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Trio Mediaeval visit Old Hall

June 25th, 2022

Trio Mediaeval at St Gerold

We were fortunate to get some amazing ensembles at the Hilliard Summer Schools, including several that would go on to international careers. One of the most successful is Trio Mediaeval, who celebrate their 25th anniversary this year. They had only been singing together for year when they came for their first electrifying visit to Cambridge in 1998. From the start they absorbed the Hilliard ethos – musically they were like younger female versions of our own ensemble, but unlike us four funeral directors they were bursting with charisma.

They asked me to produce their first album. I was flattered but said I knew nothing about record production from the other side of the microphone. But they could (and still can) be very persuasive, and I eventually agreed as long as they hired Peter Laenger as Tonmeister. Peter had assisted Manfred Eicher in almost all the Hilliard ECM albums and I knew they would be in safe hands; the worst that could happen would be that I sat and listened to some glorious music making for a few days.

Manfred actually discovered the Trio for himself, dropping into a Tritonus mixing session, and ECM released Words of the Angel in 2001.  They did three more albums with Peter and me and more with Manfred himself; I wrote some liner notes and even got to sing with them occasionally. They’ve never stood still, always challenged the mainstream early music aesthetic, and their impressive discography includes landmark collaborations with jazz and folk musicians.

Their last album, Solacium: Hymns & Lullabies (I wrote the note for that too) was for Morten Lindberg’s 2L.  It was a typically imaginative Trio project, managing to reach back into a timeless past with their own arrangements of Scandinavian folk hymns, contributions from saxophonist Trygve Seim and bassist Matts Eilertsen and new music by Andrew Smith, Anders Jormin and Sinikka Langeland. More recently they have been working on music from the Old Hall Manuscript, and as it meant re-visiting their medieval roots they asked me to ‘co-produce’ alongside Morten Lindberg; I put co-producer in quotes because obviously Morten did the heavy lifting and I… well, I sat and listened to some glorious music making for a few days.

Trio Mediaeval with Morten Lindberg

Needless to say, it’s not your usual Old Hall album: sung by women’s voices the music shimmers and floats in ways that surely would have surprised and delighted its monkish composers. I like to think they’d also appreciate the organetto interludes and tropes played by Catalina Vicens, possibly the most virtuosic player of the instrument since the 15th century.  As for David Lang and Marianne Eriksen, well you can catch Marianne’s Sol Lucem when the Trio do their Solacium programme at the Wigmore at lunchtime on July 4 (or watch the Wigmore livestream).

Trio Mediaeval with Catalina Vicens

We had a fantastic week!




River God’s Song

June 3rd, 2022

Suppose the early music movement, complete with loads of lutes, had got properly  under way fifty years earlier…and those English song composers obsessed with 17th century verse had opted for lute instead of piano…and the focus of this amazing new movement was historical performance – doing what you could with whoever was to hand rather than fantasising about composers’ first thoughts…and musicians decided to apply renaissance principles to their own present…then you get ALTERNATIVE HISTORY.

We’ve recorded Warlock and Moeran on our Amores Pasados album, (ECM) and we’re adding to our counter-factual repertoire all the time. Earlier this year, our way to a tour of the Canary Islands, we stopped in Madrid to record some more. We’ve just put the first of two videos up on YouTube: E J Moeran’s River God’s Song from his 1933 Songs of Springtime.

It was originally a choral piece, a setting of Fletcher’s enigmatic poem (I first sang it as a treble).  In our parallel universe we have done what our renaissance predecessors would have done: cannibalised the original print and done our own thing with it. Ariel and Jake play the whole piece and ornament it as though it were a renaissance madrigal, beginning with a lute duet intro before Anna and I sing the original Moeran. It’s essence of Alternative History.

Our alternative universe includes songs and choral music by Roger Quilter, the almost unknown Peter Pope, and even Charles Wood. Watch this space for our next video: Peter Warlock’s Corpus Christi.

Reincarnations in Leipzig

April 15th, 2022

On April 25th David James, Jacob Heringman and I will be doing a new programme in Leipzig for Amarcord’s Acappella Festival. David and I have known Amarcord since pre-Festival days when they came to the Hilliard Summer School in Cambridge and we have both taken part in Festivals since, David with the Hilliards and me with Being Dufay. It’s an amazing festival and it’ll be a real treat to go back.

