London Festival of Baroque Music
‘Music for the Planet King’
La Grande Chapelle
St John’s, Smith Square, 12 May 2023
The London Festival of Baroque Music has been an annual fixture at St John’s, Smith Square for several decades, including its earlier time as the Lufthansa Festival. It is good that it has survived the Covid years and the changes at that venue, not least the takeover by the Southbank Sinfonia. Rather than the independent management team that has been behind the festival in the past, it now seems as though it is being run by the new team at St John’s, Smith Square itself. Perhaps inevitably, given the changes and the current situation in UK arts, there was a reduction in the events on offer for this year’s offering, but the programme did include some of the international contributions that have been a feature of the festival over the years.
Unfortunately, and a big difference to earlier festivals, the programme notes were minimalist, with a free handout that gave practically no information about the composers or the music, and listed all the titles of the pieces in Spanish, with no translations as to what the various genres represented. A separate (and paid-for) word booklet at least helped to follow the gist of the music, although, given the complexities of Spanish religious concepts, it was not always clear whether a piece was from an opera or was entirely sacred. But, if my very amateur translation skills are right, we heard two examples of Hidalgo’s zarzuelas, Quedito, pasito, from the zarzuela Ni amor se libra de amor, and Ay, cómo gime, from the zarzuela Los celos hacen estrellas.
The festival opened with La Grande Chapelle, a Spanish early music ensemble that explores Iberian vocal works of the 16th to 18th centuries, notably the polychoral repertoire of the Baroque, with the aim of promoting the recovery of that musical repertoire. Perhaps better known in the UK through the South American Iberian-influenced music, it was enlightening to hear Spanish music in its most vibrant and exciting original forms. Their programme focused on the music of the harpist and composer Juan Hidalgo de Polanco (1614-1685), a little-known composer nowadays, even in Spain. He was however an important figure in mid-18th century Spain where he was considered as the father of Spanish opera and the distinctive Spanish genre of Zarzuela, a dramatic masque-like genre incorporating speech, music and dance.
La Grande Chapelle opened with an instrumental version of the Pascalle de primer tono from Martin Y Coll’s keyboard collection Flores de Música. The first sequence of music by Hidalgo was, as far as I could make out, on a Christmas theme although the concluding piece, the dramatic recitative Rompa el aire en suspiros, was probably from a Zarzuela or opera. The instrumental piece that followed, Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz’s Jácaras, was from a genre usually sung and featured the first appearance of the castanets.
The second group of Hidalgo pieces opened with the love song Quedito, pasito, from the zarzuela Ni amor se libra de amor. It was followed by a secular duet Anarda divina, sung by the impressive soprano Jone Martinez and tenor Gabriel Belkheiri. Jone Martinez also excelled later in the gentle love song Ay, corazón amante! with her beautifully sensitive and expressive voice and excellent use of ornaments. A final group of Hildalgo music was of a more religious tone until the concluding Ay, cómo gime, tono from the zarzuela Los celos hacen estrellas.
Conductor Albert Recasens led the group well in this welcome introduction to a composer not previously known to me. Commendably, he stood aside for several of the smaller-scale pieces, something several other conductors could do more of. The other two singers were the powerfully voiced mezza Lucia Caihuela and countertenor Gabriel Diaz Cuesta, who spent much of the time in his tenor register. Of the four instrumentalists, percussionist Pere Olive deserves a mention, not least because of his somewhat restrained contributions.
Another difference from previous incarnations of the festival was that there was no spoken introduction to the event, or the festival, despite this being the opening concert. In fact, there was little if any mention of it being a festival at all. But despite that, there was an impressive audience, although there were few of the usual ‘early music’ audience that used to dominate the festival. One unwelcome aspect of the new SJSS regime was that on entry to the hall, a former church, we were greeted with a large video display screen on repeat-play plugs for a sponsor. Unbelievably this was kept running throughout the concert, a visual distraction to many in the horseshoe-shaped seating area. A similar distraction, to me at least, was the woman sitting next to me who kept her phone on the knee where it lit up every few minutes, leading her to respond to text messages during the music. Some people do not deserve music.