London Festival of Baroque Music – Day 4/5

‘Women in Baroque Music’
St John’s, Smith Square & Westminster Abbey, 18/19  May 2015

SJSS 2I couldn’t get to the lunchtime concert on day 3 of the festival, but it was given by soprano Rowan Pierce and the young group Medici, under the title of ‘Future Baroque’, with music by Handel, Bach, Royer, Telemann, Corelli and Vivaldi. Unless I have missed something, this was another event that seemed to bypass the festival’s theme, although it did include as its final work Agitata da due venti, a surviving fragment from Vivaldi’s opera L’Adelaide and later also included in his Griselda, composed for the virtuoso soprano Margherite Giacomazzi.

‘Leçons des ténèbres’
Julia Doyle & Grace Davidson, sopranos,
Jonathan Manson, bass viol, Steven Devine, harpsichord, organ & director

The Monday evening concert (St John’s, Smith Square, 18 May) again bypassed female composers, although there were passing reference to woman, for example in Marais’ La petite Bru (‘daughter-in-law), and in François Couperin’s Leçons des ténèbres written for the nuns of Longchamp Abbey. But it did include two of the finest sopranos around, with Grace Davidson and Julia Doyle both giving outstanding performances of music written by Couperin’s for female communities in Paris. Couperin (1668–1733) frequently wrote music for what, in one of his two early Organ Masses, he describes as “couvents de religieux et religieuses“. As with the female singers of Vivaldi’s Pietà, there must have been some very talented musicians amongst the nuns.

Their first piece, the Motet de St Barthélémy: Laetentur caeli may have been written for a parish or guild rather than a community. It shows Couperin’s mastery of composition to the text, with several sections reflecting the tortured life of St Bartholomew, the whole centred around a dramatic climax on the repeated words o flebile martyrium. Although the writing is generally Italianate, it is full of distinctive French ornaments, and demonstrated the exquisite ability of Grace Davidson and Julia Doyle to incorporate those seamlessly into the flow of the music. They also both achieved that rarely heard phenomenon, a properly executed vocal trill that didn’t rely on vibrato. A similar structure occurred in the motet Venite exultemus Domino, the dramatic centre being again ‘O’ based, to the words ‘O immense love, O splendid communion, O wonderous mystery’.

As is evident in Couperin’s early Pièces d’orgue consistantes en deux messes the music of the dance and opera was usually hovering around at the back of his mind, however sacred the composition. This was apparent in his setting of the Magnificat, the two soprano voices spinning their own lines before joining together in a variety of canons and imitative writing. In all of these pieces, the viola da gamba is used as a third melodic voice as well as its continuo bass role. Couperin stresses key texts by repetition and by harmonic or melodic colouring, for example, at humilitatem ancillae suae, timentibus eum, and recordatus misericordiae suae, the latter passage built around a ground bass.

Interspersed between the Couperin vocal works were examples of the French secular and domestic repertoire, starting with a group of three pieces by Marin Marais for viola da gamba and harpsichord. This was the height of vogue for ‘character’ pieces, reflecting individuals or the moods or a character. La petite Bru, Sarabande la Gracieuse, L’Amériquaine all presumably represented aspects of female character, although L’Amériquaine could have reflected the then current taste for all things exotic in connection with South America, rather than representing a particular American girl. As in his playing in the Couperin pieces, Jonathan Manson demonstrated a superbly gentle and undemonstrative style, totally absorbed by the music rather than self-promotion. Similar sensibility to the music came with Steven Devine’s organ accompaniments and his Rameau harpsichord solos L’Enharmonique and L’Egiptienne, the last two pieces in his c1727/8 Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin. The harmonic complexities of the former were rather lost to modern ears, particularly given the very mild tuning of the harpsichord. After the gentle L’Enharmonique, the jovial L’Egiptienne bustled along with finger-twisting ornaments until an emphatic final chord – a sort of ‘that’s-enough-of-that’ moment.

The highlight of the evening came with the second half, devoted to the exquisite Leçons des ténèbres,  Couperin’s last known work. Although we know that Couperin wrote a complete set of nine such Lamintation settings, although only the first set, for the Premier Jour of Easter, survives. Whatever might be the listener’s involvement with the biblical text, this is music of the highest possible quality, reflecting an extraordinary range of moods and compositional insights. Some of the most extraordinary musical moments come in the incipits that preface each section, lengthy soaring and swooping melismas on a single word from the Hebrew alphabet. Again, the viola da gamba plays a vital melodic role, often moving in contrary motion in a duo or trio texture with the vocal lines.