We’ve done similar programmes in Portugal and the UK but as a  tribute to the Amarcord/Hilliard connection this one will be our first specifically focused on Hilliard repertoire. One of the things I’ve done since leaving the group a couple of decades ago is working with lutenists Jacob Heringman and Ariel Abramovich and soprano Anna Maria Friman (also a Cambridge alumna) on a more historical approach to what we think of as the renaissance acappella repertoire. Our Alternative History ensemble has just returned from concerts in Spain and the Canary Islands where we performed Josquin as he was most often performed in the 16th century – intabulated for voices and vihuelas. The Leipzig programme with David and Jake will work on similar principles, with the missing voices intabulated by Jake who plays all the other parts. There will be some Josquin mass movements both with and without voices, motets by Josquin and Petrus de Grudencz, and a Brumel Agnus Dei that we last performed beneath Jan Garbarek’s saxophone. It will be acappella, but not as we know it …

Trio Cottaging

Diary update

January 26th, 2022


March: Alternative History in Spain


March 6                   Basilica Pontificia de San Miguel Madrid

March 7                    Madrid video sessions

March 9                    La Gomera

March 10                  La Palma

March  11                 Gran Canaria

March 12                  Gran Canaria

March 13                  Lanzarote


April 23                     Reincarnations in Leipzig

                                    with Jacob Heringman & David James

July 23-30                Dartington Sumer School


(including Gavin Bryars portrait concert)

September 17-18   Dowland Project concert & workshop in Mainz

Reflections on 2021

December 22nd, 2021

Sorry if you’ve seen the hernia bit before. I got my files in a twist…

It’s been a strange year, but not without good things. The combination of lockdown and Brexit seemed pretty much like early retirement to start with. I’d never imagined retiring so it took a bit of getting used to. But in the gloom wonderful things were stirring. Lots family time – I discovered what it was like to be a normal person just living life day by day instead of living so much of the time in the future. My original book project went onto the back burner, replaced by a new commission which is the most exciting writing I’ve ever done; it’s revolutionising my view of song and will keep me busy till this time next year.  And it turns out that gigs haven’t dried up altogether. My European friends make fantastic efforts to make things happen. It’s not easy but it sort of works. Brexit has made me even more of a European (if that’s possible, short of going to live on the mainland). And then there was my hernia and an encounter with York Hospital…

What do hernias have to do with singing? Not much, hopefully, but the anaesthetic might. In the days when I was a young oratorio singer (as we used to call ourselves) I sometimes had a problem with catarrh. As aspiring stars it wouldn’t occur to any of us to go to a local throat specialist – it had to be a proper Harley street morning dress honcho that you almost felt inclined to genuflect to but who might save you having to cancel your next job, usually at the cost of the fee. I had some bizarre things done to my voice in those days until I saw the light, and this one decided it was my wisdom teeth that was causing the problem. Ask your dentist if he can take them out in the chair, he said, or if not I have a mate at the Royal Free Hospital who can do it on the NHS but he’d have to book you in by the end of the week. He was a kindly man – the Royal Free is often Royal but rarely free and the chance to get it done on the health service was not to be sneezed at. I rang my dentist’s reception and explained the situation and was told to attend the emergency clinic next day. I did feel a bit of a fraud as it wasn’t exactly an emergency and when I turned up the locum, new to me, sent me away with a flea in my ear. So I ended up in the Royal Free, which was even royaler than I was expecting as after the anaesthetic I woke up in the bed next to the Queen Mum’s flower arranger. That was the first time I heard the one about Her Maj appearing at the servants’ hall having rung the bell but had no response, and saying something to the effect that she didn’t know about you fellows but this queen wants a gin-and-tonic. My father-in-law Peter Walbourn later painted the Queen Mum but I couldn’t persuade him to ask her if it was actually true. She let him take home some jewellery for detailed work in his studio.  Is it insured, Peter asked? We couldn’t possibly afford the insurance, came the reply. My mother-in-law slept with it under her pillow.

I can’t remember if the extractions cured the catarrh but the anaesthetist did accidentally sever the nerves in my tongue, which led to some pretty nifty consonant modifications in the Bach a month or so later. Thank heaven for long melismas and a language most English listeners wouldn’t understand anyway. It took months for them to start re-growing, and even now I still get the odd electric twinge decades later.

