Bassenthwaite Festival Reviews

2017 Programme

For the last twelve years, over a weekend in late Spring, the singers and instrumentalists known as Ensemble Buxtehude have come together under their director David Gibbs in glorious celebration of Baroque music. The Bassenthwaite Festival, or BassFest, as it is affectionately known, is the fruit of David's enthusiasm and learning, where he has introduced audiences to lesser known composers, as well as the eponymous Buxtehude and the great JS Bach.

St Bega's Church was full for the opening concert of this year's Festival. There was even a gate-crasher: a swallow, which flew through the door while the audience streamed in and proceeded to fly inches above the performers and audience alike throughout the evening. I’m glad to say that it found its way out safely some time after the music finished. Ensemble Buxtehude consisted of just three players for this concert: Magdalena Loth-Hill (violin), Ed Pendrous (cello) and David Gibbs (harpsichord and organ). The beautifully balanced programme began and ended with trio sonatas by Dietrich Buxtehude in which the three performers responded to each other's playing, sharing their obvious enjoyment with the audience. Buxtehude featured in the programme again with two Chaconnes for organ solo, played with delight and dexterity by David Gibbs, the digital organ of St Bega's providing an authentic baroque sound to complement Buxtehude's genius. The highlight of the evening for me was the Telemann Fantasia for solo violin, in which Magdalena drew such warmth of tone from the gut strings on her violin of 1680, while her bow skipped so lightly across the strings that I can only describe the result as virtuosic and thrilling.

The next day, after presenting an entertaining and instructive organ recital to an enthusiastic audience at lunchtime, the seemingly indefatigable David directed the ten voices, strings and continuo of Ensemble Buxtehude in the Festival’s final evening concert at St John's Bassenthwaite. They came together in impressive blend, first in two contrasting cantatas by Buxtehude, and in Reinhard Keiser's St Mark Passion. Every voice took a solo part somewhere in the narrative, as well as providing the choruses and chorales, which reflects the versatility of this Ensemble.

This is such a friendly festival, with obvious rapport between director, performers and audiences, and always helped by the seemingly reliable sunshine, not to mention the superb home-made refreshments! Sadly this was the last BassFest with David, but perhaps not the last appearance of Ensemble Buxtehude some time in the future.


2016 Programme

Tiny Church - Great Musical Treat

When concert venues come to mind the stereotype is a colossal modern hall surrounded by miles of urban sprawl. By contrast the setting for last Friday's Bassenthwaite Festival instrumental concert wasthe beautiful, tiny church of St Bega, over a thousand years old, on the shore of Bassenthwaite Lake,surrounded by umpteen square miles of ravishing Lakeland loveliness. St Bega's would probably fit inside Birmingham Symphony Hall.

Perhaps the musicians of Ensemble Buxtehude took their cue from the beauties of the landscape. Led from the harpsichord by the Festival Director, David Gibbs, Allison Calderbank (Viola), Beatrice Hubble (Oboe) and Ed Pendrous (cello) treated the (by St Bega's standards) large and lucky audience to radiant interpretations of Baroque masterpieces by Telemann, Buxtehude and CPE Bach, finishing the concert with three works by the ultimate master-composer JS Bach. There was so much to enjoy: the complex, dancing, contrapuntal final Allegro in the Telemann C Minor Trio Sonata; CPE Bach's ingenious variations on a theme, featuring that lovely instrument, the oboe; the cerebral sonority of the viola, Buxtehude's ever-unpredictable music; and JS Bach's inexhaustible inventiveness in his wonderful Sonata in G Minor for Viola da Gamba (though played on cello) & Harpsichord. Altogether a perfect evening: sublime music in a sublime setting.


Bassfest is a little gem of a festival and on Saturday night it glowed as the evening sun lit up the fells in preparation for a real delight of a concert. From the choir's first opening in the first of the cantatas by Rosenmuller you knew it was time to sit back and just enjoy the sound of the wonderful 17th century North German school as it should be heard. A well balanced and well tuned choir with a continuo of just the right size that could shine when required. David Gibbs deserves considerable credit for creating such a lovely sound, ideally suited to the music of all three composers.

The cantatas in the first half were delightful and the soloists, Anne-Marie Kerr and David Rees-Jones were excellent and rightly received lengthy applause. The main event however for me was the Membra Jesu Nostri which is a beautifully structured series of seven short cantatas, each one having its own personality but all of them clearly forming a whole piece which is variously charming, engaging and passionate, but above all original. Whilst it betrays the Italian influences it is not a slavish re-working of that school and it's no wonder Buxtehude was revered by J S Bach.

