OAE Player: Apollo e Dafne

Apollo e Dafne
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Roderick Williams
Rowan Pierce, Katharina Spreckelsen
OAE Player. 9 November 2020

Telemann Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus TWV 1: 364
JS Bach Cantata, Ich habe Genug BWV 82
Handel Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 2/1
Handel Apollo e Dafne HWV 122

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) has responded to the Covid crisis by opening a new digital platform, OAE Player. For this Premiere Night concert, they were billed as returning to their resident home at the Southbank Centre for the first time since the first lockdown although, as you will read, that turned out to be not quite the reality. Each of the filmed concerts (there are currently twenty available on the OAE Player) are available to watch individually for a great deal less than a concert ticket (and without the costs of travel) or there is an option of accessing all the concerts with an annual pass.

The video of their programme of Telemann, Bach and Handel was filmed, initially, in a socially distanced orchestral format in the Royal Festival Hall. In normal circumstances that space would have been far too large for such an intimate programme and orchestral forces, but the recording quality proved to be very effectively well controlled by the sound engineers. Roderick Williams was the baritone soloist and impressively minimalist director for the opening Telemann cantata Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus, sensibly allowing the excellent OAE musicians to just get on with it, his hand moving as much to reflect his response to the music and words as any sense of direction. There being no audience to face, he turned towards the orchestra. The cantata initially reflects the sombre atmosphere of Jesus’s vigil in Gethsemane before continuing the Biblical story with moods changing from despair to hope. Telemann’s use of emotionally wraught harmonies is balanced by moments of instrumental colour.

Bach’s Ich Habe Genug is one of his most emotionally intense creations. Roderick Williams sings the role of Simeon who, as he approaches death, is overcome by a sense of contentment after having held the baby Jesus. His death is no longer seen as a source of dread but of sheer joy, the latter portrayed by Bach as a delightfully jovial dance. Katharina Spreckelsen excelled as oboe soloist in the opening aria. It was recorded in front of what looks like a socially distanced concert audience in the Wiltshire Music centre, the inferior recording quality (it appears to have been a BBC recording) making the acoustic sound very much larger than that of the Royal Festival Hall. Perhaps the video element of the recording was made for internal purposes rather than for paid public release, but the music and the performance is nonetheless well worth putting up with the boomy acoustic and background hum.

In sharp contrast to the rather intense and sacred nature of the opening two cantatas came Handel’s entirely secular Apollo e Dafne and its story of inevitable unrequited love. As rather curious combination of pieces for a concert, albeit with the transition aided by a change of shirt for Roderick Williams. It was composed in 1710 on Handel’s return to Germany after his early years in Italy and is in the Arcadian tradition of Italian music of the time, a genre that he completely absorbed, as he later did with English music. Roderick Williams was joined by the usually excellent soprano Rowan Pierce who, sadly, on this occasion allowed herself far too much uncontrolled vibrato for my liking – in sharp contrast to Katharina Spreckelsen’s beautifully on-message period oboe playing in Dafne’s opening aria.

Unfortunately, and despite the promotional blurb of the OAE returning to their home on the Southbank, this was also recorded during the same concert at the Wiltshire Music Centre with the same quesionable recording quality and acoustics as already mentioned – which may be as much to do with the recording as the quality of the space itself. The acoustic also rather over-reinforced the importance of singers wearing silent shoes when their role demands frequent movement on and off stage. The filming had some wayward moments although, if you are fascinated by the inner workings of a harpsichord, you will enjoy the repeated image of plectra bouncing up and down.

The performanced are well up to the OAE’s usually exceptionally high quality. Handel lovers will recognise snippets of music that Handel later reused. Throughout the concert, which effectively had no conductor, leader Huw Daniel took on much of the responsibility of indicating instrumental tempi and mood. He and fellow violinist Kati Debretzeni also had a lot of work to do in the Vivace first movement of Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 2 which was used to remedy the missing overture of Apollo e Dafne.

It is a shame that it is only the Telemann that was recorded in the Royal Festival Hall. Looking at some of the other concert available to subscribers, it seems that there are some delightful venues on offer. Amongst several that caught my eye (but not yet my ear) are a solo violin recital in the extraordinary Fitzrovia Chapel, a hidden gem, and Beethoven and Mozart in Peckam’s delightfully decrepit Asylum Chapel.

The link to the concert is here and a pre-concert chat and Q&A with Roderick Williams and continuo cellists, Jonathan Manson, can be viewed here. The linked programme notes mention the OAEs move from their office and rehearsal headquarters at Kings Place to the Acland Burghley School in Camden, North London – a fascinating combination of a bustling secondary school and a working environment for musicians. One to watch.