As dappled evening sunshine filled the historic Canongate Kirk, near the foot of the Royal Mile, a large audience filled the powder blue-coloured pews under the Colours of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots for an evening of music by Handel.

Ed Lyon and Richard Neville-Towle with Ludus Baroque in 2011 © Stuart Barrett
Ed Lyon and Richard Neville-Towle with Ludus Baroque in 2011
© Stuart Barrett

Ludus Baroque is an Edinburgh group which gives two or three concerts a year in Canongate Kirk and is conducted by the church’s director of music, Richard Neville-Towle. The instrumental musicians are hand-picked from across the UK – as is the chorus, drawn from Britain’s finest early music consorts. I recognised some faces from The Sixteen, as well as a Scottish Opera emerging artist, in the ranks of nineteen singers, which included two male altos. With a soloist line-up of Sophie and Mary Bevan, Tim Mead, Ed Lyon and William Berger, we really had to pinch ourselves to remind us that although many of these performers would have been very much at home on the platforms of the main Edinburgh International Festival, this concert was in fact a Fringe show.

At a Baroque concert, the entertainment really begins with the parade of instruments: oversized violas, double basses with five strings and frets, antique pale wood oboes, ancient bassons with clattery keys, long trumpets with no valves, and horns with crooks. It is always exciting wondering what they will sound like, because every Baroque group is different.

The third and final version of Handel’s little-known oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth, here played in a fresh performing edition by early music expert Clifford Bartlett, was premièred in 1757, just two years before the death of the composer. The piece is typical Handel oratorio, in three parts beginning with the overture and opening chorus followed by a series of recitatives and da capo arias for the soloists and a few more choruses along the way. The story is not from scripture, but has its origins in a morality play by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphilj, Handel’s patron in Rome. So here is the tale of Beauty, beguiled by Pleasure’s promise of eternal youth, cajoled by Deceit, but who is ultimately tempered by Time and Truth.

The overture began, introducing us to the wonderful Baroque sounds from the old instruments, Neville-Towle swinging both arms and urging the players into magnificent flourishes. Trumpets and timpani accompanied this and the opening chorus, proclaiming that “Time is supreme” and will be respected by the wise. Even with a packed audience, it was clear that the building’s acoustic was almost made for this music.

One of the delights of listening to Handel is the da capo arias, where the soloist sings the first part, then the middle section before returning to the first, which is repeated with ornaments. Here, all soloists got a chance to show off, and we were not disappointed. Sophie Bevan, showing us why she has just won the Times and Sky Arts Emerging Artist award, sang Beauty with her bell-clear soprano rising to the roof. Her aria “Ever-flowing tides of pleasure”, set against a bouncy continuo and with exchanged phrases between first and second violins, was one of several highlights of the evening. Not to be outdone, to end the first half, Tim Mead’s lovely countertenor was simply outstanding in a superbly moving performance of Truth’s slow aria “Mortals think that time is sleeping” with two recorders and violas supporting the continuo.

Elsewhere, there was lots to admire: six solo singers from the choir blended perfectly against the rest of the chorus in “Pleasure submits to pain”. In the corner of temptation, tenor Ed Lyon’s Pleasure, dressed in black but with a daring red belt, and Mary Bevan’s Deceit were good, strong performances as well. Very occasionally, the tempo got a little fast and would have benefited from steadying in Deceit’s aria in Part 3, where there was simply not quite enough time to get all the words out.

As the evening light faded from the Kirk’s windows, Beauty cast herself up to her Guardian Angels in an aria of exquisite melancholy. To celebrate the eventual triumph of Time and Truth over Beauty, the oratorio ended with a Halleluja Chorus: Neville-Towle had the sopranos and altos, and then the tenors and basses, stand for their entries, and then we in the audience did as well, as tradition dictates for Handel’s Hallelujas.

This was a very special evening of world-class music, and for one performance only. Ludus Baroque’s concerts are usually described as unmissable. I was so glad to have caught this performance.

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