Ensemble Buxtehude received a standing ovation for their performance from an audience who will already be looking forward to Bassfest 2017.



Although a short Festival, BassFest packs in an unmatchable breadth of experiences. Heavenly music, tranquil locations between lake and mountains, beautiful weather (usually), delicious interval nibbles and, above all, friendship. This latter manifests itself between the musicians, and also from the audiences, and both groups return every year for their annual 'fix'. The people in the audiences are either already friends, or they become such. Making music together requires sensitivity, a good ear and a great deal of hard work, as rehearsal time together here is minimal. The rewards are immeasurable though: it's definitely the best example I know of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, as each musician sings or plays a single line, and a wonderful sound emerges, which all can enjoy. This is one of the things that keeps us singing, both here and in our own communities. BassFest is special in many respects and I feel very privileged to be a part of it.


And... Another Singer's Perspective

Two things struck me as I sat on a bench in the hall of Bassenthwaite C of E Primary school on a late Saturday afternoon in May half term week. The first was that the view out of the hall windows overlooking the fells around Bassenthwaite was very probably the best view of any Primary School in the whole country, and how lucky the children were to breathe in that vivid landscape whilst learning their spellings or times tables. The second thing that struck me was that yet again the Bassfest admin team had booked the glorious weather. This gem of a festival which I have had the privilege to be a small part of these last 5 or so years marks the beginning of summer, and what can be better (certainly from an audience perspective) than enjoying the concert interval nibbling canapes and sipping wine served by the choir in the grounds of St John's Bassenthwaite as the summer sun fades beyond the fells? It almost defines idyllic.

But then there's the music. The music is of course sublime, this year soaking us in German baroque masterpieces selected and directed with unerring musicality by David, including Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri brought to life by our small choir and string continuo. And what a joy it is to sing with such a group of talented but unpretentious singers all of whom have the ability to take the music seriously but yet genuinely enjoy every note. The utterly absorbing delay followed by a standing ovation after the final amen (and what an exciting amen!) is testament to the small but significant part we are able to play in keeping such wonderful music alive and heard.


2015 Programme: Dido and Aeneas; Vivaldi, Geminiani, Lanzetti; Purcell

This year's Bassenthwaite Festival was devoted to the works of Henry Purcell (1659-1695) and his contemporaries, and what a range of music and emotions they gave us. On Friday evening it was all Purcell and we were introduced to his genius for changing moods and rhythms in his "Golden Sonata". The songs that followed illustrated perfectly Purcell's gifts for word setting, expressiveness and melody, and were performed with sensitivity by Patricia and David Rees-Jones, Philippa Dodd, Ian Wright and Jonathan Millican. In the second half, the semi-staged performance of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas was a triumph. The audience soon entered into the spirit of the piece which was performed with enthusiasm, emotion and drama. We particularly appreciated the imaginative use of headgear! But the mood changed for the heart-stopping beauty of Dido's Lament which was delivered with great clarity by Fiona Weakley.

At Saturday's lunchtime concert we heard three Italian cello sonatas by Lanzetti, Geminiani and Vivaldi expressively played by Ed Pendrous; plus organ pieces by Bassani and Zipoli played by David Gibbs. The bright tone and uplifting feel of the Bassani Voluntary contrasted well with the lovely, yearning opening of the Geminiani Sonata.

Saturday evening brought us a sonata by Daniel Purcell played by Ian Wright and a cello sonatina by Finger played by Ed Pendrous. The bulk of the programme was a feast of fabulous songs by Henry Purcell, his brother Daniel, and his contemporaries John Eccles and John Blow. Fiona Weakley, Anne-Marie Kerr and Paul im Thurn gave us their all in communicating these highly emotional or dramatic pieces. The audience laughed at Paul's pre-interval delightful Bacchus is a pow'r divine and some of us cried at Anne-Marie and Fiona's transfixing delivery of Three Elegies on the Death of Queen Mary. But the highlight of the weekend for me this year was Anne-Marie singing the three "mad" songs. We could hear every word and every nuance of voice and feeling as she delivered these songs of pain in a voice of great range and character.

