Review – 2008 York Early Music Festival, first weekend – Jordi Savall, Emma Kirkby, and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”


This weekend I took a break from the many delights London has to offer and headed up to York for the first weekend of the York Early Music Festival. I had first heard about it when doing a search for Jordi Savall, when I ran across his touring calendar and … look, there he was going to be in York, which is quite a bit easier for me to get to than, oh, Oslo. And since I hadn’t really been getting my early music fix in London, I thought, why not just do a whole weekend? This became an even more exciting possibility when I realized the program Jordi was going to be performing was one I desperately wanted to hear (music of Marais! the “apotheosis of the viol,” indeed!) and that Emma Kirkby was going to be performing the next day. (She is one of two singers I actively follow, the other being Ellen Hargis.) It was kismet! I booked the time off work and booked train tickets at the earliest possible moment.

What I did NOT do was book tickets for the Jordi Savall concert, which sold out some two months before I made it to York. (I was trying to split up the costs of the trip, but apparently I made the wrong decision about what to get “before” and what to get “after.”) I was on the waitlist, but on the very day of the concert, as I was heading north, I had not been called and there had only been one pair of tickets returned! The Kirby ones and tickets for Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” on Saturday had already been purchased (as had my train tickets), so with a worried heart I headed north, figuring … well, it was still going to be a good trip, and there was always the ghost walk if it completely fell through …

As it turned out, there was only one person ahead of me at the York Minster and I had no problems getting two tickets. In fact, as it was mostly general admission, I found my very early self sitting in the third row – in the lovely building that is the Chapter House of the York Minster, all Gothic carvings and stained glass and a lovely arched dome overhead to just make the atmosphere perfect. I can’t really say that atmosphere extended to the acoustics, however, as they seemed, even in the third row, to be muddy at times, but it often seems that is the case with early music – the instruments just aren’t as piercing as later ones, and a chattering harpsichord can easily drown out the whispers of an archlute.

The program: well, it was everything I had hoped for and the first half of the program (which started with the Marais, “Suite d’un Gout Etranger”) pretty much justified the entire trip. Jordi Savall is the master of the viol, and to hear him playing pieces that Marais, the master composer of the viol, created to “stretch the skill of those who do not like easy pieces” was heaven. At one point (I think the “Allemande La Superbe”), I heard such unusual combinations of notes and techniques that it was like falling out of my own consciousness and into another person’s body. Were these things possible? Can you really play all SEVEN strings at the same time, in harmony with a bow? I was floored. I was in the room with the master. Jordi Savall, Arianna Lallone, Carlos Acosta – there are very few artists who have left me with the gap-jawed feeling I get when I feel I am witnessing genius.

Frankly, after this opening left me weak-kneed and gasping for air, I felt there was little hope of equalling it during the rest of the show. That said, Rolf Lislevand, who provided a lovely accompaniment to Jordi during most of the show, got his chance to rock out solo and took the bit in his teeth and ran. His Spanish guitar suites practically set his strings on fire – I suddenly felt like I was watching some super band at Glastonbury getting an ocean of people up and jumping. Jason and I walked out of the hallway fanning ourselves. Early music: who could ever think it would be so hot! (The audience, of course, expressed its state of rapture by not even breathing, as near as I could tell, during the performance.)

The rest of the evening was fine but I’ll move on to discussing the next evening’s performance: Emma Kirkby and Peter Harvey with a few members of the London Baroque performing songs of the Jewish exodus (as written by 17th century German composers, i.e. Heinrich Schutz and friends). This performance was in the Salvation Army Hall of York, on Gillygate street; as we walked in, I was finding myself remembering the fiery Major Barbara of Shaw’s play and thinking of her preaching away inside of this very building. That said, it was QUITE warm in the building and I think it was affecting those of us in the balcony seats rather negatively – there was much more shifting and coughing, as well as plenty of fanning.

The opening of the concert was four songs on exactly the same text – Psalm 137, “An den Wassern zu Babel” (“By the waters of Babylon/ there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion./On the willows there we hung up our lyres …”). Reading the accompanying translation, I was actually quite confused and didn’t realize we were going back onto the same text again and again – it was like Groundhog Day. Once I realized what was going on, I was able to settle down into the pleasure of hearing them side by side, but I utterly lost the benefit of the first one altogether. The final version, by Franz Tunder (whom I’d never heard of before), was completely bizarre – like hearing a normal song played backwards. I’m not sure what was really going on in Germany at that time – the program notes describes a world of rich musical interaction and all of the composers played knew each other – but Tunder seemed to have been in a world of his own. Perhaps he was playing little jokes in his music, such as by hiding mathematical formulas in it or something of the sort.

