London Festival of Baroque Music – Day 3

‘Women in Baroque Music’
St John’s, Smith Square, 17  May 2015

The third day of the festival started with ‘Sing Baroque’, with Robert Howarth, one of the Robert HowarthOrchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s regular conductors, leading a Sunday morning workshop on the choral sections of Vivaldi’s Gloria – “for all aspiring Baroque singers – no experience necessary!”. This is certainly not the sort of event that should be reviewed, but I will comment on the experience of watching a conductor at work from the other side of the podium. Conducting styles vary by personality (and over historic time), but there is a generation of younger conductors who focus on using collaboration, cooperation and genuine good humour (rather than dictatorship or bullying) as the key to communicating their ideas. It was clear that Robert Howarth is one of those. As well as giving the gathered singers an excellent insight into the music and aspects of performing it, Robert Howarth also made it an extremely entertaining occasion. Music’s gain is stand-up comedy’s loss.

The Sunday afternoon included a guided tour of The Wallace Collection exploring ‘Music, Dance and Gallentry in 18th-century French Art’, followed by a concert focusing on the harpsichord music of Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) given by Béatrice Martin.

A Visit to the Pietà
Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Kati Debretzeni,  violin & director

With a festival theme of ‘Women in Baroque Music’, it was inevitable that Vivaldi’s all-female Pietà choir would get a look in at some stage. And, perhaps, it was equally inevitable that the mostly amateur Oxford choir Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi would be invited to perform. They are based on Vivaldi’s choir, to the extent of wearing the rather awkwardly wide corseted dresses of the period. Incidentally it is worth noting that the Pietà choir was not just young girls, as many of the inhabitants of the ospedali spent their whole lives there. Hence the availability of women able to sing tenor and bass parts, albeit written in a slightly higher pitch than usual.

The ability of the female voice to descend well into the bass register was demonstrated early in the opening piece; Dixit Dominus (RV 595) with its exposed bass entry at Donec ponam – and in the concluding Gloria patri. Although there were only two bass singers (and four tenors), they formed a solid foundation for the 18 higher voices. Around two-thirds of the 24-strong strong choir had solo roles, inevitably with varying degrees of success. There were two particularly striking solos in Dixit Dominus, firstly from Elizabeth Gornall and then Victoria Couper, both featuring very focused, clear and slightly, but most attractively edgy voices. They both reminded me of a similar beautifully distinctive young Italian girl singer I reviewed in a Monteverdi CD whose focused voice carried over the full orchestra in a large acoustic, to remarkable effect.

Clarae stellae, scintillate (RV 625) was written for a singer called Geltruda who seems to have had a rather a narrow vocal compass and also to have needed the unison support of the violin for most of her vocal lines. It was nicely sung by contralto Clemmie Franks. It was followed by In exitu Israel (RV 604). I wonder if this was Vivaldi having one of those ‘I’m bored with composing’ days – the vocal line bears no relation to the underlying text and after a while the relentlessly bouncy rapid fire accompaniment begins to sound like a road drill. It was a mercifully short piece. A later piece by Porpora (Laetatus sum) had a similar emphatic pulse and bustling disregard for the text, but its seamless move from nine soloists (in two separate choirs) to full choir made for an interesting texture, as did the use of double orchestra. Again the distinctive voices of Elizabeth Gornall and Victoria Couper were evident, making for an enlightening aural texture.

Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in D ‘per la Santissima Assontione di Maria Vergine’ (RV 582) was also written for a spatially separate double string orchestra. It was written for Anna Maria, the star performer of the Pietà, and was first performed when she was about 29. She must have had a particular fluid bowing arm, as there is some advanced cross-string playing in the first movement and double-stopping in the last. Although some of the writing is rather formulaic, with the inevitable cycles of fifths, and a relatively standard-issue slow movement, it was lifted from the mundane by Kati Debretzeni’s show-stopping cadenza, lasting nearly five minutes.  This was based on the extended written-out cadenza passages in Vivaldi’s Grosse Mogul concerto (of which Bach made his own organ transcription). Kati’s choice took its cue from elements of Grosse Mogul that Vivaldi had included in the last movement. Kati Debretzeni’s deft and delicate treatment of complex musical lines was a wonder to behold, as was her innate sense of musical timing.

SJSSThe concert ended with two well-known works, Nulla in mundo pax sincera and the Gloria. The former was sung by Penelope Martin-Smith, and the later included another particularly effective soloist, Emily Burn, in Domine Deus, rex caelestis. This also including a lovely oboe solo by Rachel Chaplin. Throughout the concert, Luise Buchberger excelled as the continuo cellist, together with David Miller, theorbo, and Robert Howarth, organ/harpsichord.

As well as her stunning violin playing, special mention must go to Kati Debretzeni who directed the Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from her position as lead violinist – a remarkable achievement, and one that is very rarely seen.

Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi have made an important contribution both to Vivaldi scholarship and, through the related Oxford Girls’ Choir, to musical life for young women. Of course, we have no idea what the original Pietà choir sounded like, but the plaudits of the many visitors who flocked to hear them suggest that they were pretty good. Although there were a few weaker moments on this occasion, there were several fine soloists, and the choir as a whole produced a coherent and fascinating sound, making an attractive alternative to the almost too-perfect professional choirs that dominate the musical scene. And those soloists who feel they had struggled a little should take heart from the fact that by far the poorest solo contribution came (in the De torente of the opening Gloria) from the only singer that I recognised as being a professional, but who was clearly having a distinctly off-night, intonation being just one issue.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and is available on BBC iPlayer until 16 June.

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