Baroque at the Edge Festival

Baroque at the Edge Festival
Recorded at  LSO St Luke’s, London
Broadcast online between 7-10 January 2021, available to 31 March 2021

In pre-coronavirus days, the musically barren early days of January have been enlivened by the imaginative Baroque at the Edge Festival, usually spanning a weekend in venues around their home base of LSO at St Luke’s in London. Previous festivals are reviewed here and here. Run by Artistic Director Lindsay Kemp and Festival Manager Lucy Bending (the team behind the London Festival of Baroque Music and its predecessor, the Lufthansa Festival), the festival has secured a place in the London concert scene with their refreshing approach to Baroque music, as exemplified by such banners as “No rules, no boundaries – just Baroque music set loose” and “Imagine if Vivaldi was a folk-fiddler, Purcell a protest-singer, or Bach a techno-geek”. The more succinct and apt “No rules, no walls” for this year’s Covid-constrained festival reflected the on-line nature of the events.

For this year’s festival, six concerts and four live Zoom events were broadcast over the weekend of 7 to 10 January. All the concerts are available online until 31 March 2021 either individually or with a £55 Festival Pass. Individual concert tickets can be obtained from the programme for this year’s festival here. There are also links to related podcasts here.

The first event (Thursday 7 January) was the live Zoom workshop The Clerkenwell Ballad Walk with singer Vivien Ellis and historian and London Blue Badge Guide Dafydd Wyn Phillips. An exploration of the streets and open spaces surrounding LSO St Luke’s and Clerkenwell’s colourful history was combined with some of the popular ballads selected by Vivien Ellis based on that local history. These included the 1689 tale of a cow who ran into a Clerkenwell church and a lament from 1616 of a woman about to burn at the stake for the murder of her husband. A podcast for The Clerkenwell Ballad Walk can be accessed here.

The following day’s events (Friday 8 January) started with a live Zoom demonstration of musical synthesizers with Robin Bigwood and Annabel Knight under the title of Truly, Madly, Moogly. This was a prelude to their Saturday evening concert with Art of Moog and showed the capabilities of the synthesizer, the Robert Moog electronic instrument made famous in the 1960s for its role in Wendy Carlos’s ‘Switched on Bach’. Surrounded by no less than six keyboards, Robin Bigwood explained the mind-boggling complexities of the Matriarch semi-modular analogue synthesizer, the Sequential Pro 3, and the more recent programmable Nord Wave 2 (the red one). The “not nerdy” Annabel Knight demonstrated the EWI 5000 Electronic Wind Instrument synthesiser, linked by MIDI to a mini version of a mini Moog.

The first of the festival concerts (Friday 8 January 7.30pm) was Danse Éternelle, given by the Scottish classical guitarist Sean Shibe, the first guitarist selected for the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme. Playing lute and guitar, he contrasted dance tunes from the 1600s with dance-based compositions by 20th-century French figures such as Satie, Poulenc and Ravel. Introducing the pieces, he noted an underlying theme of “sparseness and evaporation”. A sequence of pieces by Robert Ballard and Pierre Blondeau, played on a lute, led to two of Erik Satie’s well-known Gnossienne and the first Gymnopédie No 1 Guitar played on the guitar.

After Antonio José’s touching Pavana triste (which saw the first sense of power from the guitar) came a version of Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte and a medley of pieces from Scottish lute manuscripts found in aristocratic houses. The melancholic beautiful Scott’s tune concluded with a delightfully delicate final few bars. This was a perfect lockdown concert, reflective, intimate, relaxing and exquisitely musical.

The Young Artists Showcase (Saturday 9 January, 1pm) featured Eliza Haskins, recorder, and Toril Azzalini-Machecler, percussion. I first heard and reviewed Eliza Haskins in 2017 (here) when she was probably in her very early teens and the outstanding player in a small Purcell School concert. I was not surprised to see her a few years later in the finals of the 2020 BBC Young Musician competition. For this concert, she was joined by fellow 2020 BBC Young Musician, percussionist Toril Azzalini-Machecler, in an exploration of music from the 17th-century to the present day, including many of their own arrangements.

