As the 2015 London Festival of Baroque Music approaches, I thought I would re-publish my review of last year’s festival, under the then title of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music.
“This year’s Lufthansa Festival (the 30th) marked the end of an era. It was the last to benefit from the 30-year sponsorship of Lufthansa (and, for the past 12 years, also Rolls-Royce plc), one of the most remarkable musical/financial partnerships in the modern history of music. The Festival will continue with the same wealth of performers and performances under the name of the London Festival of Baroque Music, and is seeking funding to help with this. This year’s theme was ‘The Year 1714’, reflecting far more than the start of the Georgian period. I couldn’t get to the opening concert by The Sixteen, so the festival started for me with the afternoon recital by Dorothee Oberlinger, recorder, and Peter Kofler, harpsichord, at St Peter’s Eaton Sq (17 May). Their programme (The Pleasant Companion – English and German Baroque Music for the Recorder in London) featured examples of the music that recorder enthusiasts (and there were apparently many in the early years of the 18th century, usually of the middle-class gentleman ilk) would have known in London. Composers included Andrew Parcham (his Solo in G), Finger, Corelli, Purcell, Schickhardt and Telemann, all presented with light-touch virtuosity and light and flowing ornamentation. Peter Kofler gave a compelling solo performance of Babell’s spectacular version of Handel’s Rinaldo. As Annabel Knight mentioned in her programme note, the year 1714 also marked the death of Thomas Britten, whose Clerkenwell concerts ran for 36 years (from 1678) and would have introduced many London music lovers to the music of the likes of Pepusch and Handel.
Before the Saturday evening concert, Tess Knighton, the founding Artistic Director of the Festival, gave the annual Lufthansa Lecture. Her talk, with its fascinating reminiscences of the early days of the festival, can be found at http://www.lufthansafestival.org.uk/index.php?id=lecture-archive#.U7p_pZRdWSo.
The evening concert (St John’s, Smith Square, 17 May) was given by the very impressive 13-strong Polish orchestra Arte dei Suonatori, directed by violinist Aurelisz Goliński. They performed music from the years around 1714, including the Violin Sonata by the well-travelled violinist, Franscesca Maria Veracini who, according to Burney, had “formed a style of playing peculiar to himself”. That was evident from this piece (played by Rachel Podger), with its curious little echoes in the final Giga, played by a second violinist off-stage. Arte dei Suonatori played Concerto Grossi by Geminiani, Corelli and Handel and an instrumental suite made up from pieces from Rinaldo. Rachel Podger closed the evening with Vivaldi’s Concert in D minor (RV 249).
The following day’s concerts included a tour of the principal cities of Saxony and Thuringia in the 17th century when Italian music and the Lutheran Church combined to produce a strong musical force well before the days of Bach and Handel. QuintEssential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble led the tour, with tenor Daniel Auchincloss in attendance. Instrumental pieces included Scheidt’s opening Canzon ad imitationem Bergamasca (with its triad-based opening section and runaway-train passages), Krieger’s imposing harpsichord Giaconna (the ‘G’ is not a misprint), very well-played by Kathryn Cok, and Vierdanck’s rather unusual Sonata Als ich einmal Lust bekam’. The vocal works included the powerful and sonorous Gehe aus auf die Landstrassen by Johann Ahle and Hammerschmidt’s Schaffe in mire, Gott, ein reines Herz, its dying-away ending bring the concert to a nice end. This was fascinating music, although the performance seemed a little under-rehearsed and/or under-directed. More than once, the organist came to the rescue.
L’Avventura London explored the musical world of the theatre around 1714 with their concert (20 May, St John’s, Smith Sq), ranging from the so called ‘high art’ of opera to less elevated traditional songs. With Mary Bevan and Anthony Gregory providing the vocal input, this was a fascinating peep into a relatively unknown musical world. The pieces ranged from Henry Carey’s ‘Reveille, or Morning Call to the Bride and Bridegroom’ (with its indication that the couple might have jumped the gun as far as bridal chastity goes), Carey’s mocking ‘Tragical Story of a Mare, Compos’d in the High Style by Signr. Carini’, via the doggerel verse of the anonymous ‘On the death of Queen Anne’ to an English arrangement of Handel’s Bel piacere to the words ‘The Rover’ and some attractive pieces by Marc’Antonio Ziani. Amongst the instrumental pieces, we also heard another Violin Sonata by Veracini, this time the fourth of his Opus 1 set, and another clearly intended to show off his “peculiar to himself” style of playing.
