Nicola Lisle looks forward to this year’s Keble Early Music Festival

The annual Keble Early Music Festival returns next Tuesday, once again bringing together world-class musicians to perform in Keble’s exquisite 19th century chapel.

Now in its fourth year, this neatly-packaged festival was established by former Keble organ scholar James Hardie in 2014 and has been steadily growing in stature ever since.

Taking the helm this year is Keble’s director of music Matthew Martin, a former organ scholar at Magdalen College who has since worked at some of the country’s most prestigious cathedrals including Canterbury and Westminster.

“It’s quite a lot to do but it’s really rewarding,” he comments. “It’s expanded quite a lot since last year. There are more events, so it’s a bigger commitment than it has been.”

This year’s main event is a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which will involve three college choirs – Keble, Merton and St Peter’s – as well as local baroque ensemble Instruments of Time and Truth, with soloists Alison Rose (soprano), Helen Charlston (mezzo), Daniel Norman (tenor) and Colin Campbell (bass).

This monumental piece, on the Saturday night, will be the festival’s grand finale.

“There will be about 90 singers, so it’s very much a student education-centred project,” Matthew says. “It’s one of the most significant works, and I thought it important to get as many students involved as possible.”

Before that, though, there are some very tasty treats in store.

The opening concert will be given by vocal ensemble Magnificat, which was founded in Oxford in 1991 by former Christ Church choral scholar Philip Cave. The programme, based on the Song of Songs, features music by Gombert, Lassus, Schutz and Bach.

Festival patron Mahan Esfahani presents Time Present – Time Past on Wednesday, with music ranging from Bach to Philip Glass, and will also be giving a masterclass the next day.

On Thursday, Instruments of Time and Truth recreates a musical programme that might have been played at St Mary’s Church (the Marienkirche) in the German port of Lübeck in the 17th century, and will include cantatas by Buxtehude and Tunder. Edward Higginbottom directs, with Simon Ponsford singing countertenor.

Young vocal ensemble The Gesualdo Six makes its Oxford debut on Thursday lunchtime with motets by Byrd, Parsons, Tallis and Sheppard, and in the evening Matthew Martin will play Bach’s The Art of Fugue, following a lecture by Jeremy Summerly.

“It’s an interesting piece because nobody’s quite sure why Bach wrote it,” Matthew says. “It appears on open score, so it’s not on keyboard score, and it’s unfinished. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding it, so that should be a really interesting thing to do.”

There are also student-run events, including a launch night, a lunchtime recital by student ensemble The Bate Players, and Choral Evensong and Compline by Candlelight with Keble College choir.

“The most important thing is the students get something out of it,” Matthew feels. “They’re helping with the admin and they come to concerts, so they’re involved quite heavily.”

Keble Early Music Festival

Keble College Chapel

February 21-25

Tickets: 01865 305305