Over three concerts in two days we were treated to songs of love, madness, and death; and tunes to dance and cry to. The singers and musicians gave us passion, humour, tenderness, melancholy and always communicated and connected with the audience. The beautiful church venues surrounded by fells and Lake all add to the atmosphere and enjoyment. Little wonder that again this year, despite the chilly weather, there were capacity audiences who came from near and far to be part of this unique festival. Ensemble Buxtehude manage to combine a high quality of performance with a lightness of touch in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. David Gibbs as Festival Director, harpsichordist and organist, is once again to be congratulated for a fascinating and uplifting programme. The dates of next year's Festival are already in my diary... Friday 3-Saturday 4 June 2016.


2014 Programme: The Cantors of St Thomas's Leipzig; John Stanley; Vivaldi and JS Bach

All lovers of early and Baroque music should note the date of the annual visit of the Ensemble Buxtehude and their brilliant Director and organist, David Gibbs. On the second weekend of the summer half term you can be sure to be captivated by the atmosphere created by this group of talented local musicians. Their enthusiasm and dedication and their obvious enjoyment of working together carry the audience with them throughout. This year we were blessed with sunshine and the setting of St Bega's church by the lake was perfect.

On the Friday evening, after a joyful opening motet by JS Bach, David introduced us to an evening of motets by five of the Cantors of St Thomas' Leipzig who preceded JS Bach in that position, giving us an insight into some of the ideas which helped to shape his work. The voices of the ten singers weaving their way through the intricate themes were so uplifting, as was a gentle moving duet sung by Fiona Weakley and Patricia Rees-Jones. Interspersed between the motets, David played Bach's wonderful Prelude and Fugue BWV 552.

The lunchtime concert on the Saturday was a complete contrast and an introduction (for many of us) to the music of 18th century English composer John Stanley. We heard three delightful cantatas on Arcadian themes which were perfectly suited to Julie Leavett's lively and communicative style.

In the evening, Fiona and Anne-Marie Kerr sang two cantatas. Vivaldi's wonderfully decorated music made great demands on the singers (when did they breathe?) which they met with skill and delicacy. The evening ended with Bach's working of the Stabat Mater by Pergolesi which left us all on an emotional high.

Next year's concerts 29th - 30th May 2015.


2013 Programme: Telemann, Couperin, Gilles & Gervais

A hidden gem

Who would have thought it? We were standing in a churchyard, drinking wine on a still summer evening, surrounded by beautiful hillsides. The wine had been served by someone who had just finished singing exquisite baroque music, and there was more to come.

The annual Bassenthwaite Festival began on the Friday evening with a concert devoted entirely to Telemann, most of it unfamiliar to us, but gripping because of the expertise and obvious love of the music exhibited by the performers. This was at St Bega's Church, as was the second concert on Saturday lunchtime, Couperin's Messe pour les Couvents, an antiphonal conversation between the organ and three male voices singing plainsong. This was as good as it gets this side of heaven.

Saturday evening's concert was held in St John's Church, with works by Charpentier, Gervais and Gilles. When one considers that there were nine singers, nearly all of whom had solo parts, a string quartet and a small pipe organ, the range of dynamics spoke volumes of the musicianship of all involved - and still they found time to serve drinks and nibbles, and to chat to everyone.

This Festival is a jewel of Lakeland, and full credit must go to Ensemble Buxtehude and its director, David Gibbs. We cannot wait for next year.


2012 Programme: Bassenthwaite goes Italian!

Where sheep may safely graze...

Off the A591, a lane and farm track lead to the picturesque church of St Bega's on the shore of Bassenthwaite Lake. The pastoral setting would be reason enough to visit, but the annual Bassenthwaite Festival adds music to the natural delights. Organist and director, David Gibbs, along with Ensemble Buxtehude, a group of local singers and instrumentalists, select less well-known pieces from the Baroque period to perform in three concerts over two days.

The theme this year was the Italian Baroque. The programme illustrated developments in style from motet and oratorio to madrigal and secular cantata. Pure voices soared in the soulful religious and secular pieces weaving close webs of sound. For me, highlights of the three concerts were Frescobaldi's Kyrie eleison with male voices alternating plain chant with organ versets; a delightful Vivaldi epithalamium written for the marriage of Louis XV that endorsed "the sweet ardour of love"; and a madrigal by Antonio Lotti, where the singers' voices, so beautifully balanced, tugged at the heart-strings and the image of a fading rose representing human transience brought the festival to a poignant and memorable end.

