‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries’
London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square & Westminster Abbey
12-20 May 2017
After reforming, renaming, and regrowing itself from the long-running Lufthansa Festival, the London Festival of Baroque Music has become, phoenix-like, one of the most important early music festivals in London. Under the banner of ‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries‘, this year’s LFBM used the music of Monteverdi and Telemann, from either end of the Baroque (and both with anniversaries this year) to explore ‘some of the chronological, geographical and stylistic peripheries of Baroque Music’. With one exception, all the concerts were held in the Baroque splendour of St John’s, Smith Square.
Friday 12 May
The opening concert was the first in the ‘Future Baroque’ series, giving talented younger musicians the opportunity to present themselves in three lunchtime concerts. The first was Ensemble Molière, a group of musicians from Japan, the UK, Germany and Australia, who got together at the Dartington International Summer School. The well thought out programme linked two of Telemann’s ‘Paris Quartets’ with music by three of the Parisian composer/performers who first invited Telemann to Paris; Blavet, Guignon and Forqueray. They started with the short and lively Introduction from Michel Blavet’s comic opera, Le jaloux corrigé before launching into the 2nd Quartet from Telemanns second set of suites. Telemann’s friendly and approachable style was immediately evident, as was his ability to involve all the musicians, with solo moments from Flavia Hirte, flute, Alice Earll, violin, and Kate Conway, viola da gamba. The following three pieces, by Telemann’s supporters, gave all three more solo opportunities before the final Paris Quarter, the 2nd of the first collection. As can so often happen, the music of the lesser known composers rather reflected their current prominence. Only Forqueray’s La Guignon had any real musical interest, along with some tricky ventures in that no-mans-land above the frets of the gamba. Harpsichordist Satoko Doi-Luck was in accompanimental rather than solo mode throughout, but made up for that by introducing the pieces.
Before the main Friday evening event, Lindsay Kemp, Artistic Director of the festival (in both its guises) for the past 10 years gave the Festival Talk, discussing how Monteverdi and Telemann reflected the changing musical times of the Baroque. This was a prelude to the Early Opera Company and a rather curious programme of music that contrasted instrumental music by two of Bach’s sons with Pergolesi’s well-known Stabat mater. WF Bach’s lugubrious Adagio (from the Sinfonia in d Fk65) followed an inexorable built up before bursting into a Fugue that showed obvious influence from his Dad. A symphony in the unlikely key of B major by Matthias Georg Monn showed the move towards the Galant and later Classical style. It bubbled along harmlessly, if rather predictably, making rather too much of scale passages, but balancing that by some syncopations and hemiola phrases. Rather than sending the two flutes (needed only for the opening piece) home, they returned for WFB’s Duet for 2 flute in e (Fk54), producing a rather confusing sound in the acoustic, not least because the two instruments were often hovering around the same note. A little more articulation might have helped project the sound into the hall. CPE Bach’s energetic and inventive Symphony in b (Wq182/5) showed his development of the pre-Classical Sturm und Drang style.
After this venture into post-Baroque music, we returned to rather more mainstream music with the Stabat mater. The highlight was the outstanding singing of Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead, their voices blending perfectly. They were particularly good at coordinating their ornaments. Lucy Crowe did well to rein in her occasional leaps to high notes, an important factor in this music where those high notes can sometime dominate the texture.
Sunday 14 May
I missed the Saturday events, so my next concert was the Belgian-based Vox Luminis, a choir first heard when I was on the jury of a festival in an obscure corner of Croatia about 10 years ago. I described them then as “extremely impressive”, noting that “Their singing was outstanding, both individually and in consort”. They have since gone on to great things, as evidenced by this performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, together with the Freiburg Baroque Consort, on what could have been the very anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, which was (possibly) on 14 May 1567. The Vespers seem designed to demonstrate the Festival theme of ‘Baroque at the Edge’, with their contrast of Monteverdi’s Seconda pratica, the style that formed the foundation of the Baroque era, with the earlier Renaissance style of polyphony. Subtly directed from within the choir by the director, and bass, Lionel Meunier, this was a performance of commendable restraint that focussed on the music and texts, without the overly operatic layerings that many conductors apply. That became the strength of the performance, although it may have upset some listeners used to performances with more punch and gusto.
The ability of the choir to merge their sound with that of the instruments was exemplary, the latter using an imaginative range of colours, notably from the continuo section. It was interesting to see a rare appearance in the orchestra, alongside the viola, of a violincello da spalla, a small cello played from the shoulder. Most of the 13 singers had solo spots as well as numerous small group moments, all impressive. The complicated nature of this work, with its frequent changes of forces, was well handled through silent movement. One of several highlights was the Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, an instrumental piece overlain by four sopranos, spaced behind and across the whole width of the orchestra, singing Ora pro nobis at intervals. The Magnificat was also well handled, with its complex changes in vocal forces and orchestral texture.
