Schnitger Festival Groningen

Schnitger Festival Groningen
31 October – 5 November 2017

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Arp Schnitger is one of the most famous organ builders of all time. Working from around 1660 to 1719, most of his organs were built in North Germany and The Netherlands. For several decades, his instruments have been linked with the performance of Bach, although they were built within the North European organ tradition (centred on Hamburg and culminating in Buxtehude in Lübeck) rather than the Saxon and Thuringian organs of Central Germany that Bach was more familiar with. That said, Bach was certainly influenced by such instruments and the music composed for them, in his early life. Unlike many in the organ building world, then and now, Schnitger showed great respect for the work of his predecessors, and many of his organs retain pipework and cases going back to late mediaeval times. Around one-third of the surviving Schnitger organs are in the Netherlands, mostly in the Groningen province, and three in the city of Groningen, including the famous organs in the Aa-Kerk and the Martinikerk. A map of surviving Schnitger organs can be found here.

The Groningen Schnitger Festival is now in its fifth year. It is organised by the Groningen Orgelstad foundation, set up to strengthen and expand the range of organ activities in the city of Groningen. Usually taking place over a single weekend, this year’s six-day festival was special for a number of reasons, not least,  the opening of a new organ in the Lutherse Kerk (pictured below) based on the Schnitger organ that was built for the church in 1699. Schnitger gifted it to the church and community where he and his workforce attended when working in Groningen, as did his successors, including the organ builder Hinsz who is buried in the church. The original two-manual organ had a pedal division added in 1717, to Schnitger’s plans, and was further extended over time until it was replaced by a new organ around 1896. Since 2001 the tradition of cantata services was reintroduced into the Lutherse Kerk services, leading to the foundation (by church organist Tymen Jan Bronda) in 2006 of the period instrument Luthers Bach Ensemble and the wish for an organ suitable for use with Bach cantatas. The Swiss-based, but Groningen born organ builder Bernhardt Edskes was commissioned to build the new organ, based on the 1717 incarnation of the original Schnitger organ.

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Original documents of Schnitger’s 1699/1717 organ survive, and the new organ was based on that original organ, the only difference in the specification of the new organ is that it includes an 8′ rather than 4′ Praestant as the foundation stop of the principal manual. The original pitch of the organ was Kammerton, equating to present day a’ = 415Hz, the usually accepted pitch for Baroque German music. A novel addition to the instrument is a separate one manual continuo keyboard at the front of the organ gallery, controlling six of the stops from both divisions of the main organ through what is generally known as a ‘long action’.

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Tuesday 31 October
Opening concert of the new Lutherse Kerk organ
Luthers Bach Ensemble, Ton Koopman, Tymen Jan Bronda

This was an auspicious day for the opening of the new Lutherse Kerk organ. It was not only Reformation Day, but the day of the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door, as well as the 400th anniversary of the completion of church’s original Arp Schnitger organ, which the new organ replicates. After opening speeches (including one by ‘Bach’), and the handing over of a ceremonial tuning knife and key, Ton Koopman appeared, initially dressed in the same ‘Bach’ outfit, to conduct the Luthers Bach Ensemble in Bach’s cantata on the battle hymn of the Reformation Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80). It was performed in JS Bach’s rarely heard original form, without the trumpets and timpani added by his son. I couldn’t see the soloists from my seat, but I think it was Stefanie True who sang the aria Komm in mein Herzen Haus. 

Lutherse Kerk organist Tymen Jan Bronda then played Bach’s organ version of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D (RV 208). It was a curious piece to choose for the first solo organ piece on the new organ. Its tricky extended cadenza-like passages were a real test of the player and the organ’s action. More effective, and certainly more suited to the organ, was Weckmann’s 3-verse Ach wir armen Sünder and Buxtehude’s multi-sectional Toccata in d (BuxWV 153), both very well played by Bronda. The Buxtehude came after Ton Koopman’s performance of Haydn’s Organ Concerto in C (H.XVIII:1), played from the smaller ‘continuo’ keyboard in the conducting position on the organ gallery. Although of no obvious relevance to the Schnitger organ, Haydn’s jovial three-movement piece suited Ton Koopman’s flamboyant style of organ playing, with his frequent additions to the text. The concert finished with Bach’s double choir motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225), here performed with the instruments doubled the vocal parts. An impressive, if a rather eclectic introduction to the flexibility of the new organ. Later in the evening, a Memorial Cantata Service celebrated the Reformation anniversary, repeating the earlier Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott cantata.

Wednesday 1 November
Lunchtime recital: organ and trumpet
Tymen Jan Bronda & Dave Hendry
Lutherse Kerk

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The organ as a solo instrument was more to the fore in the Wednesday lunchtime concert of music for organ and trumpet. Particularly effective organ solos were Scheidemann’s intabulation on Bassano’s motet Dic nobis Maria (a rare survival of one of the essential skills of a German organist in the 16th and 17th centuries) and Buxtehude’s multisection Magnificat 1. Toni, where the reeds on the new organ were heard to good effect. After the well-known opening Te Deum by Charpentier, David Henry played Bach’s Wohl mir das ich Jesum habe (Jesu joy etc) on an unusual (at least to me) type of slide trumpet, where the slide was at the back (the player’s end) of the trumpet. I think these are sometimes known as Zug trumpets, and are partially related to the Purcellian Flatt trumpet.