The imaginative use of a vibraphone and marimba as accompaniment gave a distinctive tonal character to the concert. The opening recorder solo, Jacob Van Eyck Nightingale, was followed by the four-movement Sonata notionally allocated to Signore Detri, although it might be a more recent parody piece. In Annette Ziegenmeyer’s Who’s Bar Three, Eliza Haskins used a recorder and an electronic Elody recorder. The repetitive patterns and figurations of Markus Zanhausen’s Minimal Music was built around a drone G. It was followed by Agnes Dorwarth’s Articulator, a virtuoso piece for 2 alto recorders and voice. A sequence of Medieval and Baroque music led to Pilgrim FusioN, the concluding lockdown arrangement by Haskins & Azzalini-Machecler of a piece by the folk rock band PerKelt. An excellent concert by two very talented young musicians.

The Saturday afternoon Zoom session was an illustrated talk and demonstration on Baroque Music as Speech given by Rachel Podger. In a link to her later concert, she explained how baroque composers used the ancient techniques of classical rhetoric to make their music talk.

Her fascinating talk, illustrated with violin snippets, shower how Baroque composers communicated emotions, as Geminianni put it, “to affect the mind and command the passions”. With references from Aristotle and Quintilian’s early references to rhetoric and oratory tp her own childhood experience at a Steiner school with its daily recitations of poetry, Rachel covered aspects such as Mattheson’s list of key characteristics, the differing moods of intervals (eg. chromatic, minor 6th) and harmonies, rhythmic devices and ornamentaion.

The first of two Saturday evening concerts was Conversations in Concert, featuring performance poet
Abena-Essah Bediako
responding spontaneously to the music played by Rachel Podger. Because of Covid-related issues, this was replanned from the original two-poet line-up, with theatre director and musician Thomas Guthrie stepping in at short notice to produce a film to bring to poet and violinist together.

The poems from Abena-Essah Bediako were filmed in what looked like St James’ Park with Rachael Podger filmed in LSO St Luke’s and, with the help of her younger daughter, on the snowy moors above her home. Thomas Guthrie cleverly found a way of preserving an improvised duet that Rachel and Abena had been intending to do if the concert had been live. The poem titles were Truth of the Akans, Purge and Singing Lessons, all beautifully evocative and well presented. They were contrasted with music by Bach (transcriptions for violin of movements from the Cello Sonatas), Biber’s Rosary Sonatas’ Passacaglia, Tartini and Matteis, played with Rachel Podger’s usual communicative style.

The second Saturday evening concert was given by Art of Moog (Robin Bigwood, synths, vocoder, Steven Devine, synths. Annabel Knight, EWI wind synth, and Martin Perkins, synths, vocoder). Under the title of Bach’s Friends Electric, they demonstrated just how well Bach’s music can stand up to the wildest possible interpretations. Using sounds based on those familiar from the 1960s and the original synth genius Wendy Carlos, they teased Bach’s music into an imaginative contemporary idiom.

The Bach pieces given the Art of Moog treatment included extracts from The Well-Tempered Clavier, an organ Sonata, two chorales from cantatas (with the distinctive sound of the vocoder), the Prélude from the first Cello Suite played on the solo EWI wind synthesiser and the opening of the Goldberg Variations, as well as a delightfully quirky take on the 14 Goldberg Canons which ran the full gamut of synth sounds, including some wonderful Pinky and Perky tinkles towards the end.