The little church was packed each evening. Outside, on the Saturday night, as well the swallows nesting in the porch and sheep in the fields, a faithful dog waited out the concert for its master alongside a headstone opposite the church-door! The group will return for their ninth festival next year and I am already looking forward to returning for its unique blend of music, natural beauty and relaxed informality.


2011 Programme: Zelenka, Buxtehude and the Bachs

This small and unique festival of early and baroque choral and instrumental music is a weekend not to be missed. It is held each year in a magical setting by Bassenthwaite Lake in the church of St John, at the head of the lake, and the little church of St Bega on its own by the lakeside near Mirehouse. It is built around the locally based Ensemble Buxtehude, made up of 12 talented singers and joined by five string players, under the able direction of David Gibbs at the organ and harpsichord.

At the Friday concert in St John's, the whole ensemble performed choral music by the Czech baroque composer Zelenka, beginning with settings of two parts of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and ending with his fine Magnificat in C. On Saturday we had 'Lunch with Dietrich', by a smaller ensemble playing the music of Buxtehude, with voice, violin and continuo. In the evening concert the full choir followed on last year's evening of Bach by performing an attractive programme of pieces by Bach, his cousin and pupils. Just describing the music does not really convey the unique quality of this festival. The choir's singing was very high quality and there were some fine soloists, bringing out the great variety of the pieces performed, and the pieces were well chosen and directed by David Gibbs. However what made the festival special was the entire combination - the small choir putting their heart into the music in a small and beautiful church; the lake nearby; and the friendly atmosphere with performers and audience mingling in the intervals. The festival next year is on 8-9 June. We shall be there!


2010 Programme: A family affair

Under the inspired direction of David Gibbs the Bassenthwaite Festival continues to bring together some of this county's finest musicians to perform Baroque music to a very high standard in this idyllic corner of the Lake District. This year's festival, the sixth, concentrated on the works of J.S. Bach and his family and we were treated to three skilfully chosen concerts, two at St. Bega's and the final one at St. John's.

The first concert on the Friday evening consisted of seven cantatas, taken from the 300 or so which J.S.B. is believed to have written, one of which was performed each Sunday at the St. Thomas Kirche in Leipzig. Consisting of choruses, solo arias and recitatives one was struck by the rich variety of these great works. It was a real pleasure to hear the works performed as they would have been done in Bach's time, with a small group of instrumentalists and the soloists taken from amongst the members of the choir. In the unspoilt and picturesque setting of St. Bega's far away from the noise of modern life it was easy to be transported back in time to the eighteenth century.

Two concerts took place on the Saturday and the first , "Lunch with JS", consisted of purely instrumental music performed by Anna Hansen (Violin), Emma Peebles (Viola), Ed Pendrous (cello) and David Gibbs (Harpsichord). One thing you learn about Baroque music is that you hear the same works with different combinations of instruments. The first and last works in the programme were Trio Sonatas in C major and C minor, so familiar to organists as a mainstay of their repertoire. It was a joy to listen to the perpetual interweaving lines of the complex counterpoint , the musical phrasing was impeccably done and there was a very good sense of balance between the players. The second work was a transcription of the composer's third cello suite in C major for the viola in which Emma Peebles brought out the rhythmic drive of the dance movements and demonstrated that she is a very accomplished player. The third work was the Violin Sonata in A major where Anna Hansen's fine playing was supported by some very fine harpsichord and cello playing, particularly in the Fugue.

The final concert "A Family Affair" was based around the Bach family's writing of motets. The programme began and ended with two of J.S.B's six motets "Komm, Jesu, komm" and "Lobet den Herrn". This small group of well blended singers, with mainly one voice to a part, gave great clarity to the works. We also heard motets by members of the extended family: Johann (JSB's Great Uncle), Johann Michael (father's cousin) and Johann Ludwig (a distant cousin). These works were all gems and a real eye opener to the talent within this musical dynasty. I was struck by the rich sonority of the choir, the beauty of the individual voices and the variety of the vocal combinations, the different textures and the beauty of the harmony and counterpoint. It would be difficult to describe the singing other than to say it was magical and sublime. Interspersed with these wonderful motets David Gibbs impeccably performed chorale preludes by members of the Bach family.

We are so fortunate in this area to have a music festival of such high calibre. Not only is the music wonderful, the setting idyllic and the performances exquisite but the whole atmosphere is so warm and friendly with performers handing out drinks and nibbles during the intervals. A festival such as this deserves to be well supported and I look forward to next year's on 3rd and 4th June with eager anticipation.