London Festival of Baroque Music

London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square, Grosvenor Chapel. 10-18 May 2019

The 2019 London Festival of Baroque Music is the 36th in a festival series that for most of its life was under the banner of the Lufthansa Festival. It is now managed by Richard Heason, director of St John’s, Smith Square, its principal venue. This year’s theme was ‘Crossing the Border’, exploring themes of travel and discovery. The festival website notes that “Throughout history musicians and musical ideas have crossed borders freely and frequently. Although national styles and identities have always developed and often have been celebrated in music, the musicians who have created and performed this music have honed their skills and talents by exploring influences and characteristics from a wide range of influences”. In these complex UK times, it was a timely reminder of the importance of travel for music and musicians. The Baroque era was a particularly important one for international cultural influences, not least in the UK where many continental musicians moved to England, and the aristocratic Grand Tour, one result of which was the foundation of the art collections of many 18th-century country houses. 

‘Musical Polyglots’
Improviso
St John’s, Smith Square, 16 May 2019

Because of travels of my own, I was only able to get to the last three days of the week-long festival, starting with a Thursday lunchtime concert by the impressive young group Improviso. They based their programme on Baroque composers writing in a variety of national styles. This included the French composers François Couperin and Michel Blavet writing in Spanish and Italian styles, and the German Telemann influenced by Polish folk music. They started with a spectacular recorder solo from Fatima Lahham – Hüseynî semâî, a piece from the Polish musician Wojciech Bobowski’s (aka Ali Ufki) collection of 17th-century Ottoman music, Mecmûa-i Sâz ü Söz. Bobowski seems to have been born around 1610 in Lviv, then part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and now in the top left-hand corner of Ukraine. He was captured by Tartar raiders who sold him on to the Ottoman Emperor in Istanbul, where his musical talent was recognised. Amongst many other achievements, he transcribed music of the Ottoman Court into western notation.

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A clever link by theorbo player Johan Löfving moved us musically from the Ottoman Court to Italy and an improvisation on the Bergomasca dance, followed by Couperin’s exploration of Spanish music in L’Espagnole, from his Les Nations. One of Telemann’s inventive solo Violin Fantasias reinforced the importance of improvisation in musical composition, beautifully demonstrated by Elin White, notably with some impressive double-stopping. After Blavet’s Italian-influenced Sonata (Op3:2) (with some busy cello lines from Florence Petit), came more Telemann, his delightful Trio Sonata (TWV42:G9). with it’s gorgeous central Largo where the violin is accompanied by a repeated seven-note recorder phrase. They concluding with another improvisation, on La Folia.

‘The Grand Tour I’
Ensemble Masques, Olivier Fortin
St John’s, Smith Square, 16 May 2019

The Thursday evening concert was given by the French group Ensemble Masques with a programme based on the Grand Tour. with music by Purcell, Marais, Corrette, Rameau, Vivaldi, Telemann and Bach. They plotted a route from England (with a rather French-sounding Purcell) across the channel to Paris and then onward to Rome and Venice before heading back north to Leipzig and Bach. The very lively commentary from youthful actor Robbie Fletcher-Hill was based on letters from 18th-century Grand Tourists, then as now, not always putting British travellers in a particularly good light.

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The small orchestra of a string quartet plus bass, oboe and harpsichord covered the wide range of styles, with Jasu Moisio’s oboe coming to the fore in the second and third movements of Marcello’s Oboe Concerto, later arranged for keyboard by Bach. Several of pieces were extracts from longer pieces, in the case of the Marcello, with an Allegro movement by Vivaldi replacing the first movement. Oliver Fortin directed from the harpsichord with commendable restraint. The only piece that didn’t seem to fit into the programme idea was a version of Monteverdi’s madrigal Sanctorum meritis Primo, with the theme played on the viola.

‘The Grand Tour II’
Royal Academy of Music Baroque Ensemble
St John’s, Smith Square, 17 May 2019

The second concert under the title of The Grand Tour came from students, and ex-students, of the Royal Academy of Music, the ‘Baroque Ensemble’ part of their title only really applying to the second part of their lunchtime concert. They started with four pieces from the 14th and 15th-century performed by an impressive singer, Sarah Anne Champion, and three recorder players. One of the recorder players was Charlotte Barbour-Condini, winner of the 2012 BBC Young Musician woodwind category final and the first recorder player to be concerto finalist. Collectively, the four of them won first prize at the 2019 Royal Academy of Music Early Music competition.

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Trio Sonatas by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Vivaldi were performed by different young musicians, separated by Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’, played by harpsichordist Lucie Chabard, who gave a particularly thoughtful interpretation of the central Andante. The only appearance of the RAM Baroque Ensemble (pictured) came at the end, with a Suite from John Blow’s Venus and Adonis. A total of 19 young musicians took part, an encouraging peak into the future of early music.