On a more detailed technical matter, it was good to hear the speed relationships between duple and triple time metres interpreted correctly, in my view at least, avoiding the sudden sense of speeding up that so many performances of Monteverdi suffer from. This theory supporting this has been around for a while but has been rather slow to be taken up. Regardless of arguments around the concepts of tactus and sesquialtera, in my mind it just sounds better. The concert was recorded by the BBC Radio 3, and can be heard for a time here.
Tuesday 16 May
This year’s traditional Tuesday evening performance by the Choir of Westminster Abbey and St James’ Baroque was of Bach’s B minor Mass performed with all the solos sung by the boys and men of the choir. The long and narrow space of the Abbey is not ideal for the performance of Baroque music, and is very different to the acoustics of the Leipzig churches that most of Bach’s choral music was intended for. Those towards the back of the nave, or completely out of view in the distant choir and transepts, would have had a rather ethereal musical experience. But for those in the privileged positions close to the front, this was a very impressive performance, given an expansive treatment by conductor James O’Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers at the Abbey.
The Abbey boys seem to get younger every year, so it is worth remembering the boys voices of the Thomaskirche that Bach was writing for were probably well into the mid-teens. That would have given them far more experience at projecting their voices into a large space. But on this occasion, when dueting with the men singers, the latter reined-in their voices commendably to balance with the boys’ rather delicate timbre. The three boy soloists were Luca Hatwell, Orlando Oliver, and George Vyvyan. Key amongst the adult soloists were countertenor Robin Blaze, a distinguished concert and opera singer in his own right, and the first to be given the chance to demonstrate vocal projection. Robert Macdonald, Simon Wall, and Tristram Cooke were also fine soloists. Key amongst the instrumentalists were Rachel Latham, flute, Alice Kingham, horn, and Simon Munday, trumpet. The timpani were walloped with rather more vigour than was strictly necessary.
Wednesday 17 May
The second in the Future Baroque lunchtime series saw the two members of Ensemble Hesperi and their programme ‘The Phesant’s Eye: Musical Delights from the Scottish Baroque”. They included three Scottish composers (James Oswald, William McGibbon, John Reid), one Italian who moved to Scotland (Barsanti), and three with no connection to Scotland; two with music found in Scottish collections (Geminiani, Corelli) and one (van Eyck) from a century earlier who wrote Een schots Lietjen. They bookended the concert with pieces from Oswald’s c1760 Airs for the Four Seasons. As can so often be the case, the musical and technical superiority of Geminiani and Corelli rather overshadowed the other composers, notably Corelli’s tricky Sonata in E (Op5/11). Playing a variety of recorders, Mary-Jannet Leith made good use of articulation, ornamentation, and an attractive rhythmic flexibility as expressive devices.
The evening concert was by the Swiss orchestra Les Passions de l’Ame, led by violinist Meret Lüthi, in an imaginative and well presented programme of music from the ‘Edge of Europe’. During the Baroque period, the Hungarian and Austrian Empires were key to the defence of Europe from the Ottoman Empire’s attacks. Ottoman influence started to appear in the cultural life of those countries, including music. The Moravian castle of Kroměříž amassed a large collection of scores, and several of the pieces played came from that collection. The composers were Schmelzer, Biber, Fux and JJ Walther, the former with the Festschule (Fencing School) ballet, the Sonata Cu Cu, and the concluding carnival dances, Arie con la Mattacina. The cuckoo also appeared in Walther’s Scherzo d’Augelli con il Cuccu with some virtuous writing for Meret Lüthi’s solo violin. Biber’s Partita VI shared the virtuosity between two violins, with Sabine Stoffer joining Meret Lüthi for a helter-skelter set of variations. Fux’s Turcaria and Les Combattons reflected military and individual skirmishes, the former with its Janitschara movement. This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 28 May at 2pm on the Early Music Show, and will be available for 30 days after that. It is well worth a listen.
Thursday 18 May
The second of the major Monteverdi events was L’Orfeo performed by I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, directed by Robert Hollingworth with Thomas Guthrie as the stage director. Often associated with musical high jinks, I Fagiolini approached this with admirable restraint, aided by a commendably straightforward staging by Thomas Guthrie. Making use of a central walkway projecting from the stage, singers emerged from the audience or the orchestra in a well choreographed sequence. The only props were two chairs. This put the focus on the music itself, which is exactly as it should be.