Sunday saw the final Zoom session and two concerts. The Zoom event was an illustrated talk, Like Minds, with the distinguished tenor Nicholas Mulroy investigating the cultural and political background to 1960s Latin-American song-writing and the links with the music of 17th-century Europe, as an introduction to his later concert. His background as a Spanish language student and related time spent as in Latin America had clearly made a lasting impression. His excellently presented Zoom (not least because he was looking directly at the camera, and therefore at us, rather than over our shoulders), introduced us to music that few would have known from the complex political world of 1960/70s Latin America. It was a fine prelude to the evening concert as well as a fascinating insight into the homes of several of the Zoom attendees who chose to keep their cameras on throughout the talk revealing, amongst other things, a far from camera-shy little lady.

The first of the two Sunday concerts was Cubaroque with tenor Nicholas Mulroy, Elizabeth Kenny, theorbo & guitar, and Toby Carr, guitar, and a comparison of Baroque songs of love, loss, religion and politics with some beautifully expressive and frequently touching recent Latin-American by singer-songwriters such as Silvio Rodríguez, Caetano Veloso, José Marín, and Tomás Méndez. Chilean Víctor Jara‘s Te recuerdo, Amanda was particularly moving – a story of two factory workers, Manuel & Amanda (the names of Jara’s parents), who meet at lunchtimes until the shattering moment when it is revealed that Manuel has left ‘for the mountains’, a reference to the Chilean ‘disappeared’. Jara himself was brutally killed shortly after the 1973 Pinochet military coup.

Nicholas Mulroy’s exquisitely sensitive voice was one of the highlights of the festival, as was the clever programming of the pieces. After Purcell’s Evening Hymn, we heard José Marín’s Ojos, pues me desdeñáis (Eyes that despise me, do not look at me) which segued into Monteverdi’s Tempro la cetra which uses the same bass progression. Tomás Méndez’s Cucurrucú paloma was particularly attractive, with its repeated Ay ay ay ay’s, and some wonderfully delicate high-register singing over a hypnotic accompaniment. Nicholas Mulroy described Silvio Rodríguez as “Cuba’s John Lennon”. His Unicornio (Yesterday I lost my blue unicorn) came from his 1982 album of the same name while his La Gaviota described a soldier returning from war as “A seagull passed by flying”. A wonderful reminder of the links between the music of all generations.

The final concert of the festival was perhaps, in part, the weakest, both musically and in its conception. Under the banner of FolkBaroque, the excellent soprano Lucy Crowe sang folk-based songs such as Danny Boy alongside Baroque classics like the gorgeous and subtly prophetic lullaby Nina nanna al bambino Gesú by Orazio Michi. Beautifully accompanied by Baroque specialists Joy Smith, Alex Rolton, Rosie Moon and Eligio Quinteiro (playing harp, cello, bass and theorbo), she concluded the concert, and the festival, with Purcell’s The Plaint and the traditional song ‘If I were a blackbird’.

The rest of the concert featured fiddle player Tom Moore and violinist Thomas Gould, the leader of the period-instrument group La Nuova Musica, who had provided the instrumentalists for this concert. He is described on their website as “one of Britain’s foremost interpreters of contemporary music”, and plays what might be a period violin, but in a modern set-up complete with chin and neck rests and a tuning aid. Although his playing of Antonio Bertali Ciaccona was technically impressive, I did wonder at the combination of modern and period instruments in the group. Fiddle player Tom Moore was excused such niceties as far as the choice of instrument was concerned, but his folk-tune contributions seemed rather underwhelming to my non-specialist ears. In general, there also seemed to be a lack of integration between the different musical styles represented.

The technical production of all the concerts (by Apple and Biscuit, filming, Pitch Black Lighting, and Alexander Barnes producer) was excellent. I liked the way that each concert video started with informal setting up and post-concert chat – a reminder of the reality of live concert life.

All six concerts are available to view until 31 March by buying a £55 Weekend Pass or at £10 per concert. Although the weekend’s live Zooms sessions are no longer available, their success has led to a continuation of Baroque at the Edge Zoom events with a series of live events every Saturday at 4pm.