The CPE Bach anniversary was recognised in the concert given by the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra with their Artistic director Aspo Häkkinen and Pierre Hantai playing harpsichord (21 May, St John’s, Smith Sq). Alongside the three concertos for two harpsichords written by JS Bach, we heard CPE Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in G minor (Wq6). It is worth noting that CPE Bach’s concerto was written in 1740, the same year as the latest concerto of his father (although those were all based on earlier models). CPE Bach had just moved from Leipzig to Berlin, so his father’s sound world would have been still very much in his mind. But the new direction was obvious, notably in the increased textural variety that was to become the hallmark of CPE Bach’s later style. The central Largo has an ethereal and lush sound as muted violins interact with the harpsichord before its cadenza. One aural aspect of this performance of the JSB works was the clear distinction between the two manuals of each harpsichord, and between the two harpsichords, which were positioned on either side of the stage rather than nestling into each other. So, in effect, we had four distinct sounds from the two instruments.
The showpiece Lufthansa concert (at least for the well-heeled sponsors, who traditionally turn out in droves) is their annual visit to Westminster Abbey. This year the Westminster Abbey Choir and St James’s Baroque gave them a rousing farewell with Handel’s ‘Dettingen’ Te Deum, preceded by his ‘Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, 1713’ (Handel’s first English Ode, with more than a nod towards his English predecessors, Blow and Purcell) and Boyce’s Symphony 5 in D major, adapted by Boyce from his overture to the 1739 Ode to St Cecilia’s Day. It was particularly good to hear the Boyce piece – English composers of his time and ilk are often overlooked in favour of Handel. The fanfare-like opening led to a flamboyant fugue which was followed by two dance movements – a Gavotta and Minuetto, the former with a clever use of the trumpets to colour the ends of phrases. As David Vickers’ programme indicated, neither of the Handel works were first performed as intended – and the Birthday Ode possible not at all. And rather than the grand thanksgiving service in St Pauls Cathedral that Handel clearly intended for his Te Deum, it was first performed in the comparatively tiny space of the Chapel Royal in St James’s Palace. The soloists in the Handel works were something of a dream-team, with Ruby Hughes, Iestyn Davies and Matthew Brook all on excellent form. Even the most hardened Lufthansa executive’s heart must have melted during the first vocal piece, with Iestyn Davies singing ‘Eternal source of light divine’.
The concert given by La Risonanza (St John’s, Smith Square, 23 May) compared the composers most closely connected with the Elector of Hanover’s court before he came to England to become George I. Despite his frequent absence from the Hanover Court, Handel opened the programme with his Trio Sonata Op5.4, with its fine Passacaille. We then moved to a lesser-known, but fascinating composer from an earlier generation; Agostino Steffani, Handel’s predecessor as Kapelmeister in Hanover . His extraordinary career started in Padua before a move to the Munich Court as a singer, keyboard player and director of chamber music, where he wrote several operas, became a priest and started activities as a diplomat. As advancement seemed limited there, he moved to Hanover in 1688 as Kapellmeister – and diplomat. He moved further away from music, becoming in quick succession President of the Palatine government, rector of Heidelberg University, Bishop of Spiga, mediator between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, Apostolic Vicar to Northern Germany, the first honorary president of London’s Academy of Ancient Music. His musical life was represented by a pair of duets and the vocal Scherzo: Guardati, o core, all reflecting on the perils of love. As is so often the case, the following pair of Handel duets were in an entirely different musical league. The evening finished with a slight musical decline with a couple of pieces by Pepusch, another German who made his home in England. The two singers both suffered rather operatic touches but, more seriously, made no real effort to reflect the nature of the words, singing as two separate individuals rather than reacting to each other in any way. This considerably weakened any possible dramatic effect, particularly with texts such as ‘I love to gaze upon you’.
The late evening concert proved to be one of the highlights of the festival. It marked the first appearance there of the Hilliard Ensemble (in their 40th and ‘retirement year’), but the spotlight was on violinist Kati Debretzeni. The programme was based on the Hilliard’s CD Morimur and the arguable proposition that the famous Chaconne from Bach’s Violin D minor Partita (No 2) was written in memory of his first wife Maria Barbara and is full of musical references to chorales related to death. The first part of the concert consisted of Kati Debretzeni playing the whole of the Partita with the movements interspersed with the relevant sung chorales. She had a brief rest while another sequence of chorales was sung, before the climax came with her repeat performance of the Chaconne with the chorale melodies picked out by members of the Hilliard Ensemble. Whether or not you buy Helga Thoene’s premise (and the fragmented nature of most of the apparent chorale quotations meant that one could probably find all sorts of melodic fragments in such a complex work), this was firstly an evocative reading of no fewer that 14 Lutheran chorales. But most importantly, it featured a staggering performance of the Partita, with a repeat of the Chaccone by Kati Debretzeni. It cannot have been easy to play alongside the chorale interpolations, but her sense of spacing and overall architecture was exemplary.