A group of nine singers shared out the roles. There were some outstanding contributions, starting with Rachel Ambrose Evans whose delightful voice was perfectly apt for her opening role as La Musica before she morphed into an evocative Euridice. Neither are big roles, but both are absolutely key to the work’s emotional intensity. I particularly liked her spacious concluding section of La Musica’s introduction. Matthew Long was exceptional in the massive role of Orfeo, excelling in his big solo sequences, including Possente spirto, and Qual onor, his engagement of the audience in the latter being such that there were audible gasps when he finally turns to face Euridice. Clare Wilkinson was a beguiling Prosperino, persuading Charles Gibbs’ Plutone to first put his (mimed) newspaper down and then allow Orfeo into Hades. He gave a gleeful grin to the audience at the promise of the ‘marriage bed’. Clara Hendrick had the short, but key role of the Messenger, initially appearing from the back of the hall. Christoper Adams took the role of Caronte. Greg Skidmore and Nicholas Hurndall Smith excelled as Shepherds. Collectively, they formed a coherant chorus, the stability of (most of) the voices making for an excellent consort sound
The 18 instrumentalists didn’t quite match the enormous number that Monteverdi specified, but provided the extensive range of colour and texture demanded in the score. Notable were Alexandra Opshot and Rodrigo Calveyra, cornetts/recorders, Lynda Sayce and Eligio, theorbos, Bojan Čičić and Jorge Jimenez, violins, the five members of The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, and Catherine Pierron and Robert Hollingworth on harpsichords, organ and a rather sedate sounding regal. Robert Hollingworth conducted from the harpsichord, maintaining a sense of propulsion through the long recitatives.
Friday 19 May
The last of the three lunchtime Future Baroque concerts featured Nathaniel Mander playing a programme of harpsichord music from just beyond the opposite ends of the Baroque. The initial sequence of Byrd, Tomkins and Blow (the only real Baroque composer) showed Nathaniel Mander’s commendable grasp of period performance style and ornament practice. I liked the way his moved between Byrd’s seemingly anarchic sequences in the (‘C major’) Fancy. In sharp contrast were the final two works by JC Bach (the ‘London’ Bach) and Haydn. As with the earlier group of pieces, these demanded real virtuosity. This can be a given nowadays, but what can differentiate performers is their ability to go beyond that and to reveal their own, and the composer’s, musicality, rather than just showcasing their own abilities. Nathaniel Mander is about as far from the irritating ‘look-at-me’ antics of some performers as you can get, his broad grins when taking bows clearly indicating that he was enjoying himself, rather than any hint of ‘what a clever boy I am’. His engaging introductions to the pieces were spot on.
For me, the final concert of the Festival was also the final concert of the current incarnation of the European Union Baroque Orchestra. They reform every year with a fresh group of young musicians and tour a series of concerts around Europe. It was also, very sadly, the very last EUBO concert in its present state as a UK-managed organisation. Founded some 32 years ago as a UK initiative during European Music Year, and run ever since from its base near Oxford, the vote by a small percentage of the UK population to drag the UK out of the European Union means that it is no longer viable to run an EU venture from the UK. In its 32 years, EUBO has encouraged and nurtured around 1000 young musicians, giving some of the finest period instrumentalists around an early grounding in performance practice at the start of their careers. After a hiatus of a year when there will be no auditions or orchestra, EUBO will restart from a new base, and with new management, in Antwerp.
For this final concert, EUBO focussed on instrumental and vocal music by the two greatest composers of the High Baroque, Handel and Bach. The opening Concerto Grosso in d (Op.6/10) was a test of the extraordinary talents of the young musicians, the crisp opening flourishes played with precise rhythmic flair. Their concertmaster, Bojan Čičić (a former member of EUBO), violinist Charlotte Mercier, and cellist Alex Jellici bought clarity to the trio sections. They were then joined by Swedish soprano Maria Keohane, a regular soloist with EUBO over the years, for two dramatic extracts from Handel. The cantata Tu fedel? Tu costante was performed in an early version (HWV 171a) that might have pre-dated his trip to Italy. All but the first aria is different from the well-known ‘Ruspoli’ version, notably in using a solo oboe, on this occasion played by Neven Lesage. He appeared as soloist in all three vocal numbers, and it was entirely appropriate that he arrived and left the stage as a joint soloist with Maria Keohane. His playing was outstanding, demonstrating a sensitive understanding of Baroque melodic lines. The nature of the programme meant that there were very few solo opportunities for the EUBO players, but bassoonist Dóra Király made her prescence felt in a couple of important moments.
Handel’s Passacaille in g (from Op. 5/4) acted as a prelude to Ah! Ruggiero crudel / Ombre pallide from Alcina, and another demonstration of high-octane revenge singing from Maria Keohane. She arrived on stage through the audience as though she were about to stop the orchestra to continue her earlier rant about cruel men. After a first half emoting about unfaithful lovers, she eventually seems to have struck lucky, as evidenced by Bach’s ‘Wedding Cantata’ Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten. This was preceded by Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A (BWV 202), with Lars Ulrik Martensen, the Music Director of EUBO, as the eloquent soloist. He also gave a very moving speech about EUBO’s separation from the UK, noting in particular the two people who have headed up the organisation from the very start, Paul James and Emma Wilkinson. Is says something for the sheer professionalism of the young musicians that, despite the heightened emotions of the occasion, they managed to continue to play to such a high standard. Many in the audience were in tears. To mark this most specific EUBO event I am publishing a separate, and more detailed version of this review here.
The Festival finished (on Saturday 20 May) with Handel’s oratorio Jephtha, given by the Holst Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music. That final concert was also the last for the Festival’s Director for the past ten years, Lindsay Kemp and the Festival’s Manager Lucy Bending. From 2018, the Festival will be headed by guest directors. More information here.