My next visit to hospital (apart from ferrying injured ninja wife and sick granddaughters every now again) was here in York about 15 years ago for a hernia repair. So was the one after that, a couple of months ago. Everyone I know who’s experienced the sharp end of the NHS has been in awe of the whole thing: it may take a while to get there but once you get through the hospital door you see humanity at its absolute best. Everyone from the surgeon to the auxiliary staff was so kind and super-efficient and full of humour, despite having to work on their days off because of Covid and staff shortages, being under-paid and having to cope with a ridiculous amount of paperwork. They were all so collegiate and caring not just of us patients but of each other. I told the anaesthetist the story of my ancient trauma and he took endless care to explain exactly what he would do to ensure it didn’t happen again. It didn’t, and I could belt out some Bach tomorrow (actually, make that a lute song…).

The other thing you can’t help noticing is that this wonderful microcosm of a perfect society is powered almost entirely by women. And they cheerfully do it day in and day out despite the over-paid and out of touch mostly male government departments they have to answer to.  So thankyou York hospital and everyone who works there – you are a beacon of sanity and hope.





October 5th, 2021

Back in the nineties I spent an eventful year commuting to Bremen as a Dozent at the Akademie für alte Musik (the AKA as we all knew it). I lived close to Stansted airport, then not much more than a shed in a field, and once a month or so I’d fly out on Air Bremen after breakfast, teach in the afternoon, stay the night, teach a bit more and fly home the next day in time for dinner. The plane was a lovely whispering turbo-prop with leather seats. Quite often I was its only passenger and towards the end of the year Air Bremen went out of business. I then had to resort to Lufthansa (my favourite airline) and Heathrow (my least favourite airport) and the whole business took an extra day or more. At about the same time the AKA converted from a privately run academy to a full-blown Hochschule (it’s now part of the Hochschule für Künste Bremen) and I was asked to become a proper prof. It was one of those moments which (in theory at least) might have altered the flow of the ocean currents (as Luciano Berio might have put it). They didn’t want a teacher that would only appear whenever there was a break in their performing schedule, and to do the job properly I’d have to either move to Bremen or get used to regular circuits of the M25. So I forwent the chance of a German pension (and haven’t taught singing since) and a few years later York beckoned and the ocean currents found their proper course.

The AKA was an amazing place, pioneering early music performance and bursting with musicians from all over Europe. One of my colleagues was the conductor and musicologist Manfred Cordes, whose substantial discography with his ensemble Weser Renaissance includes landmark recordings, especially of the early German baroque. In 1996 my Hilliard colleague Rogers Covey-Crump and I joined the group for a recording of the complete  Cantiones Sacrae of Heinrich Schütz . Now, twenty-five years later, I’m just off to the Gothenburg Organ Festival for two concerts celebrating the Praetorius anniversary, and Manfred Cordes will conduct. My fellow singers will include Trio Mediaeval, with whom I sang a programme of Machaut and Cypriot polyphony just before the virus appeared. Post-virus musical blood is beginning to flow through my veins again at last.

One of my first post-Covid gigs was celebrating Josquin as Jacob Heringman’s secret chanter, and I’m very glad that the next one takes in the other (and sadly, less celebrated) anniversary. I’m double vaccinated, have booked a return test and upgraded my travel insurance, attempted to fill in the Passenger Locator Form, printed out and practised the dots, booked flights and trains…anything else? It’s been so long since I’ve been to the mainland I can hardly remember how to do it.

A gig!

June 11th, 2021

I can hardly believe it, but a change in my mental wellbeing (an uptick, I think they call it) confirms that it’s true – I did a gig, the first in 18 months. Many musicians are still standing by the phone (and post-Covid and post- Brexit it may not ring) so it’s been amazing to come out of hibernation. Huge thanks to Malcolm Creese and the Swaledale Festival – it was the perfect way to re-engage with what used to be real life.

The programme was devised by Jacob Heringman (with a couple of suggestions from Malcolm and me) originally for Clare Wilkinson, Susanna Pell and the two of us. Clare was unable to leave Belgium because of Covid restrictions so we were very fortunate that the wonderful Peyee Chen was able to step in instead. We did two performances, the audiences socially distanced and masked. Being confronted with a room full (half-full, that is) of very polite and enthusiastic bank robbers was every bit as bizarre as it sounds, though by the end of the second outing it seemed almost normal as we were carried along by the audience’s energy and generosity. The new pieces by Sting and John Paul Jones were terrific (great to have Malcolm joining us on stage for Sting’s piece – he played with Sting and Stan Tracey at the 1993 Mercury Awards). John Paul was sadly unable to join us, stuck in Spain with a broken shoulder, but we did a a Zoom session with him so he could hear what we were up to. For everything else  we applied our usual renaissance practice of doing whatever we fancied with whatever was to hand. This time it was the turn of Stephen Wilkinson (Clare’s father, still composing at the age of 102), Schubert, Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock (with added Creese) in between Dowland and Josquin.  It was a wonderfully heart-warming occasion with great playing from Jacob Heringman and Susanna Pell.

