OAE @ 30 – Bostridge sings Handel
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ian Bostridge, Steven Devine
St John’s, Smith Sq. 14 October 2015
Telemann: Overture/Suite in F; Ich weiss, dass mein Erlöser lebt; So stehet ein Berg Gottes from Der Tod Jesu;
Handel: Concerto grosso in D minor Op. 3 No. 5; Scherza infida from Ariodante; Love sounds th’ alarm from Acis and Galatea; Silete venti; Water Music Suite No. 1
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are so much a part of musical life that it is hard to realise that they are just 30 years. Founded some years after (and in direct response to) the raft of director-controlled period instrument groups, so influential in those early days, they reacted against the control of individual conductors by setting up their own self-managed orchestra, employing their own conductors as and when required, but often directing themselves. Seemingly able to bring together a disparate group of highly individual and highly qualified musicians, each with their own views (and without, it seems, too much blood letting), they set a precedence for the musical world.
Early involvement with a youthful Simon Rattle probably taught him as much as he taught them, and they soon attracted conductors of the calibre of Ivan Fischer, Roger Norrington, Mark Elder and, more recently, Vladimir Jurowski, all now honoured as Principal Artists. The distinguished Bach scholar and conductor John Butt has just joined that impressive list. They often perform without a conductor, producing excellent results through the encouragement and support of one their own. They opened their 30th birthday season in such a fashion when Steven Devine, one of their principal keyboard players and an increasingly distinguished conductor in his own right, took over the conducting reigns (from the harpsichord) for a programme of Telemann and Handel with tenor Ian Bostridge.
They opened with Telemann’s five-movement Overture/Suite in F (TWV 55:F3) with its key moments for pairs of horns and oboes. Telemann is a remarkable composer, but could have done with a ruthless editor – there is just so much of his music around, it is difficult to remember if you have heard a piece before. He deserves much more exposure, as the opening three pieces of this concert demonstrated. The Overture/Suite showed just how adventurous he can be with orchestral colour and texture, the horns starting innocuously before bursting into their stride in the middle of the first movement, and forming the mainstay of the final two movements, along with the oboes. The Sarabande is a lovely movement built on the minimum of musical content, but interpreted beautifully here by Steven Devine with excellent contributions (not for the only time) from the theorbo of David Miller.
However distinguished the OAE are, I have a feeling that many in the audience were attracted by the appearance of the extraordinarily lyrical and expressive tenor Ian Bostridge (left). The thinking person’s tenor, his approach to singing is just what you would expect from an ex Oxford History Don. He works himself into role in just the way that I would hope any good History tutor would do, picking out tiny bits of single words to savour and inwardly digest before imparting to his audience. He sings as though he was there, feeling every word and emotion personally. Telmann’s Dass mein Erlöser lebt, with its organ trio sonata format, was followed by So stehet ein Berg Gottes, with it challenging horn part, here played by the OAE’s principal horn player Roger Montgomery standing at the back. I wish I’d had a history (or, indeed, geology) teacher who could describe so dramatically the ‘flashing lightening … surging floods … splitting the earth to pieces’. The two Handel vocal highlights were Scherza infida from Ariodante, Bostridge’s extraordinary vocal intensity supported by Handel’s sensuous accompaniment of mute strings over plucked bass strings and underpinned by the plaintive sound of a bassoon (played by Andrew Watts) – and, in the second half, his Silente venti, his opening interjection of ‘Silence’ showing that he still has the skill to silence a crowd of noisy youngsters.
Many of the original OAE pioneers have been slowly backing out of performing, but their gradual replacement by younger players has seen some inspiring choices. Amongst many notable instrumental contributions, those of oboist Frances Norbury (left) were the most spectacular. The partners of the named principal players also deserve a mention – Catherine Latham, oboe, and Martin Lawrence, horn. It was good to see four young members of the OAE Experience scheme playing this evening – a great experience for them. Steven Devine’s deft direction was inspirational (pictured left, in one the OAE characteristically clever promotional photos), his involvement with the music and the musicians obvious. A band like this does not need the beat constantly waved at them, and he balanced his continuo harpsichord playing (which, in itself, was very impressive, with just the right amount of contribution without dominating) with his shaping gestures superbly.
With the building work going on in and around the Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, St John’s, Smith Sq has become the venue of choice for many of the OAE concerts – they are a Southbank Orchestra in Residence. It is a good choice, with acoustics that work extremely well for Baroque music. This was the first such concert, and it seems that I was one of the few people who hadn’t spotted the start time of 7pm rather than the usual SJSS time of 7.30. Fortunately I arrived early enough for the start.