Berry van Berkum
improvised accompaniment to Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod
Der Aa-kerk

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The Aa-kerk in Groningen houses one of the two famous Schnitger organs. The name of the church comes from its original title of Onze Lieve Vrouwe ter Aa (‘Our Lady at the Aa’, the name of the nearby river). Arp Schnitger built an organ for the church in 1695, but it was destroyed in 1710 when the church tower collapsed. An earlier Van Hagerbeer organ was built in 1667 but only lasted 4 years before being destroyed by fire. The current organ was built in 1702 for the Academiekerk (Broerekerk) in Groningen using some pipework from the previous 1679 instrument. After some work by A A Hinsz in the later 18th century, the organ was moved to the Aa-Kerk in 1815, the church remaining organless in the intervening century. After a complicated history of reconstructions and additions, it was restored back to an earlier historic period in 2011, but not that of the 1702 organ. There is a small organ dating from 1550 (also transferred in from elsewhere) on a side gallery. The building is no longer used as a church but is a venue for concerts and other events.

Berry van Berkum improvised an organ accompaniment to Fritz Lang’s 1921 film Der Müde Tod (Destiny). The film tells the story of a woman’s quest to be reunited with her dead lover by means of a series of tests initiated by Death. These take place in a Caliph’s palace during Ramadan, during the carnival in Venice (a sequence that, for the film’s date, included a rather surprising glimpse of a naked female breast), and in the court of a Chinese emperor. Berkum’s accompaniment used a wide range of musical textures and relied on creating a background aural atmosphere, rather than reflecting any of the actions on the screen, even such obvious ones as the sound of the watchman’s horn, the striking of a clock or a drunkard stumbling downstairs. Until the last few minutes, the volume was sensibly kept down, making the final moments all the more dramatic.

Thursday 2 November
‘Van Buxtehude tot Bach’
Nederlandse Bachvereniging
Jos van Veldhoven, Leo van Doeselaar
Lutherse Kerk

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The Nederlandse Bachvereniging was founded in 1921 to introduce less romantic renderings of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. They have since become well-known for their All of Bach website, uploading a recording of a Bach work every week. For their Lutherse Kerk concert, they highlighted the importance of the church organ to Bach as well as his influences. They opened with one of Bach’s most dramatic cantata Sinfonias, to Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, with its prominent organ solo part – and organ concerto in all but name. As with the later Sinfonia to Wir müssen durch viel, Leo van Doeselaar, the titular organist of the Martinikerk Schnitger organ, displayed an excellent sense of the rhythmic energy of Bach’s writing as well as a sure grasp of the ornamentation and articulation needed to project the often complex musical lines.

Bach predecessor as Leipzig Cantor was Johann Kuhnau. He is usually overshadowed by Bach, so it was good to hear his Gott sei mir gnädig, the slurred string notes of the opening creating an emotive mood. the five-part string texture adds to the intensity of the piece. It was followed by the Bach’s extraordinary chorale prelude Vater unser in Mimmelreich from the Clavier-Übung III. This is one of the hardest of all Bach’s organ pieces to play – and, perhaps, to listen to. Its dense five-part texture starts in trio sonata form, with rhythmically complex melodic lines, before the chorale theme is introduced as a two-part canon, each hand having to play the theme as well as the flowing trio lines. Leo van Doeselaar’s performance was exemplary, as was his choice of registration, contrasting the Dulciaan and Sexquialter stops.

Bach’s sensuous Vergnügte Ruh followedagain with distinctive organ contributions, hear revealing the tension of the organ’s tempered tuning. Countertenor Alex Potter grasped the emotive depth of the piece beautifully.  Two other Bach Sinfonias opened the second half, before the concluding Nimm von uns Herr by Buxtehude, the Lübeck organist that the young Bach famously walked 200 miles to hear. Based on the Vater unser melody heard earlier, its richly textured orchestration well-controlled by conductor Jos van Veldhoven.

Friday 3 November
Schnitger Field Trip – Noordbroek & Godlinze
Sietze de Vries

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This tour of two of the many Schnitger organs in the vicinity of Groningan was arranged by the festival in conjunction with the Stichting Oude Groninger Kerken. It was led by the distinguished organ improviser Sietze de Vries (organist of the Groningen Martinikerk  and Artistic Director of the Groningen Organ Education Centre, standing in for the indisposed Peter van der Zwaag), who introduced both of the instruments before demonstrating with extraordinarily skilful improvisations broadly in the style of Bach and the earlier North German organ composers, whose music he has clearly taken to his heart. The Noordbroek organ was built by Schnitger in 1696 and worked on by his son Johann Jürgen Schnitger, Hinsz, and Freytag (in 1809) before van Oeckelen moved it away from its Baroque roots in 1855. Over the past 50 years, it has been restored back to its 1809 specification and is now one of the finest examples of the Schnitger school organ style, albeit with about half of the stops being by Hinsz or Freytag.

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After talking about the history of the organ, Sietze de Vries (pictured above) improvised for around 25 minutes, in a range of quasi-Baroque musical styles, exploring the rich colours of the organ (Six of the 24 stops are reeds) and the shimmering Schnitger choruses, ending with a spectacular multi-sectional chorale fantasia on Ein feste Burg. The Romano-Gothic brick-built church includes some fine ceiling murals dating, I would think, from the late 15th century.

