered, the performers seem to have explored just about every angle – and then there is Eboracum Baroque. This group of very young singers and instrumentalists, formed by its director Chris Parsons at the University of York and the Royal College of Music, really does offer something different and quite special. As well as playing and singing the ‘expected’ staples of the repertoire, the ensemble champions unjustly forgotten music of the period, and performs mainly in the settings for which this music was composed. It’s a winning formula.
On this occasion, the setting was the superb York Mansion House, idyllically placed in a small square with views towards York’s medieval streets and the incomparable Minster. It is the earliest remaining Lord Mayor’s House, pre-dating London’s Mansion House by twenty years, and it is still the residence of York’s Lord Mayor. It houses a splendid collection of paintings and objects d’art, and offers tours and experiences for all ages. The ornate room in which the concert was held has surely been the setting for music of exactly the kind heard on this evening.
Handel’s The Trumpet Shall Sound was an appropriate beginning, with John Holland-Avery the ideally sonorous soloist, amiably vying with Chris Parsons’ virtuosic trumpet in the kind of duet / duel so beloved of eighteenth-century audiences. John won the Frederic Cox Song Prize, always an indication of promise, and although he’s not yet in the Neal Davies league, there is ample evidence that it won’t be long before he joins that exclusive ‘Voice of God’ company.
We went from the well-known to the obscure with music by James Oswald, a composer well worth discovering for the delicacy, wit and charm of his work. The better-known Jeremiah Clarke’s Suite in D Major was played with real verve and finesse, and it’s worth noting that this young group displays an exceptionally tight and disciplined ensemble, without appearing to do so – there is none of the furrowed brow / clenched teeth look you so often see, since this group really seems to enjoy performing.
Handel’s beautiful setting of While Shepherds Watched was sung with simple directness, in contrast to Purcell’s Cold Song from King Arthur to which John Holland-Avery brought considerable dramatic skill as well as impressive vocal range.
When most of us think of the Recorder, we associate it with small children’s first instruments, or with its use by Hamlet as a metaphor for being played upon. Ian Hoggart reminded us that its history is actually more distinguished, having been regarded as the choice of many virtuosi of the 18th century. His playing certainly made the case for it, especially in the kind of fast passages where you wonder how so small an instrument can produce so impressive a sound.
Miriam Nohl’s ‘cello playing is equally virtuosic and confident, shown to great advantage in Geminiani’s Sonata no. 5 in F Major. Laurence Lyndon Jones provided collaborative support from the harpsichord, and Chris Parsons not only played the trumpet with great skill but introduced the music and directed the ensemble with unaffected expertise.
The evening concluded with a spirited performance of The Wassail Song, with which the audience were invited to join. One suspects that the gin provided by York Gin, who supported the concert, may well have given some just enough courage to do that.