The final day of the festival started with an afternoon concert (in St Peter’s Eaton Square, 24 May) by Carole Cerasi, playing works by CPE and JS Bach on fortepiano and harpsichord. Sensibly, she started on the fortepiano with CPE’s Sonata in G (Wq65/45) and Fantasia in F# minor (Wq67), works from the last five years of his life. The Sonata was written for a Bogenklavier – one of many attempted new keyboard instruments of that period, in this case with strings that were bowed and therefore capable of gradations of tone, something the fortepiano used in this performance was obviously also capable of. The extraordinary F# minor Fantasia was written just before CPE’s death, and sums up a lifetime of musical exploration and innovation, in this case, represented by his improvisatory fantasia style. The subsequent move from fortepiano to harpsichord for CPE’s Sonata in G (H47) and JSB’s ‘English’ Suite, made it immediately apparent why the former instrument eventually took over from the latter. Although explained as merely a means of aiding the aural drop of a quarter-tone from fortepiano to harpsichord, Carole Cerasi’s verbal explanations of the music became an integral and welcome part of the concert. One of her quotes was that the sign of a good teacher is that the students do not play like their teacher. This was reflecting in Carole Cerasi’s own playing, which was clearly aimed to bring out the best in the music, without attempting to force a personal agenda or style, or to merely show off a virtuosic technique. The later was certainly there, but it was worn lightly. An excellent and informative concert.
Lufthansa and the Festival that has born its name for the past 30 years disembarked from each other’s company with something of a coup (St John’s, Smith Sq 24 May) – the Göttingen International Handel Festival’s production of Handel’s Joshua (the 1748 version), the first such collaboration, with the FestspielOrchester Göttingen, the NDR Choir (Hamburg) directed by the Göttingen Festival’s director Laurence Cummings. The pairing of Göttingen and London was apt, because Göttingen also owes a lot to their Hanover rulers, not least for their university, founded by the Elector Georg-August (Britain’s George II). The last of Handel’s four ‘victory’ oratorios, Joshua celebrates the final skirmish between the Hanovers and the ‘Young Pretender’. It became one of his most popular oratorios, although I doubt if many would now give it that accolade. It appeals to jingoistic sentiments not generally thought acceptable nowadays other than, perhaps, to UKIP supporters.
Although it includes drama aplenty, and some exquisite moments of contrasting musical repose, there is no real sense of plot or emotional undercurrents to test the intellect. The love interest between Achsah and Othniel is a slight and rather awkward intrusion, out of odds with a work that includes the first incarnation of ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’. The first section refers back to the ‘wondrous passage’ over the ‘wat’ry heaps’ of River Jordan before an angel appears to announce the latest of God’s regular bouts of slaying. After what seems to be a bit of a gay crush on the angel, Othniel turns to Achsah for the oratorio’s love interest, the most musical appealing moment of their tryst being Achsah’s ‘Hark, ‘tis the linnet and the thrush’, beautifully sung by Anna Dennis with the ‘dulcet tones’ of Kate Clark’s flute in attendance. In the end the hitherto rather soppy Othniel (the Croatian mezzo Renata Pokupić) turns out to be the ‘conu’ring hero’. On her first UK appearance ten years ago, I praised Renata Pokupić as “a true Handelian singer” noting that “Her enunciation and intonation are absolutely perfect, and she can cope with the most demanding of Handel’s florid vocal lines and ornaments with remarkable control of articulation and breath”. Although still an outstanding singer with an innate ability to portray character through her singing and acting, I am finding her vibrato increasingly problematic. Kenneth Tarver took the tricky role of Joshua, demonstrating the ability to deliver a proper trill – a surprisingly rare occurrence from even the most experienced of baroque singers. His ‘O thou bright orb’ was one of the highlights of the evening, and of the work. The Hamburg choir and Göttingen orchestra were both excellent. Laurence Cummings conducted with his usual attention to detail and generally brisk tempos, although there were several moments when he allowed himself a bit of a wallow.
First published in Early Music Review, August 2014.