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The Pancratius church in Godlinze is a much smaller, but similarly highly decorated church, with a one-manual 1704 Schnitger organ. It originally had two manuals, with an Unterwerk (reflected in the double-decker case front) but was changed to one manual in 1785 by Hinsz. 1919 alterations were removed in a 1985 restoration back to its 1785 specification. The current specification, together with links to its earlier specifications and other details, can be found here.

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After a detailed demonstration of the various stops of the organ, Sietze de Vries improvised a brilliant set of variations on Vater unser in the style generally closer to the Sweelinck-inspired Hamburg organists of the early to mid 17th century. Some of the stops of the organ and an example of the ceiling paintings are pictured below. The tour ended back in the Lutherse Kerk where Bernhardt Edskes, the builder of the new organ, gave a talk on the construction of the new Schnitger organ.

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Orgelprobe: Commissioned by the Dom in Hamburg
Sietze de Vries
Lutherse Kerk

Despite having stood-in to spend all day talking about and playing the organs on the day tour, Sietze de Vries then gave an early evening concert on the new Lutherse Kerk organ. In his 1719 Exemplarische Organisten Probe published in 1731 in his Grosse General-Baß-Schule, Johann Mattheson (the Hamburg diplomat, music theorist, composer and, very nearly, the murderer, but later, friend, of Handel) described the terms and conditions that the Hamburg Cathedral Council set for the audition of prospective applicants for the post of Cathedral organist, where Mattheson was Kantor and a Canon. Candidates had to improvise a sequence of the pieces that they would need for the cathedral services. Mattheson’s account stands alongside the famous 1655 report of Matthias Weckmann’s audition at Hamburg’s St Jacobi church.

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Sietze de Vries recreated that Orgelprobe on the new Schnitger organ, starting with a Prelude and a grand Fugue followed by a 20 minute set of variations on the Advent chorale Nun freut euch, in a style that suggested influences from Bach, Böhm, Walther and Krebs.  He followed this with an improvisation on Purcell’s Evening Hymn with its distinctively English ‘false relations’, reflecting the task of accompaniment a singer. He concluded with a powerful Toccata, opening with a distinctive 17th-century style North German pedal solo, followed by channelling of Buxtehude and Bruhns, before concluding with a chaconne based on the bass of  Purcell’s Evening Hymn – a wonderful, and skilful, combination of disparate musical styles. As an encore, he moved to the small continuo console for a delicate prelude on Nun danket, with some added Purcellian false relations. An excellent demonstration of organ improvisation and playing.

Organ Night with five organists & two organs
Der Aa-kerk & Martinikerk

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The evening event took place in the Aa-Kerk and Martinikerk and featured, as the title suggests, five organists, playing very different short programmes. It started on the 1702 Schnitger organ in Der Aa-kerk, an organ containing much pipework from well after Schnitger’s time. Stephan van de Wijgert played Mendelssohn (Prelude and Fugue in E minor) and Schubert – a clever arrangement of the four-hand piano Fantasie in F minor, D940, with its delightfully melodic opening motif.  Geerten Liefting improvised a Prelude and Fugue and a minimalist interpretation of Vater unser. A street barrel-organ greeted us as we left the Aa-kerk for a walk that Schnitger must have been very familiar with, through the expanse of the Vischmarkt (pictured) and across the Grote Markt to the Martinikerk and the first sight during the festival of the world-famous 1691 Schnitger organ.

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The Martinikerk organ was first built in 1482 by Johan ten Damme (replacing an earlier organ), with advice from the famous humanist scholar Rudolf Agricola, then Groningen’s town clerk. The current instrument still contains pipework from this 1482 organ. The organ was enlarged in Renaissance style in 1542 and further rebuilt by Anthoni Verbeeck in 1627/8, Jan Helman in 1685-90, Arp Schnitger in 1691/2, Frans Caspar Schnitger and Albertus Anthoni Hinsz in 1729/30 and by Hinsz in 1740. Nineteenth and early 20th-century additions have generally been removed in the current organ, restored by Ahrens between 1974/84 back to the 1740 position. It now has three manuals and 53 stops. Schnitger’s work including building the massive pedal towers on either side of the original Gothic, containing a rare example of a 32′ Prestant, while Hinsz later added the Rückpositive.

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Peter van der Zwaag played music from Spain, Italy, France, and England from the later Renaissance and early Baroque period, concluding with a performance of William Byrd’s massive Seconde Grownde that build to an enormous climax on a 16′ plenum with pedal reeds – a sound that Byrd would never have experienced, the English organs of his time being around two-thirds of the size of the smallest of the Martinikerk’s 3 manuals. Wouter Koelewijn played music by Huge Distler, a representative of the rather spiky neo-baroque school of 20th-century organ composition. He concluded with the four-movement Partita on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. As the clock moved toward 11pm, the final player was Gonny van der Maten, playing Bach, including Schmucke dich and the majestic Praeludium et Fuga in C minor (BWV 546), given a particularly powerful performance on full pleno throughout.

