Review: Ornate Lieder and Andreas Staier, York Early Music Festival, National Centre for Early Music, York, July 8

THE York Early Music Festival laid on two evening concerts displaying artistry of the first order.

The idea behind the first, Ornate Lieder, was to demonstrate types of vocal ornamentation not heard nowadays, but expected by early 19th century performers, who still learned Baroque techniques and sensibilities.

An academic exercise? Tenor James Gilchrist and baritone Peter Harvey made it a vibrant, involving recital. Vocal decoration, while often obvious, rarely distracted from expressive purpose.

In a sequence of songs by Schubert’s older contemporary Zelter, Harvey’s beauty of tone and serenity in Ruhe – a fleeting glimpse of heaven on earth – and Gilchrist’s aptly buzzing and saucy coloratura for Gleich Und Gleich were highlights. Peter Seymour’s keyboard contributions, thoughtfully supportive throughout, drew a variety of tonal effects from a pair of fortepianos – from the pathos of Haydn’s She Never Told Her Love to Carl Loewe’s eerie dance of death Die Nächtliche Heerschau. Schubert’s Erlkönig was startling, even terrifying.

For the later concert, Andreas Staier played18th-century sonatas and fantasias on a replica of a 1790s' fortepiano. He showed just why he is regarded as one of the world’s foremost period keyboard performers: almost everything was lifted out of the ordinary by unexpected rhythmic nudges, felicities of phrasing, singing tone, subtle embellishment or delicacy of quiet passagework.

He emphasised improvisational qualities in his serious interpretations of Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor and C. P. E. Bach’s Fantasia in F sharp minor, the latter surprisingly stern and sombre with frequent unprepared quirky outbursts. A pair of Scarlatti sonatas, given intriguing plot-twists, were preceded by a little four-movement D major sonata by Galuppi in the same vein, its finger-twisting finale dependably negotiated.

Haydn’s great F minor Variations were full of wit, delicacy and humour, the whole architecturally coherent, its coda delightfully clamorous. After all this, much to my surprise, Mozart’s Sonata K. 533 slightly overstayed its welcome – perhaps it was a tad homogeneous with what had gone before –notwithstanding the artistic riches on display.

Robert Gammon