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A William Byrd Commemoration in France

Situated some 35 miles south of Calais close to the smart Opal Coast resort of Hardelot, the chateau that bears the same name has roots that extend back as far as the 13th century, when the first castle was built by the Duke of Boulogne. Much fought over during the following centuries, in the 17th it was pulled down by Cardinal Richlieu and left untouched until in the early years of the 19th century it came into the possession of an Englishman, Sir John Hare, who rebuilt the chateau in the present neo-Gothic style. Under the present auspices of the Pas-de-Calais département it is a Franco-British cultural centre designed to celebrate the entente cordiale. Following refurbishment completed in 2009, a Midsummer Festival was created that today attracts some of France’s leading early music practitioners.

The 2023 festival was held on the last two weekends of June, the second of which we attended. Two of the major events were dramatic works held in the impressive Elizabethan theatre built in the grounds and opened in 2016. Those I have written about in Opera magazine. The third was a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd, which took place in the mainly 15th century village church of Condette, a short distance from the chateau. It was given by Ensemble Près de votre oreille, which lived up to its name by having the audience surrounding the players and singers on three sides, meaning no one was far from the performers. On this occasion the Ensemble consisted of four singers, virginals and four gamba players under the direction of Robin Pharo. The programme, a mixture of sacred and profane, used the Mass for 4 voices as a centrepiece interspersed by music for viol consort and virginals. Doubtless they would argue that in a context of this kind the mixture is legitimate, but what to mind did not work was Ronan Khalil’s virginals accompaniment for the Mass, to which the viols were added at climatic moments. Byrd’s sublime a capella polyphony was thus fatally compromised, at no point more so than at the close of Agnus Dei, where the unforgettable move from minor to major invites light in flood the final moments of the work. That such addition was superfluous was proved by the beautifully toned and integrated singing of the vocal quartet (Amélie Raison, Paul Figuier, Clément Debieuvre and Romain Dayez), whose performance, more emotional than we are used to with British performers, needed only slightly more nuance to have been outstanding.

On their own account the viols produced outstanding playing in a variety of works, the In Nomines and Fantasias inducing especially compelling playing. Ensemble Près de votre oreille is undoubtedly a first-rate group but on this occasion their integration of voices and instruments produced dubious results.

The photo of Ensemble Près de votre oreille is copyright Pascal Brunet


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