Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Ensemble Jupiter / Iestyn Davies & The Sixteen review – Early Music lives on in York

8 & 9 July 2023

Thunderstorms could not dampen the enthusiasm of audiences at this year’s York Early Music Festival.

The beautiful city of York is arguably the world centre for Early Music, and the 2023 Festival provides ample evidence of this, with these two concerts typical of its concept – leading ensembles and soloists performing beautiful music in venues around the city, many of them stunning in their own right.

The Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall in the University of York is sadly not one of the latter, being of the sixties brutalist style and possessing an acoustic which might best be described as woolly, but neither this nor the heat and humidity deterred Iestyn Davies and the Ensemble Jupiter from giving superb performances of arias, dances and Suites from Handel’s English Oratorios. The event was part of a series of nationwide concerts linked to the recording entitled Eternal Heaven, beginning at London’s Wigmore Hall and ending at the Edinburgh Festival.

The Secular Oratorio began with Handel, and these arias showcase the virtuosity of both singer and players, providing a thrilling evening of vocal and instrumental delights. Excerpts from Theodora were sung with Davies’ customary brilliance of execution and mellifluous tone, ‘The Raptur’d Soul’ and ‘Kind heaven’ both dramatically revealing of the character of Didymus, and both full of the joy of collaboration.

‘Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay’ from The Choice of Hercules and ‘Oh Lord, whose mercies numberless’ from Saul were both absolutely sublime, with Davies’ voice weaving seamlessly around the vocal lines to Thomas Dunford’s lute. You don’t normally think of the lute as an instrument capable of much passion, but Dunford’s playing refutes that in every piece, echoed by the youthfully effervescent playing of the violinists Louise Ayrton and Magdalena Sypniewski.

“…York is arguably the world centre for Early Music…”

The following evening saw us in the most magnificent setting of them all, the glorious York Minster, where a packed audience had braved the thunderstorms to hear The Sixteen in a programme commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd. As with the previous evening’s concert, this was part of an extended tour, in this case beginning in Oxford and ending in London. The title A Watchful Gaze comes from Byrd’s ‘Vigilate,’ which closed the concert with its advice to be ready for ‘when the lord of the house will come’.

Before that we were treated to some of the finest choral singing to be heard today; The Sixteen has now been established for over forty years, and continues to set the standard for consistently responsive, nuanced singing of the most demanding repertoire. Byrd’s Tristitia et anxietas (Sadness and distress) was not only superbly performed but fascinatingly paired with the setting of the same words from Lamentations by Jacobus Clemens non Papa, whose influence on Byrd was considerable.

Two pieces from the Bulgarian-born composer Dobrinka Tabakova provided evidence that these Biblical texts can be set in ways which respect the old masters whilst bringing new facets to their musical language. Arise Lord into thy rest showcased a stratospheric solo from the soprano Julie Cooper, and Turn our captivity, O Lord was moving in the quiet reverence of the final ‘Carrying their sheaves with them’.

Perhaps the most moving sequence was that of Philippe de Monte’s By the waters of Babylon followed by Byrd’s How shall we sing the Lord’s song, each piece lamenting the exile from Zion and captivity in Babylon. These works in particular captured the essence of The Sixteen – mellifluously unified sound and sensitive word painting, superbly directed by Harry Christophers.

• Details of the York Early Music Festival 2023 can be found here.

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