Saturday 4 November
Masterclass with Stef Tuinstra
Martinikerk

Stef Tuinstra founded the Noord-Nederlandse Orgel Academie (NNOA), and arranges many organ activities in the Groningen province. He is organist of the Nieuwe Kerk and Martinikerk in Groningen. This masterclass was given in conjunction with the Prins Claus Conservatorium. The first few student performers played Bruhns and Bach but, as the comments were, not surprisingly, in Dutch I had trouble following Tuinstra’s advice. Helpfully, a Spanish student followed, resulting in an English commentary. Her impressive performance of Bruhn’s large-scale multi-sectional E minor Praeludium was followed by equally impressive comments from Stef Tuinstra on the piece and the performance, starting with the question “Why play without shoes?”. Describing it as a ‘theatre piece’ Tuinstra stressed the varying moods of the piece, ranging from pathos to anger, and encouraged a performance that engaged all the player’s emotions. His impressively detailed accompanying handout mentioned the ‘orchestral’ style of organ performance mentioned amongst others, by Michael Praetorius in 1619. He also noted the importance of thinking like a singer when looking at musical structure and phrases.

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His comments on registration were particularly apposite, for example, suggesting that the expansive first fugue is played on the 8′ Principal stop alone, rather than a fuller, reedy sound, in order to reflect the sadness and suffering inherent in the mood of that section. He advised against using pedal mixtures when the higher overtones would confuse the polyphony of the upper voices, and stressed the need to give the massive 32′ pedal flue pipes time to speak. He also advised again spreading chords, harpsichord style, on the organ.

Lunchtime Concert for organ and baroque violin
Reitze Smits, organ & Mariëtte Holtrop, violin
Lutherse Kerk 

Back at the Lutherse Kerk, a lunchtime concert explored the combination of organ and violin in works by Bach, Bonporti, and Vivaldi. It opened with Bach’s flamboyant early Preludium in G (BWV 568), to which Reitze Smits added spread chords, harpsichord style. There followed four arrangements from cantata arias, including Kommst du nun von Himmel herunter also arranged by Bach as one of the Schubler Chorales. The organ as continuo accompanying instrument was evident in Bonporti’s Invenzio Quarta, a piece I didn’t know. The final piece was an organ solo, Bach’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D (BWV 596), the absence of the specified 32′ pedal stop notwithstanding. The dying sounds of the Finale were accompanied by the sound of a mobile phone.

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Organ and baroque orchestra
Ensemble Cordevento
Erik Bosgraaf, recorder, 
Matthias Havinga, organ
Lutherse Kerk

A mid-afternoon concert combined the organ with the Baroque orchestra Ensemble Cordevento and the recorder player Erik Bosgraaf, with Matthias Havinga playing the organ. The five members of Ensemble Cordevento played with light and delicate textures, although this meant that there were times when the recorder dominated. This was most notable when heard against the organ in an arrangement of Bach’s organ Trio Sonata V, when the notion of the three equal parts was occasionally turned into a flute solo with accompaniment. It had been preceded by Bach’s curious, incomplete, and rarely heard, Pedal Excercitium (BWV 598), hear extended by about 50% by a cadenza.

The highlight of the concert was the first performance of Mixtures, a 16′ long work commissioned by the festival from the South Korean composer Seung-Won Oh, now living in Chicago, but present for this premiere. Dense chord clusters and orchestral sound-worlds, of varying volumes and intensities, were interspersed with recorder recitatives and interventions and cadenza-like passages from the organ in a kaleidoscope of aural colour and texture. Gentler moments of repose balanced the sometimes frenetic activity, the whole creating a very evocative and ethereal sense of otherworldliness and mystery. As with many first performances of new works, it would have been good to have heard the work twice, towards the start and at the end.

Zangavond met Lutherliederen
Tymen Jan Bronda
Lutherse Kerk

During the first part of the evening, members of the Lutherse Kerk joined the organist Tymen Jan Bronda and the church choir to sing a range of Lutheran chorales with the new organ. Historically, this was the principal use for the organ in the Lutheran service, despite the importance of solo organ music in the service, and the enormous repertoire of solo organ pieces that were created.

Pop concert by Orgel Vreten
Der Aa-kerk

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Keen to avoid leaving anybody out of the Festival fun, the Aa-kerk was taken over by the pop group Orgel Vreten. Their performance was built around two Hammond organs and a third keyboard together with percussion, bass guitar and the group’s ‘character’ who played a variety of instruments including an enormous euphonium. They even managed a brief moment on the Aa-kerk’s Schnitger organ, treating it with a great deal more respect than they had shown to their own Hammond organs, who were frequently stood on and climbed over. The enthusiastic audience ranged from aged about 8 upwards and included many people who had been at the more conventional organ events of the week. It is a little out of my usual reviewing remit, so I have no idea how to categorise their music, although I have seen it referred to as ‘space rock’. It all seemed to be their own compositions and was certainly great fun. Rather against my original assumptions, I stayed until the end.

Sunday 5 November
Cantatedienst – Municipal Musical Morning Service 
Ensemble Ars Cantandi, Bremer Barockorkest, Markus Nitt
Organist: Stef Tuinstra
Martinikerk

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The Martinikerk was packed for a special Sunday ecumenical service initiated by the Lutheran Congregation, the United Protestant Church, the Arminian church and the Student Platform for Philosophy and Belief. The cantata during the service was Bach’s Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126), appropriate for the Luther anniversary as he wrote some of the text himself. The German Ensemble Ars Cantandi combined with the Bremer Barockorkest to perform from the back of the church, beneath the Schnitger organ, but using one of the ubiquitous little box chamber organs as continuo rather than the main organ. There was fine singing from tenor Max Ciolek and bass Carsten Krüger (supported by his three young children), both of whom had tricky arias to sing. As well as the main collection, for missionary work, there was a retiring collection for the music, with a suggested donation of €10 per person.