Future projects are still up in the air, of course. The Marvao performance of Arvo Pärt’s Stabat Mater with former Hilliard colleagues next month has sadly just been cancelled since Portugal’s return to the amber list. But enquiries are starting to appear for next year and beyond – for all sorts of things from PhD examining to summer schools as well as performances, which is a bit like the sun coming out after a long dark winter.

Meanwhile, the garden and greenhouse are burgeoning and writing is getting done. I’ve recently completed liner notes for Trio Mediaeval and amazing pianist Fred Thomas, and a book chapter on Gavin Bryars’ vocal music. At the moment I’m immersed in Hildegard von Bingen and her contemporaries as part of the research for my new history of song for Yale University Press. It’s great to be busy with these projects, but joining old friends for real concerts (while I can still do it!) has been total magic.

Peyee Chen, Malcolm Creese, Jacob Heringman, Susanna Pell, JP

There’s also a timely Early Music insert in the current issue of Soanyway magazine, which features an interview with Jake and Zan, and a short piece from me on the Dowland Project’s early music and jazz.

Halfnotes from a minimal greenhouse

May 16th, 2021

Last year I blogged about the lean-to greenhouse we built out of old windows up against our garden shed. In a fit of zeal I deleted a load of photos from WordPress’ storage, not realising that I was also deleting them from the posts, so those have now vanished into the ether. The greenhouse itself has survived with only one broken pane, after I netted the overhead apple branches to catch any strays.

As the veg weren’t a brilliant success last year (Padron peppers a notable exception) I’ve focused more on flowers. I’ve grown fox gloves, bonariensis and hollyhocks from our own seed (some of the latter nicked from a fantastic specimen up the road). I bought seeds for Cosmos (3 sorts), Kalendula, Tithonia (a first) and Cleome.  Everything germinated spectacularly and we should have flowers in excelsis. I haven’t entirely neglected the veg – there are the usual beans (broad, French and runners), cucumbers and and sweet peppers, all doing well so far. I’m also having a go at cucamelons, which claim to be ‘mini melons tasting of cucumber with a twist of lime.’ I’m a bit late with the tomatoes but they’ll be there soon.

Two lessons I’m trying to learn from last year: name the bloody seedlings as they all look the same to start with (why is this so hard to do?) and harden off good and proper. I think I’ve  been much to quick to get them in the ground so I’ve been letting them out for the day and tucking them up at night. Then as long as they behave themselves they can stay out all night for a few days before final planting. Fingers crossed…

The bottom row are all nicotiana (I hope), with mostly tithonias and cleome above. Below are some of the cucamelons:

Outside we have a field of Kalendula awaiting the trowl:


…and a mixed bag of cosmos, tithonia, foxgloves, hollyhocks  and cleome also standing by:

Let’s hope we get some sun!

Ernest Walbourn: a coda

March 5th, 2021

This is the 7th and last post about the landscape painter Ernest Walbourn. 

We still haven’t visited Dinan to track down the remaining pictures from 1923 but we do sometimes get out the box of photos from the period. Inevitably, the ones you really want to see have faded back into history. Those that survive still give an impression of a comfortable bourgeois life between the wars – family holidays, boating, tennis parties, gardening, and formal family portraits. There are also shots of Ernest at work, often at the same easel Peter would use long after his death, and on which a large unfinished Ernest is now perched, conveniently hiding our tv. Here is the great man at work:









He was also a bit of a sportsman. We have a letter of March 1897 from the captain of a hockey team referring to his prowess as a goal keeper (with the added advantage of being able to sing and play the banjo). He was invited to join the Olympic shooting team; we have a letter from a committee member reassuring colleagues worried about letting in someone familiar with a gun who would rather paint pheasants than shoot them, that even though he was an artist he was a gentleman.

