Sunday evening saw Dunelm Players perform their inaugural stand-alone concert in the atmospheric setting of Durham Castle’s Great Hall.  Certainly a feast for the Early Music lover, this varied programme of Renaissance and Baroque instrumental music was delivered to a highly professional standard by all.

The programme opened with the ensemble’s string players, who provided an atmospheric rendition of Locatelli’s ‘Sinfonia Funebre Lamento.’ Comprised of five movements, the work showcased a wide range of skilled technique from the ensemble. Despite occasional slips in intonation, especially in the upper strings, the work was convincingly performed with an excellent sense of ensemble considering the lack of conductor. Dynamic contrast was well brought out, with a gloriously warm tone gained in crescendos throughout the piece. The final section demonstrated wonderful interplay between the first and second violins and the faster runs were handled with skillful ease.

Interspersing the programme were five of Dowland’s seven ‘Lachrimae’ pavans which were played by a quintet of strings from the hall’s Minstrel Gallery above and behind the audience.  The alternative staging choice was highly effective in my opinion, and the high Renaissance style contrasted nicely with the Baroque programme items.  Despite occasional discrepancies in intonation, the quintet provided convincing performances throughout the programme.  Well-grounded by the cello and with effective ornamentation in the upper strings, the quintet evoked a sense of calm which acted as pillars during the whole programme, providing a welcome relief when juxtaposed with more vivacious works.  The addition of a lute would have been welcome to this ensemble to fill in more texturally sparse moments, such as final cadences.

The Players were then joined on stage by soprano Lula Horton and trumpeter Clara Falkowska for two Handel arias: ‘Eternal Source of Light Divine,’ and ‘Let the Bright Seraphim from Samson.  The first of these two pieces, filled with indulgent melisma, filled the hall with a sense of stillness, whilst the lively nature of the second provided a welcome antidote to this soporific beauty.  The interplay between soloists was excellent throughout, with any ornamentation well matched in the imitative trumpet phrases.  The instrumental playing was sensitive in both pieces, never overwhelming the gentle soprano sound produced by Lula.  I was particularly impressed by the warmth of sound in Clara’s playing during her solo passages, where she allowed the trumpet melodies to cut through the texture with ease.  Faster colatura phrases in ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’ were also handled with impressive skill by Lula, who maintained colour and shape through long phrases with excellent stamina.

Sandwiched between two more Dowland pavans, the first half was rounded off with Telemann’s ‘Concerto for Recorder and Flute in E minor,’ with soloists Tadwyn Davies and Delilah Ferry-Swainson on flute and recorder, respectively.  The work opened with a slower movement, which exhibited the interplay and dialogue between the two soloists.  This was sensitively supported by the ripieno ensemble, who followed the soloists in order to maintain an impressive sense of ensemble.  The more upbeat second movement contained impressive faster sections in both solo and ripieno parts, which were handled with adept accuracy across the ensemble.  The lively sections in which the full ensemble were playing maintained an excellent energy, although occasionally the recorder was lost in the fuller textures; the ensemble as a whole would have probably benefited from the softer period equivalents of the string instruments.  The third movement, slower again and showcasing the soloists, with a sparse pizzicato accompaniment was also delivered with sensitive and emotive skill.  The ripieno did especially well to keep their pizzicato so well in time.  The vivacious folk-like energy of the final movement was an exciting end to this work and was delivered with panache and flamboyance by all.  Especially impressive was the accuracy with which the fiendish arpeggio lines of the episodic soloists’ material were played between each returning refrain of the movement’s rondo form, and congratulations must be given to both Tad and Delilah for highly skilled performances.

As well as the remaining two Dowland Pavans, the second half saw two further enlivening Baroque works – Zelenka’s ‘Hipocondrie a 7 Concertanti’ and Vivaldi’s ‘Concerto Grosso in D minor.’  For the first of which, by the lesser-known Czech composer, the Players were joined on stage by double-reeded woodwind.  Zelenka’s innovative handling of tonality, which consistently seems to switch between major and minor tonal poles, made for a varied and vibrant performance.  The slower opening section was well balanced by the energetic mood of the second section and interplay between the strings and the winds was well-handled, despite occasional intonation issues in the string sections, especially in more exposed sections without continuo.  The changes in tempo at the end of the work were achieved with admirable proficiency.

The concert closed with Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso, with soloists Millie Harding and Amy Ying on violin, and Gabriel Francis-Dehqani on cello.  Opening with a duet between Millie and Amy before being joined by Gabriel, the first movement indicated the skill of these soloists from the outset.  Yearning strings of suspensions matched by vibrant semiquaver passages, as well as sensitive dynamic contrasts, helped to give a highly musical performance.  The second movement, dominated by the melody of the first solo violin, although slower still maintained energy and vibrancy throughout.  The furor of the final movement with fast semiquaver passages was played with proficient accuracy by all three soloists.  The spirited performance given by both soloists and ensemble in this movement brought an emphatic end to the concert.

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable concert featuring an excellent programme played to an extremely high standard; I would certainly recommend a Dunelm concert to both newcomers and lovers of early music.  Congratulations must be given to Alex Lee, Manager of the Players, for organising this inaugural concert, and to President Joy Sutcliffe and to the rest of the exec for such an enjoyable evening of high-quality music.  I look forward to hearing Dunelm Consort in their concert in the Cathedral’s Chapter House later this term.

Alice Latham