The Schnitger organ was heard to great effect accompanying the singing of the chorales, and in Stef Tuinstra’s impressive improvised chorale preludes. Unlike the English tradition of playing pre-composed four-part harmony for accompanying hymns, the German and Dutch Lutheran tradition is for the organist to be only given the melody, improvising the harmonies below, often varying them for each verse. All but one of the chorale preludes were in the quasi-baroque style, but it was good to hear one that ventured into a more contemporary musical idiom.

Closing Concert
“A present for all townsfolk and festival goers” 

Bernard Foccroulle, organ, & Ensemble Inalto
Martinikerk

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The final concert of the Schnitger Festival 2017 was a free event in the Martinikerk given by the Belgian organist Bernard Foccroulle and the Ensemble Inalto of cornetts and sackbutts, playing from the organ gallery. The programme spanned the 100 years gap between Samuel Scheidt (b1587) & Schein (b1586) and Bach (b1685) with the 50-year interval filled by Buxtehude (b1637). The latter two composers were represented by large-scale organ works – Bach with the Praeludium en Fuge in E flat that opens and closes the Clavier-Übung III (BWV 552), and the Passacaglia, both using the immense power of the full organ throughout. The Martinikerk organ has one of those choruses that you can listen to for hours without tiring of the sound of the mixtures – they coalesce with the principal chorus to produce a magnificently unified sound. Buxtehude’s joyous Toccata in F was given a particularly impressive interpretation, using the different divisions of the organ, and with the reeds dominating in the first fugal section.  The cornetts and sackbutts joined the organ for the 5th verse of Scheidt’s Veni Redemptor Gentium, after the 1st verse had been played as an organ solo. In several of the other pieces, the organ acted as continuo to the five instruments. I was particularly impressed with the playing of Ensemble Inalto. Their performance of the gentle Sonata a 4 by Störl by exquisite.

And so finished the fifth Groningen Schnitger Festival – a special one that leaves the city with its fourth ‘Schnitger’ organ, one specifically suited to the performance and accompaniment of the music of Bach with the resident Luthers Bach Ensemble.

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Royal Greenwich International Early Music Festival

Royal Greenwich International Early Music Festival
Blackheath, 9 November 2017

The grandly monikered Royal Greenwich International Early Music Festival continues its recent flirtation with the more elevated, but not so Royal, Blackheath. Alongside their musical instrument exhibition in Blackheath Halls, a range of concerts and makers’ demonstrations takes place in local churches. I visited on the first day of the weekend festival, starting with a new innovation for the festival: Performance Platforms. These were held in a tiny Quaker Meeting House, too small to accommodate the audience, and with extremely unhelpful acoustics for performers and audience. My invitation to review described these afternoon events as “a platform for predominantly younger musicians to showcase their ability to a discerning audience”. I can’t comment on the audience, but the first of the two events certainly fitted the younger musicians descriptions.

Performers Platform: Purcell School Baroque Ensemble

The Purcell School is one of the principal specialist music schools in the UK. Located in Bushey, it caters for day and residential pupils from the age of 9 to 18 and nurtures some very talented young musicians, as was evident in this short concert. They opened, appropriately, with Purcell and three extracts from Abdelazer, including the Rondeau that Britten made famous. Their guest leader encouraged a rather inappropriate focus on gusto and power, rather than musical sensitivity and delicacy. To balance that, there followed a fine demonstration of musical sensitivity, and the outstanding talent of these fledgeling musicians, with Eliza Haskins’ outstanding performance of two movements of Vivaldi’s Concerto for recorder (RV 442). Eliza Haskins demonstrated a clear understanding of Baroque ornamentation in the Largo and real virtuosity (and an impressive grasp of articulation) in the Allegro Molto. I also liked the way she interacted with her fellow instrumentalists, making her interpretive intentions clear. Unfortunately, the programme note only included the first part of her name, so the audience will not be able to follow what is likely to be a promising future career. A tiny video clip of Eliza Haskins (pictured) playing the Vivaldi can be found here.

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Ein neues Lied: Martin Luther and music

Ein neues Lied: Martin Luther and music
Renaissance Singers, Gawain Glenton
St George’s Bloomsbury
29 October 2017

The Renaissance Singers were founded in 1944. They played an important part in the revival of interest in Renaissance sacred polyphony as the early music movement grew and developed. They continue under the musical direction of David Allinson. For this exploration of the music of Martin Luther and the early Lutheran Church, they were directed by Gawain Glenton. The anniversary of the founding of Lutherism was just a few days away from this concert (on 31 October), so it was a timely reminder of theimportance of music to Luther.  Continue reading

HMSC @ 35: Lions of St Mark

Lions of St Mark
His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts
35th-anniversary concert
St John’s, Smith Square
27 October 2017

His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts (named after a reference in Matthew Locke’s music for Charles II’s 1661 coronation) celebrated their 35th anniversary in style with an impressive concert in St John’s, Smith Square, a few yards from the site of Charles II’s coronation and a short walk from the site of their debut concert in St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. It says something for their early promise, and the recording industry of the early 1980s, that they were offered a recording contract during the interval of that concert. Times have changed in the recording world, but HMSC continue to reinforce their reputation as pioneers of period instrument and performance practice. Two of the original members were playing (Jeremy West and Stephen Saunders), and several more were in the audience. They have replenished themselves over the years, and now include one player who is younger than the group. They also brought in two recently graduated sackbutt players for the 8 and 10-part works that concluded each half.