Grace Davidson and Julia Doyle were absolutely outstanding, giving one of the finest performances of this work that I have ever heard helped by beautifully sensitive playing by Steven Devine and Jonathan Manson. The purity and clarity of the voices, devoid of irritating vibrato, but rich in emotional depth, was entirely appropriate to the mood of the music. I never thought I would ever find myself writing this, but I began to see the advantages of being a French 18th century nun.

‘Favoured as the sun’
Monteverdi, Vespers of 1610
Choir of Westminster Abbey, St James’s Baroque, James O’Donnell, conductor
Westminster Abbey, 19 May 2015

The concluding event of the Lufthansa Festival was usually in Westminster Abbey, a tradition continued with the new London Festival of Baroque Music. Together with the St James’s Baroque orchestra (founded by Ivor Bolton, and resident orchestra of the festival for the whole of its history),  the Choir of Westminster Abbey not only provided the choruses, but also all the soloists in their performance of Monteverdi’s magnificent Vespers of 1610.  Out of a choir of 34 (with 20 boy trebles), no fewer than 15 had solo roles, 9 of them boys.

From the start, it was clear that the use of boys’ voices was producing a very distinctive sound, and one that is not heard often enough in Vespers performances. Their distinctive massed tone cut through the full chorus of the opening Domine, ad adiuvandum and their solo contributions to the following Dixit Dominus was telling. The two trebles for Pulchra es (Sebastian Braw-Smith & Dominic Stokes) stood on podiums at the front, either side of a second chamber organ played by conductor James O’Donnell. They sang with clear and well-projected voices. The clarity of the boys’ collective contribution to the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria was also noteworthy. I’m not an expert in such things, but the boys did seem rather young, although I know that boys voices are breaking much earlier nowadays. Although their voices were always audible, some sounded a little timid and/or nervous when singing from within the choir, and set against other voices and/or instruments.

Of the adult soloists, the three tenors William Balkwill, Julian Stocker and Simon Wall had the most prominent roles, notably in Duo Seraphim, one of the most memorable parts of the evening. Simon Ponsford, one of the three countertenor soloists, also had a particularly attractive voice, heard several times in the concluding Magnificat.

Although the spatial possibilities of the Abbey are enormous, James O’Donnell made relatively limited use of Monteverdi’s apparent intentions for the use of space. The concerto Nigra Sum was sung by Simon Wall from somewhere well behind me towards the back of the nave, with David Miller accompanying on theorbo, after which they solemnly processed back to the front along with a BBC sound engineer. The echoes in Audi caelum, were sung from beyond the screen, to good effect, although the echo in the concluding Gloria (sung from within the choir) was not as effective. Although the second cornett moved off to one side for his ‘echo’ passage in the Magnificat, it sounded just as loud as the principal cornett. Similarly with the similar second violin moment, despite his moving slightly away from his companion.

The Choir of Westminster AbbeyJames O’Donnell’s control of the pace and relative speeds was exemplary. He avoided the often heard (and incorrect) change of the underlying tactus pulse when the music breaks into triple time, and allowed the music time to expand into the space of the Abbey. The instrumentalists (2 violins, 3 cornetti and 2 trombones with a continuo section of 2 theorbos, harp, viola da brazzo, contrabasso da gamba and 2 chamber organs) were excellent. The main chamber organ had an 8′ wooden principal rank that made its bass rather more audible than is usually the case. But the organ only occasionally made its presence really felt, despite suggestions in the score that Monteverdi’s intended the fuller sound of the main church organs, rather than small chamber organs. But we did have a nice little organ flourish from Daniel Cook during the Amen of Laetatus sum, and a couple of Andrea Gabrieli’s organ Intonations (in Sesto & Primo tono) either side of Nisi Dominus. It also provided a solid bass for the concluding Gloria. The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, with the usual 30 days catch-up on iPlayer.

And so ended the 2015 London Festival of Baroque, an event that may not have happened were it not for the work of its artistic director Lindsay Kemp and festival manager Lucy Bending, together with many other key personnel, sponsors and donors who made it possible. The success of the 2016 festival, which starts on Friday 13 May 2016, will depend on that level of funding and sponsorship being at least maintained. You can learn more about the festival, and its future, from their website

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