The Indian Queen
Ex Cathedra Consort & Baroque Orchestra, Jeffrey Skidmore, Sarah Latto
St John’s, Smith Square, 17 May 2019

A nicely balanced programme by the excellent Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra contrasted music from Central and South America with Purcell’s Indian Queen, based on a plot centred on the Inca and Mayan civilisations of Peru and Mexico. They opened with a selection of their greatest hits from earlier CDs and concerts (reflecting director Jeffrey Skidmore‘s research interests), starting with the ubiquitous and hypnotic processional Hanac pachap cussicuinon. They then focussed on music by Juan de Araujo, a Spanish-born organist who became maestro di cappella of Lima and Cuzco Cathedrals in Peru, and Sucre Cathedral in present-day Bolivia. Often sung in the languages of Nahuatl and Quechua, the music combined Spanish with local musical styles in an invigorating combination. Araujo’s powerful Dixit Dominus used three choirs, combining at the end. In contrast, this was followed by his gentle lullaby Silencio, with imitative writing for double choir, and Francisco Hernández’s homophonic miniature Sancta Maria, e!. These two pieces were conducted by Sarah Latto, recently appointed Associate Conductor of Ex Cathedra. I liked her straightforward conducting style and her ability to prevent the audience from applauding between the two pieces, something that Jeffrey Skidmore struggled with throughout the first half. The interval was announced by the exquisite recessional, Dulce Jesús mio. As is usually the case in Ex Cathedra’s performances of this repertoire, it was percussionist Simone Rebello who stole the show with her imaginative range of bangy, rattly things.

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The genuine Mexican and South American pieces were followed by Purcell’s musical take on the stories of the Inca and Maya in his incidental music to The Indian Queen. The plot of the play is based on a rather shaky story of the unrequited love of the Mexican Queen and Montezuma, who is apparently the leader of the Peruvians. It was a failure as a play in the 1660s but was resurrected, with the addiPurcell’s music, in the 1690s to great success. The plot was outlined in a clever rhyming idiom by narrator Simon Robson, perhaps acknowledging that one of the criticisms of the original play was that there were too many rhymes. All 11 singers of Ex Cathedra had solo spots in an impressive performance of some rarely heard Purcell, I attempt from love’s sickness to fly’ being the only extract that is usually heard. It ends with some wonderful Purcellian gloom in All dismal sounds . . . There’s nothing to be trusted here below. 

Come and Sing Latin American Baroque
Jeffrey Skidmore with members of Ex Cathedra
St John’s, Smith Square, 18 May 2019

The following morning, Jeffrey Skidmore and five singers and three instrumentalists from Ex Cathedra led a two-hour sing-a-long of some of the Central and South American pieces from Friday evening’s concert. Apart from anything else, it made us realise just how complex this music is, both from the language and the musical point of view, so respect to Ex Cathedra for their work on this repertoire over the years.

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‘The Secrets of Andalusia’
Lux Musicae London
Grosvenor Chapel, 18 May 2019

A concert that followed the Festival theme of ‘Crossing the Border’ with some gusto was given by the young group Lux Musicae London in Mayfair’s Grosvenor Chapel. Their fascinating, if slightly long, programme combined and exploration of Spanish Flamenco with music from the Sephardic and Middle Eastern traditions together with Spanish composers of the late 16th to 18th centuries. The seven-strong core group were joined by Flamenco guitarist Ignacio Lusardi Monteverde and oud player Ahmed Mukhtar, who had both arranged many of the pieces. 

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Unfortunately, the word-sheet of the songs that they submitted to the Festival was not passed on to the audience. Equally unfortunately, there was a guest singer who was incorrectly named in the programme, and the rather late announcement from the stage only mentioned that she was ‘Victoria’. I thought she was the star of the show and deserves to be named properly. She was Victoria Couper, pictured below with recorder player Sophie Creaner. She has a vocal timbre that is difficult to describe but was absolutely ideal for the repertoire. If she was a stop on a historic organ, she would be a Regal or Sesquialtera, the edge added to the purity and stability of her voice giving a wonderful focus, clarity and projection. 

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The other singer, Daniel Thomson, in contrast, had an attractively pure tone which balanced well with Victoria Couper’s voice. Their nicely segued sequence of pieces from all the traditions enhanced the contrast of styles and made for a very attractive and musically revealing concert, with moods ranging from sultry evenings in Seville to the rich musical heritage of the Middle East.

The Festival finished with a performance of Messiah, a rather unusual choice of music that is usually associated with sell-out Easter and Christmas performances. Next year’s London Festival of Baroque Music has an extended run, from 9-23 May 2020, and has the title of ‘Beyond the Spanish Golden Age’.

Photos: Amy Ryan Media