OAE Player: Seeing Double

Seeing Double’
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Jonathan Cohen
Kati Debretzeni, Nicola Benedetti, Rudolfo Richter
Katharina Spreckelsen, Sarah Humphrys
OAE Player. 19 November 2020

Avision Concerto Grosso no.5 in D minor
Vivaldi Concerto in D for two violins RV 513
Vivaldi Concerto in D for two violins RV 514
Vivaldi Concerto in A minor for two oboes RV 536
Bach Concerto in D minor for two violins BWV 1043
Purcell Rondeau from Abdelazer

The second of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s premieres on their digital platform OAE Player was a concert of Vivaldi and Bach double concertos recorded at the Snape Maltings in front of a socially-distanced audience. Many people will have already heard or seen an expanded version of the programme as one of the live concerts of the much reduced 2020 BBC Proms season. The principal violin soloist for both concerts should have been Alina Ibragimova, but the death of her father (the distinguished double bass player Rinat Ibragimov) the day before the Prom resulted in Nicola Benedetti stepping in for the Proms and this concert, which seems to have been recorded the following day in the far more suitable acousics of the Snape Maltings.

Nicola Benedetti was an appropriate replacement for Alina Ibragimova as, while students at the Yehudi Menuhin School, the pair of them played the Bach double violin concerto under Yehudi Menuhin at the 50th Anniversary celbrations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, just three months later, at Yehudi Menuhin’s own funeral in Westminster Abbey.

For their Snape Maltings concert, the OAE opened with the Concerto grosso No. 5 in D minor by the Newcastle-based musician Charles Avison, a fascinating composer who, unusually, spent most of his career outside the London-centric musical life of 18th-century England. A short period in London in his early 20s included studies with the Italian violinist composer Geminiani before he returned to Newcastle as organist at St. Nicholas Church and, later, director of the Newcastle Musical Society. Avison based much of his 12 Concerti grossi on the keyboard works of Dominica Scarlatti. The OAE was led by the OAE principal violinist Kati Debretzeni who excelled in the solo passages. She turned out to be the lead violinist for all but one of the concertos, despite the OAE billing the concert as “Seeing Double with Nicola Benedetti”.

The first of the two Vivaldi pieces for two violins was the Concerto in D major (RV 513), the playful interplay in the outer movements between Nicola Benedetti and Rudolfo Richter balanced by an eloquant central Andante. Playing with a gut-stringed violin and a Baroque-style bow, the presence of a chin rest was the only thing that set Nicola Benedetti apart from her more period-pure OAE companians. I am not sure how much rehearsal she was able to get before the Proms or this concert, but she had clearly immersed herself in the period style of the formidable OAE players.

For the following Concerto in D minor for two violins (RV 514) Nicola Benedetti played second fiddle to Kati Debretzeni although, for some reason, the OAEPlayer video listed Nicola Benedetti before Kati Debretzeni. If anything, this performance revealled more dramatic violin playing, perhaps the result of the change in order of the two soloists, with Nicola Benedetti responding well to Kati Debretzeni’s mood setting. I wondered if Alina Ibragimova would have been lead violin in all the concertos with Nicola Benedetti having to take second position because of the short notice.

A break from the violin came with Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor for two oboes, RV 536, played beautifully by the OAE regulars Katharina Spreckelsen and Sarah Humphrys. The concluding Bach Double Violin Concerto (BWV 1043) again saw Benedetti playing second fiddle to Kati Debretzeni (for the Proms concert, fellow OAE leader Matthew Truscott took the lead) although the order of the two soloists is perhaps not so relevent in this piece, as the second violin is the first to play the first two movements. Everytime I listen to this well known concerto, I hear something new, such is the genius of Bach in weaving counterpoint into a coherent whole. The pairing of Debretzeni and Benedetti was magical in what is in many ways a concerto for a single violin shared between two players, as the melodic ideas are balance between the players, rather than them being in competition with each other.

Unlisted in the accompanying programme was what I assume was a concert encore, Purcell Rondeau from Abdelaza repurposed as a Concerto for Military Drum, the (unfortunately unnamed) drummer presumably having been shipped to Snape and sat backstage for the duration just for this purpse.

Refreshingly, after the first of the OAEPlayer premiers (reviewed here), the sound and video quality was excellent throughout, as was the acoustics. Jonathan Cohen was a laid-back director from one of the two harpsichords, his foot tapping being just visably distracting, rather than audibly as was the case in the BBC Proms broadcast.

Amongst the many other concerts currently available to subscribers to OAEPlayer is a series of three short related concerts of Fantasias by Telemann under the title of the Fitzrovia Chapel Fantasias. The principal concert is given by violinist Kati Debretzeni with a 46-minute programme of solo violin Fantasias. Two shorter concerts are the viola da gamba and harpsichord Fantasias performed by Jonathan Manson and harpsichordist Steven Devine (at 25 & 14 minutes respectively). Music and excellent performances aside, one of the special aspects of these recordings is the venue, the delightful and more-or-less totally unknown Fitzrovia Chapel, a little Gothic-Revival gem of a building that was once the chapel to the Middlesex Hospital. It is now stranded in a courtyard (named after the architect of the chapel, JL Pearson) surrounded by modern buildings. The acoustics are wonderful for these solo instrument recitals.