I have to admit that I don’t really care for German music in general – like Flemish paintings, it just leaves me dry. That said, I found this music, about crying for a fallen country, oddly resonated with me on my country’s Independence Day – it seemed to me to reflect my feelings about a broken state with no hope for the future, a country that had once been great – a source of inspiration, a “beacon of hope” – and now was just a wreck of its former self. A song about Jerusalem being like a woman who’d been widowed and left alone and friendless (by Buxtehude) was particularly sad. Still, my overall feeling was it’s too damned hot in here and even though I enjoyed listening to both singers, I was just desperate to get out of the building and couldn’t realistically comtemplate going to see the lute quartert (Chordophony) that was happening at 10 PM – I needed to reduce my core temperature stat.

My final night in York was spent at the Minster (again!), this time in the main hall, watching the Yorkshire Bach Choir and Yorkshire Baroque Soloists performing Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” – the original, 1739 version that debuted in London (at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, I think). The first section was, like Buxtehude’s “Klagelied” (of the night before), a piece originally written for someone’s funeral – in this case for his patroness, er, Queen Caroline, I think (I’ve stuffed my program notes into a bag somewhere so I can’t say definitively, but the web is out there if you want to figure it out for yourself). The second section was about the plagues that decended on Egypt when Moses was trying to convince the Pharoah to “set my people free!” This music had lots of great illustrative effects for things like falling balls of fire and, er, biting lice and flies (I swear you have to have a good English accent to sing about lice and flies for five minutes with a straight face – an American just wouldn’t have the gravitas to pull it off).

The accompaniment seemed much more evolved than the German music of the night before – to me, music of the late 1600s can sound kind of tweedly and formless, like it doesn’t have a through line but just makes random harmonies. (The program for the German music mentioned its “expert counterpoint,” but I’m afraid I’m too uneducated to pick it out myself.) The cathedral made the organ sound amazingly resonant, like a pudding with some surprise tasty crunchy bits (as if from toffee or coconut) and the orchestra really blended with the organ well. And it was easy to hear the relationship of this music to “The Messiah.” That said …

I had been rained on SO HARD earlier in the day that it seemed like the life had just been washed out of me. Classical music is something I really have to be in peak form to appreciate – well slept and preferably in a fairly good mood. I’d been having an excellent time and mostly getting enough rest (Bowman’s Guest House was delightfully quiet), but walking back to the hotel soaking wet had worn me out and a nap, tea, and dinner hadn’t restored me. I wasn’t spacing out as the music plays, which happens to me sometimes, but I wasn’t really there – I wasn’t connecting to what was happening, probably in part because I didn’t have a person that I could focus on (and I’m not really that keen on hearing biblical texts sung). It’s possible that I just generally am not a good person for choral work and should stick to smaller ensemble stuff. So … at intermission we headed out the door and off to someplace warm (the complete opposite of the night before!) to sit and have a pint or two and play some cards. I’m sorry, Yorkshire Baroque Soloists and Yorkshire Bach Choir, you were all doing fine, but I was not audience enough for you. I hope we shall meet again when I haven’t spent a very recent hour walking around in wet clothing and losing all of my passion for life.

Overall, the weekend was just great – I loved York in both its wet and dry modes and the music I went up there especially to see was very enjoyable. I liked the the programmatic theme for the festival (“Exiled: Music in a Strange Land”), also. With luck I’ll be back next year – or maybe even for their festival in December!


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One Response to “Review – 2008 York Early Music Festival, first weekend – Jordi Savall, Emma Kirkby, and Handel’s “Israel in Egypt””

  1. Review - Jordi Savall and Rolf Lislevand - BBC Proms, Cadogan Hall « Webcowgirl’s Theatre Reviews Says:

    […] sitting around cloistered away is not how most of them live – they play and they teach. So, as I mentioned in July, I looked and found his touring calendar online, and, much to my delight, discovered he was going […]

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