London Festival of Baroque Music: Tabea Debus & European Union Baroque Orchestra

London Festival of Baroque Music
Tabea Debus, European Union Baroque Orchestra

WP_20160506_20_16_57_Pro_crop.jpgThe London Festival of Baroque is growing from strength to strength after its rebirth from its previous incarnation as the Lufthansa Festival. Shorn of the former funding stream, it has had to rebuild its financial stability. The increase in the number of this year’s events over last year is one sign of their success. One of the big advantages of the former sponsorship deal was that it enabled many non-UK groups to travel to London for the festival, so it is encouraging that such visits by musicians from abroad continue to be a feature of the festival. Also most encouraging is their focus on young musicians, with three concerts specifically devoted to them under the banner of ‘Future Baroque’. They also included a late-night concert by the young folk-inspired singer-songwriter, Olivia Chaney.

Unfortunately this year’s festival (13-19 May) clashed with my annual invitation to the Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival, which takes place over the (moveable) Pentecost weekend. So I missed all but two of the London concerts, including such impressive names as the Dunedin Consort with John Butt, Bruce Dickey, Liuwe Tamminga, the Monteverdi String Band, Roberta Invernizzi, Iestyn Davies, Profesti della Quinta, the Choir of Westminster Abbey and St James Baroque. I also missed two of the young groups in the ‘Future Baroque’ series, Cerulea and Ignis, both formed out of London conservatories.  However I was able to hear the third concert in that series, which also happened to form part of the St John’s, Smith Square Young Artists’ Scheme, given by the recorder player Tabea Debus, as well the final concert of the festival, also given by young musicians, in this case the ever-excellent European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO).

Tabea Debus ‘Points of Contact’
St John’s, Smith Square, 19 May 2016

WP_20160519_12_53_33_Pro_crop.jpgAs part of her selection as one of the St John’s, Smith Square Young Artists, and the festival’s ‘Future Baroque’ events, Tabea Debus has given several concerts over the past year. She has also just completed her Masters Degree at the Royal Academy of Music and has been awarded a Fellowship to continue her studies there for a further year. Despite her student status, she has already made a considerable impression as a performer, and has released two very impressive CDs (reviewed here and here). For this lunchtime concert she was joined by percussionist Oliver Pooley to explore the wider corners of the repertoire for recorder. Of all the ‘early music’ instruments, the recorder is perhaps the one most suitable for modern composers to work with, and there are some extraordinary new works in the recorder repertoire, Tabea Debus and Oliver Pooley explored several of these, including a new commission by St John’s, Smith Square from composer Philip Cashion, The Language of Birds.

Tabea opened with the solo Ricercata Quinta by Bassanno, from his first part of his treatise on the practice of diminutions based on existing vocal works. The long-held opening note demonstrated just how sensitive and expressive Tabea Debus’s playing is, her gentle inflexions to the tone bringing a delightful colour to a single note. This was cleverly segued (as were many of the pieces) into Rognoni’s diminutions on Palestrina’s Vestiva i colli, the original madrigal played on the marimba. The piece that gave the recital its title came next, Joep Straesser’s 1987 Points of Contact I. Built on two melodic ideas, the piece explores the inter-relationship between the two seemingly disparate instruments: recorder and percussion (marimba, cymbal, triangle and small gong). It included several passages of flutter-tonguing from the recorder. It was segued into Machaut’s Amours me fait desirer.

Oliver Pooley played Eckhard Kopetzki’s Kasada, a piece for marimba based on various depictions of the sound of different states of water, reflecting the Greek philosophy of motion. Tabea then took over the reins for two contrasted medieval pieces before the commissioned piece, Philip Cashion’s The Language of Birds. The use of the recorder to represent bird song has many historic precedents, as does the use of birdsong in composition. This testing and virtuosic piece made good use of the many technical effects that the recorder is capable of, in the right hands – or mouth. In one of her friendly chats to the audience, Tabea had suggested that the theme of the concert was ‘imitation’, and this was very evident in John Bull’s curious Fantasia from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (CVIII), in which two parts chase each other in imitation and canonic writing before settling into a extraordinary passage where the upper voices fantasises above a repetitive bass motif which move up and down by a semitone from a single note.

Another piece from the 1980s concluded the concert, Ole Buck’s Gymel, a title with its roots in mediaeval music, when a vocal line divides into two parts. The original spinet part was arranged for marimba, which contrasted with the tiniest of recorders in a sequence of rapid and rather minimalist patterns.

As well as her spoken introductions to the music, Tabea Debus had also contributed an excellent programme note. This was an outstanding concert by two talented young musicians.

European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO)
St John’s, Smith Square, 19 May 2016

EUBO 2015_crop.jpgThe concluding event of the festival was a very welcome appearance by the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO). Founded in 1985, this extraordinary organisation has been at the forefront of the early music movement through its training orchestra, which reforms ever year after a series of auditions and training sessions for young instrumentalists. Normally running for one calendar year, a hiatus in their EU funding means that last years players started later in the year than usual, and this was their final concert together. I can only imagine the emotions that such an occasion would engender in the young musicians, but there was no evidence of this in their excellent playing of a rather daunting programme of six orchestral concertos, preceded by an Overture and suite from Lully’s Phaëton.

Their programme was based around the explosion in music publishing and new printing methods in the early years of the 18th century, notably from publications by Roger in Amsterdam and Walsh in London, both of whom have anniversaries this year. Their publications increased the accessibility of music through new technologies and new enterprises, thereby creating new audiences. The EUBO programme celebrated “the diversity and creativity made possible in the 18th century by the free movement across borders of artists, culture and music”.

They had already played this programme in Luxembourg and at the Regensburg Tage Alter Musik festival, and they showed their confidence in the pieces with some energetic and spirited playing. If there was any sense of being demob happy, that only came from their director, violinist Rachel Podger; one of a number of directors that have worked with the young musicians during their year together.

She set them off at some bizarre speeds at times, adding some rather curious twiddles to her own solo moments, and also encouraged some curious moments from the players. One such was having the strings punching out a little accompanying motif in the final movement of the Vivaldi Concerto in e (RV265), despite it obviously being intended to be playing piano.  It just sounded odd, as did the rushed opening movement. A similar moment of curious balance occurred in Wassenaer’s Concerto armonico No 3 where the delicate cello melody was drowned out by the accompanying strings. I also felt that the gaps between movements in several of the concertos were far too long. And it was a shame to see that the EUBO players have, en-masse, adopted Podger’s rather showy habit of dramatically raising her bow to the heavens at the end of a particularly boisterous movement. I supposed that is tempting at the end of a piece, but when done (as here) in an earlier movement, it just looks silly – and, on other occasions, has caused an audience to think the piece has finished.

But these are all entirely directorial issues – the EUBO players in Podger’s charge were on excellent form and played with an outstanding sense of professionalism. Several players had the opportunity to make some superb individual contributions, notably Mayah Kadish, violin, Candela Gómez Bonet, cello, Tatjana Zimre and Ana Inés Feola, oboes, and Alessandro Nasello, bassoon: but most particularly for his spectacularly ornamented recorder playing. All are pictured below.

These young musicians are the future of early music, as has been proved by the many previous EUBO members over the past 30 years or so, many of whom are now prominent figures in the musical world. The 2016 incarnation of EUBO has already been announced, and begin their round of concerts in July. More information can be found here. More information on the EUBO musicians playing in this concert can be found here, where you can click through to individual CVs via the instrumental groups.

Mayah Kadish

Candela Gómez Bonet

Tatjana Zimre

Ana Inés Feola

Alessandro Nasello

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