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Rodelinda

Handel: Rodelinda
English National Opera
The Coliseum. 26 October 2017

I avoid checking back on my past reviews before going to an opera revival, but will sometimes do so after the event to see if my views have changed. In the case of this revival of Richard Jones’ production of Handel’s Rodelinda, they haven’t. A very popular production at the time, and gaining enthusiastic applause from the opening night of the revival, this left me less than inspired, with a few specific exceptions.

To start with the positive exceptions, I cannot praise the ENO orchestra high enough for their absorption of period style in recent years, despite remaining a modern instrument band. It has been a long road, aided by the influence of a series of inspirational conductors, the most recent being the excellent Christian Curnyn (who also conducted the first run in 2014). He is the current ENO go-to conductor for Handel, succeeding Laurence Cummings who did so much to start the ENO period performance revival. The orchestra played with stylistic conviction, and Christian Curnyn continued to confirm his reputation as a leading interpreter of Handel – his control of the pacing was exemplary. Continue reading

Baroque Voices at The Music Room

Baroque Voices at The Music Room
Rachel Ambrose Evans, Joy Smith
The Music Room, 26 October 2017

One of the most rewarding aspects of this reviewing lark has been spotting talented young musicians in the early stages of their musical careers. There are several well-known singers who I first noticed singing in choirs, and many instrumentalists who I first heard in their student days. One such singer is the soprano Rachel Ambrose Evans, who I first noticed after a tiny step-out-from-the-choir role in a Proms concert and, shortly afterwards, as a chorus fairy in a production of the Fairy Queen, noticing on both occasions what I consider to be an ideal ‘early music’ voice. That early music voice was very apparent in Rachel’s concert with harpist Joy Smith in The Music Room, hidden away above an antique emporium close to London’s Oxford Street, and until now used as an exhibition and events space. It was part of a new series of lunchtime concerts. Continue reading

AAM: Italy in England

Italy in England: When Handel met Corelli
Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Čičić, Frank de Bruine,
Milton Court. 19 October 2017

Corelli Concerto Grosso in D major Op. 6 No. 4
Handel Concerto for Oboe No. 3 in G minor
Geminiani Concerto Grosso Op. 5 No. 3 (after Corelli)
GB Sammartini Sinfonia in G major
Avison Concerto Grosso in D minor No 3 ‘The garden of harmony’ (after Scarlatti)
G Sammartini Concerto for Oboe in E flat major
Handel Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 5

Aided by some excellent programme notes by Lindsay Kemp, we were led gently through an exploration of the influence of Italian musicians, notably Corelli, on performers and composers in England during the 18th century, many of whom were themselves, immigrants. The opening Corelli Concerto Grosso demonstrated the influence of the concerto grosso form. The opening Adagio is written in the score as nine simple chords, but Bojan Čičić’s beautifully elegant violin flourishes turned it into a complete musical experience and demonstrated the importance of ornamentation in music of this period. Directing the Academy of Ancient Music from the leader’s position Čičić demonstrated his extraordinary musicianship, the delicacy of his violin tone always blending with the orchestral timbre, even when in a clear solo role – a very welcome change from violinist directors whose sound dominated their companions. As a director, his sense of timing and the cooperative way he worked with his companions were an inspiration. An example was the timing of the final ‘that’s it folks’ cadence of the opening Concerto grosso – a lovely moment after a frenetic movement where all the players seemed to be bowing as fast as they possibly could.  Continue reading

OAE: Semele

Handel: Semele
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Christophe Rousset
Royal Festival Hall, 18 October 2017

Handel’s Semele is a curious work. Described at the time as a “musical drama . . . after the manner of an oratorio”, it is positioned rather awkwardly between opera and oratorio. It was first performed in concert format during the 1744 Lenten oratorio season, the decidedly secular story causing an inevitable shock to those expecting a piously biblical seasonal oratorio. Nowadays it is usually performed as a fully staged opera, but this dramatically performed concert performance gave us a chance to absorb the music, without interference from a director. Despite fairly obviously moralistic undertones, the story is about as far from the biblical oratorio as you can get. Continue reading

Boxwood & Brass

Discovering Harmoniemusik
Boxwood & Brass
The Arts Club, Waterloo. 18 October 2017

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In a dual exercise of launching their 2017/18 programmes combined with trying out a possible venue for small-scale musical events, the innovative wind-music group Boxwood & Brass held a ‘Harmoniemusik Discover Evening’ in the 1901 Arts Club (in the fascinating hinterland of Waterloo station), a former schoolmasters house now converted to an events venue in the style of a late 19th century saloon. The six members of Boxwood & Brass played music by Mozart and Beethoven, starting with their own arrangement of the opening Allegro of Mozart’s 1782 Serenade in C minor (K.388, aka Nacht Musique), the two original oboe parts redistributed amongst the pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons of their evening’s line-up. Mozart had made his own arrangement, for string quintet. This curious work is some way from the usual style of a Serenade, being far more musically intense and written in a minor key. In the intimate space, the complexity of the writing was prominent, as was the distinctive colour of the Harmoniemusik instruments.  Continue reading

Dunedin: Vespers 1610

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
Dunedin Consort, His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts, John Butt
Linn Records. CKD 569. 2CDs 94′

During this 450th anniversary year of Monteverdi’s birth, there have been a plethora of performances and recordings of his 1610 Vespro della Beata Vergine. It’s not an easy work to address, not least because of the many complex musicological and performance issues that surround it.