This is Ernest’s wife Eva, a successful artist in her own right, especially as a painter of flowers and gardens, patronised by no less than Queen Mary herself. She sometimes painted Ernest’s backgrounds for him, and the picture on her easel here looks more like one of his.

There’s a small family album with pictures of holidays and various sporting activities. There was lots of cricket and golf…

And plenty of tennis…

Eva (left), Peter (right) and next to him Gwen (Penny’s Mum)

…and inter-generational amateur dramatics:

L to R: Gwen, Peter, Eva, Peter’s elder brother Dick

The bottom right snap from the album above is Ernest’s house and studio backing onto Epping Forest. Peter inherited the Victorian statue on the plinth in the foreground and it stood in his garden for many years until it was vandalised, the lady only surviving from the waist upwards. Her remains now rest atop a salvaged piece of York Minster West window in our little courtyard:

The ornate pot in the shot of the family practicing putting in the garden has followed us from house to house, increasingly battered:

They loved boats and fishing, Peter becoming a keen fisherman as an adult and his brother Derek a world class sailor, returning to the land of his forefathers many times to take part in the Sydney-Hobart race.

This is Derek, Peter (with cap) and  Eva with Ernest wielding rod in one hand and a pipe in the other. We think this is around the time of the Brittany trip when Peter would have sat at the feet of his father, learning his craft. Fifteen years later the boy who drew trains, cars and views of the French countryside was called up as a war artist and sketched planes and pilots. We don’t know what happened to his official work (it included a portrait of General Smuts) but we have a folio of sketches of off-duty airmen listening to concerts, drinking copious amounts of tea or just lounging around enjoying the beautiful landscape in which he always seemed to be posted.

He had a good war, some of it in Cortina with his leg in plaster after a skiing accident, and with time to paint views of Venice and castles on the Austria-Italy border.  In the fifties he became a commercial artist (one of the models draped over the bonnet in a Hillman Minx ad is his daughter, now my wife) and finally a portrait painter. We have another folio of photos of his many paintings of judges, company chairmen, their wives, horses and dogs.

His greatest triumph was painting the Queen Mum for the Middle Temple. After a sitting he needed more time to get the detail of her jewellery right, so she suggested he take it home. Is it insured, Peter asked, somewhat alarmed. We couldn’t possibly afford to insure it, came her majesty’s reply. Penny’s mum slept with the Queen Mum’s brooch under her pillow to be on the safe side.

The spirits of Ernest and Peter are still with us. Our son Ned, Peter’s grandson and Ernest’s great grandson, was able to begin a conference in Capetown  by cross fading Ernest’s sketch (now on his wall) with a modern photo of the same view, and on a similar working trip to Sydney saw the site of the church in which he thought (mistakenly as we now know!) his forebears got married more than two centuries ago. Peter worked at Ernest’s easel all his life, before passing it on to Penny:

and when we’re not watching tv we can watch an Ernest, still sitting on the easel and awaiting his attention.

Replanting an Ernest Walbourn poppy field…

February 26th, 2021

Re-tracing Ernest Walbourn’s 1923 visit to Brittany was hugely exciting but the paintings aren’t really typical of his output, most of which is decidely English. We know he took his paints to Australia when he went to sell the family property in 1902  as there’s a view of Table Mountain from when he stopped in Cape Town on the way, but there don’t appear to be any paintings from down under. Almost all of his subjects are home grown and typical of a certain sort of English art of the time. He may have appreciated Kandinsky, Picasso, Klee or  Matisse, but you can’t tell that from his paintings. His landscapes wouldn’t be out of place in a Hardy novel (we also have some sketches from the West country). There are some spectacular (and, nowadays, expensive) paintings of  poppy fields. The nearest we have to one of those is a sketch which does have poppies but also a blank space where he never got around to putting in a figure.  Even the artist’s art-school educated granddaughter wouldn’t normally attempt the extremely transgressive act of attempting to ‘improve’ an Ernest by painting a new figure, but Penny dared to think we could rescue the sketch by replanting part of the field. This is what it looked like:

The problem is that your eye is drawn immediately to the non-existent figure, rather than seeing what the artist actually saw. It’s a little frightening looking back at what she did…

and then this:




She reduced the width of the original, effectively contracting the view but not otherwise damaging it,  and used the offcut to make an insert matched to the shape of the hole. Surely this can’t possibly work…? Well, after a bit of touching up, it did: