Early music festival at Greenwich, November 2013

Posted on November 17, 2013


Last weekend we visited the Early Music Festival and Exhibition in Greenwich (on 7-9 November), together with my mother and daughter. It was held at the Old Royal Naval College, a palace built by Henry VI in the fifteenth century, which later became the site of the Greenwich Hospital complex until 1873, when the Royal Naval College moved in. At present it serves as a site for Greenwich University and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, who had a substantial role in organising the musical events surrounding the exhibition.


The exhibition was centred around the Painted Hall of the Palace and the Queen Mary Undercroft, which was turned into a buzzing box of sounds as the interested public (consisting mainly of music students and amateur musicians) were trying all the recorders, shawms, harpsichords, baroque guitars, violas, oboes, harps and many other weird looking instruments. Triggered by simple questions, the manufacturers easily launched into passionate descriptions and explanations about their instruments. There were also live demonstrations of the instruments by manufacturers, students of the College and professional musicians. The atmosphere was warm and casual. My daughter of 8 enjoyed herself for hours trying out all the harpsichords, playing the little melodies she knows several times on each, comparing their sounds and mechanisms.


One of the highlights of the festival was the concert performed by world famous recorder player Michala Petri together with harpsichordist James Johnstone , on Friday, the 8th. The concert was given at the majestic site of The Chapel, a large, decorated stony hall, so the sound of the recorder was naturally amplified with breath-taking effect by the great acoustics of the venue. Both performers had the chance to demonstrate their virtuosity, playing together and separately mainly sonata’s by Handel, Telemann, Bach and Vivaldi. To demonstrate the abilities of the harpsichord as a solo insturment, James Johnstone played the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E flat major by J.S. Bach (BWV 998), a great example of contrapuntal music. It was played with a superb balance between feeling and precision, the parallel lines of the music being clearly distinguishable, but fitted together so that the music was flowing seamlessly.

Regarding the solo recorder, it would be hard to imagine a piece requiring higher level of virtuosity than Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill Sonata’. This was played with great impact by Michala Petri, leaving the audience completely dazzled, uncertain whether it was reality or dream.


I have inserted a video with Michala Petri playing the ‘Devil’s Trill’ sonata, with Lars Hannibal. However, no recording can match a live experience of such music.

Overall, the pure sounds of the instruments and the heartfelt playing of these two musicians was so refreshing, that by the end of the concert, at Friday night after a long week at work, I felt as if I had already relaxed through a long weekend in a high mountain retreat (and getting drunk by drinking spring water).

On the last day of the festival, besides chilling out in the “sound box”, we enjoyed the concert of David Bellugi (recorder) and Charles Matthews (harpsichord) at the St. Alfege Church in Greenwich. The selection of the pieces was bridging Baroque and modern music, demonstrating the versatility of the two instruments. After starting with pieces by J.S. Bach and C.P.E. Bach (Trio Sonata from the Musical Offering BWV 1079 and Sonata in G Minor) they presented two compositions of twentieth century composers. The first of these was Two pieces of harpsichord by Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1859) Czech composer, music employing free contrapuntal writing somewhat similar to baroque, transported into the innovative tonal and rhythmic musical language of the first half of twentieth century, with influences from atonality and the neoclassical style. The other modern piece was a transcription to the recorder of music originally composed for guitar quartet by Leo Brouwer i.e. Paisaje cubano con rumba. In this piece of minimalist character Bellugi played the recorder on a background of several recorded melodic lines running in parallel, filling the air with a vibrant texture of ethereal sounds, creating an almost futuristic impression.

Posted in: Part 5