The first point of call for anybody remotely interested in such things is to read the programme notes. The second is to glance at the track list. If it has more than 12 separate items, then it is probably placed in a quasi-liturgical, and almost certainly spurious, setting, with additional plainchant and instrumental pieces intended to represent how it might if it were performed liturgical. But it is most unlikely ever to have been thus performed.  Scholarship changes almost daily, but it seems likely that this is Monteverdi showing what he is capable of, exploring differing style of music on the cusp of the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque (the prima pratica to the seconda praticca), and possibly (rather like Bach’s B Minor Mass) as a calling card; in Monteverdi’s case, for potential posts in Venice and Rome.  Continue reading

Classical Opera @ 20

Classical Opera 20th Birthday Concert
Orchestra and Choir of The Mozartists, Ian Page
The Barbican. 9 October 2017

Classical Opera was founded in 1997 and has carved out an important place in the musical world for its exploration of music of the classical era, in particular, Mozart. He is the inspiration for their ambitious Mozart 250 project, a chronological exploration of Mozart’s life, works and influences that each year will explore the music of Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. Now joined by a companion branding as The Mozartists, their name for increasing concert, rather than opera work, they celebrated their 20th birthday with a spectacular concert in London’s Barbican. The opening sequence of pieces, interspersed with reading, focussed on themes of “birth and rebirth, compassion and forgiveness, human inspiration and . . . what Beethoven and Schiller called brotherhood”.  Continue reading

Rameau: Dardanus

Rameau: Dardanus
English Touring Opera, The Old Street Band, Jonathan Williams
Hackney Empire, 6 October 2017

I have been a little lukewarm about some previous English Touring Opera productions, but this staging of Rameau’s Dardanus ticked all the boxes. The first box tick comes for performing this work in the first place, an example of the adventurous approach to programming of the English Touring Opera and their first venture into the complex world of French Baroque opera. It formed part of their Hackney Empire opening to their autumn tour of the country, with Dardanus visiting Oxford, Buxton, Snape, Saffron Walden and Exeter. Its companion opera, Handel’s Giulio Cesare has a much larger tour, calling additionally at Portsmouth, Norwich, Durham, Bath, Keswick, and Great Malvern. Giulio Cesare, rather curiously, divided into two separate and overlapping, parts, under the titles of The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, with the last half hour of the first repeated at the start of the second, to the chagrin of some reviewers. Continue reading

Festival d’Ambronay

Festival d’Ambronay
28 September to 1 October 2017

Since 1980, when it was founded, the Ambronay Festival has been a key part of the early music world. In recent years, the activities of the Ambronay Cultural Encounter Centre (based in the former Abbey buildings adjoining the magnificent Romanesque Abbey church) have expanded, and now includes impressive provision for young musicians. For the past couple of years, Ambronay has been part of the European Union supported eeemerging project (Emerging European Ensembles), an EU-wide cooperation project dedicated to the selection, training and promotion of young early music ensembles. The last of the four long weekends of the annual Ambronay Festival (which runs annually from mid-September to early October) is devoted to these eeemerging ensembles, but several of them also performed in the previous three weekends of the Festival. The theme for this year’s Festival was ‘Vibrations: Souffle’, roughly translating as Vibrations: Breathing, part of a triptych of festivals under the same Vibrations theme.

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I attended the penultimate weekend of the Festival, from Thursday 28 September to Sunday 1 October 2017. The first two day’s concerts took place in Lyon, about 60km south-west of Ambronay.
Continue reading

Organ Reframed: Six New Works

Organ Reframed: Six New Works
London Contemporary Orchestra, James McVinnie

Union Chapel, Islington. 13 October 2017

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Organ recitals, at least of the traditional English sort, tend to attract relatively small, rather aged, and predominantly male audiences. They usually feature music written between the time of Bach and the early 20th century. Occasionally forays into more contemporary (or contemporary sounding) music – even Messiaen, most of whose organ music was composed more than 70 years ago, can frighten off audiences. But the weekend Organ Reframed festival at the spectacular Union Chapel in Islington demonstrated that both organ and contemporary music can have a huge following, if presented in an imaginative way. Continue reading

Sally Beamish: The Judas Passion

Sally Beamish: The Judas Passion
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan
St John’s, Smith Square, 25 September 2017

One of many puzzles that leap from the pages of the Bible is the curious position of Judas Iscariot in the wider scheme of things. The synoptic gospels do not agree on his role or the story of his apparent ‘betrayal’ of Jesus: actually, a literal ‘handing-over’ or ‘delivery’ of Jesus if the word paradidomi is more correctly translated. Two of the gospels suggest that the ‘devil’ entered him, something that Jesus had already proved adept at dealing with by a bit of casting out. Why didn’t he do so on this occasion? And if, as seems likely, Jesus foresaw, and may have actively encouraged Judas’s paradidomi, then it was not an act of free will and should not be punishable, let alone seen as the ultimate betrayal for which the ‘loving and forgiving God’ has left the hapless Judas to be almost alone among the irrevocably damned, notwithstanding his clear remorse. And if preordained, why the personal condemnation of the man who fulfils the prophecy – “It would be better for that man if he had never been born”? It was one of many New Testament events that were, apparently, preordained in the Old Testament, the juggling of which has caused many problems of Christian interpretation.

