Trio Saltarello at the Lutherhaus, Dublin, on 4 March 2020

St Finian’s Church (aka the Lutherhaus) on Adelaide Rd is compact and intimate, like a village church, not the most likely space to find so close to the city centre. The Saltarello Trio includes Agnès Vesterman (cello) and Sylvain Lemêtre (percussion), and we see them set up at the front. Meanwhile, Garth Knox is quietly standing at the back, keeping out of everyone’s way.

We don’t see him until he begins to play, starting the concert alone playing ‘Ave Generosa’ by the 12th-century mystic Hidegard of Bingen. As he wanders slowly up the aisle, it’s the raw sound of his medieval fiddle that you notice as much as the melody, the rich resonance of bow on string. Up at the front, the other two join in, Vesterman playing dulcimer, as they segue into an instrumental version of a song by Guillaume de Machaut, the sound immediate and vivid, before gently trailing off to nothing at the end. The sense of flow and openness continues in the three early dances that follow. There is the sense that music can come from almost anywhere and be turned into anything.

The time-travellers carry on into music of later years (Vesterman reunited with her cello, Knox now turning to the viola d’amore, with its shimmering sound). Their thoughtful arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’ and Dowland’s ‘Flow my tears’ brings the two songs together, and the two string players swap the material between them, one accompanying, the other playing the melody, then changing back. A similar playfulness (Lemêtre’s autoharp standing in for harpsichord) carries over into the baroque material of Vivaldi and Marais. Eloquent and gently measured, their playing also draws on quirky flashes of humour, hints of anarchy amongst the courtly gestures.

The alertness to the possibilities of instrumental colour, harmonics and resonance, continues in the contemporary material. We hear Vesterman in three of David Fennessy’s 5 Hofer Photographs, thoughtful character-sketches drawn from atmospheric 1960s images of Dublin life (by Evelyn Hofer), the last (‘Mountjoy Square/In Memoriam’) beautifully desolate in its simplicity. Meanwhile, the wit of Gérard Pesson’s Tafelmusik sees Lemêtre alone, armed only with two small rubber mallets and a wooden table, working the sound of rubber dragged on wood, plus his own voice, a clownish idea turned precise and brilliant.

Completing the circle, looking back to the medieval past and onwards into an uncertain future, are the three final pieces, what Knox terms a trilogy, three works of his own devising: the mixture of refinement and instability of ‘Cloak’, the onward motion of ‘Song from the sea’, and the joyful folk material of ‘Black Brittany’. The audience, grateful, spur them onto more, and the encore—unusually—brings us the most complex music of the night: ‘Amiel’, a klezmer tune from John Zorn’s Book of Angels, dark and brittle with detail. A tantalising ending to a rich evening, and hopefully not the last time we hear them.

Hildegard von Bingen: Ave Generosa
Guillaume de Machaut: Tels rit au matin (from ‘La Remède de Fortune’)
Anon.: Three Medieval Dances
Henry Purcell: Music for a while
John Dowland: Flow my tears
Antonio Vivaldi: Largo & Presto, from Concerto for Viola d’Amore in D minor, RV 393
Marain Marais: Folies d’Espagne (selection)
David Fennessy: ‘Girl with Bicycle’, ‘Phoenix Park on a Sunday’, & ‘Mountjoy Square’, from 5 Hofer Photographs for solo cello
Gérard Pesson: Tafelmusik for solo percussion
Garth Knox: Cloak (Music Network commission, 2020); Song from the sea; Black Brittany
Saltarello Trio