IMG_20170925_164831117.jpgEdward Armitage: The Remorse of Judas, 1866. Tate Britain

Continue reading

Enescu: Oedipe

Georga Enescu: Oedipe
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski
Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic, Romanian Radio Children’s Choir
Royal Festival Hall, 23 September 2017

A pupil of Faure and a teacher of Yehudi Menuhin, the Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu occupied a key, but usually overlooked, position in the musical world of the first half of the last century, a time of musical experimentation that he, by and large, avoided. Oedipe was his only opera and has been largely forgotten since its first performance in 1936 in Paris. It took him around 2o years to write. According to Menuhin, he kept the score by his bed so that he could jot down ideas easily.

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Unusually amongst the many tellings of the Oedipus myth, Enescu covers the whole of Oedipus’s life, from birth to apparent death. Edmond Fleg’s libretto (much reduced from his original version, which would have entailed an opera spanning two evenings) draws on Oedipus Rex for Act 3 and uses part of the plot of Oedipus at Colonus for Act 4.  Continue reading

Da Camera & Carolyn Sampson

Telemann, Bach, & Scarlatti
Da Camera with Carolyn Sampson
Kings Place. 20 September 2017

I reviewed Da Camera’s very first concert, in March 1999 at Hampstead’s Burgh House, noting that “Emma Murphy is a superb recorder player … she combines outstanding virtuosity with musical intelligence and sensitivity”, and that harpsichordist Steven Devine was (amongst other things) “clearly blessed with enviable technical skills”. In 2001, I commented on their “well-balanced programme, a friendly and informal stage manner, fine musicianship and superb playing” – a comment that they quoted in the programme for this Kings Place concert. In a later review, I praised Susanna Pell for producing a “wide range of tones and textures from her gamba, both in accompanying and in solo pieces”. Since those early days, they have each developed their own independent careers (and, indeed, families), but have now returned to the musical fray with a series of concerts and a new Telemann CD. Continue reading

BBC Proms: La Clemenza

Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
BBC Prom 59. Royal Albert Hall. 28 August 2017
 

The tradition of bringing one of the season’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera productions to the Proms continued this year with their version of Mozart’s often overlooked opera La Clemenza di Tito. Although I didn’t see the fully staged version at Glyndebourne, I did see the live webcast of the performance, and my feelings about the much-reduced staging in the Albert Hall is influenced by that.

Director Claus Guth and designer Christian Schmidt’s Glyndebourne staging divided the world of Tito into two, a clean modernist upper floor executive office positioned above a reed-clogged swamp where much of the action took place. A video played during the overture (or didn’t, depending on which performance you saw) which explained, apparently, the director’s interpretation of why Tito relationship with his boyhood chum Sextus went sour. The transfer to the Proms retained the dual levels, but with Tito’s domain behind the orchestra on the upper steps of the stage, the swamp rather pathetically alluded to by about half a dozen clumps of reeds and a rock on the stage in front of the orchestra. But, as is so often the case with semi-staged or concert performances of opera, this rather helpfully pulled the opera away from being the inspiration of the director towards being that of Mozart. Continue reading

Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik

Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik
Innsbruck, 21-23 August 2017

The Innsbruck Festival of Early Music runs annually for about three weeks during August. It was founded in 1976 and since the start has focussed on Baroque opera, in recent years usually performing three each season. Between 1991 and 2009 René Jacobs was the director of the opera programme and, from 1997, the entire festival. Since 2010 the festival has been directed by Alessandro De Marchi, who instigated the International Singing Competition for Baroque Opera Pietro Antonio Cesti, named after Antonio Cesti, a 17th-century Italian singer and composer who served at the Innsbruck court of Archduke Ferdinand Charles of Austria.  The focus this year was on the music of Monteverdi, and included a staged performance of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend for three days, so my review is necessarily limited in scope.  Continue reading

BBC Proms: Reformation Day

BBC Proms: Reformation Day
Prom 47: Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’ past and present
Prom 48: A Patchwork Passion
Prom 49: Bach’s St John Passion
Royal Albert Hall, 20 August 2017

Prom 47: Bach’s ‘Little Organ Book’ past and present
William Whitehead, Robert Quinney, organ

The BBC Proms’ acknowledgement of the anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation came with three concerts on Sunday 20 August, starting with a lunchtime organ recital featuring the premieres of three pieces from The Orgelbüchlein Project played by its founder/director, the organist William Whitehead. The programme opened and closed with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E flat (from the Clavierübung III, BWV 552), played by Robert Quinney (who also played Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata in A major (Op. 65/3)). It also included the fourth of Schumann’s Fugues on B-A-C-H and two of Bach’s own Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes played by William Whitehead and, just before the final Bach Fugue, Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s ‘Prelude to the Grand Organ Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach’: a duet for both organists. Continue reading

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht / Brahms: Andante from Sextet Op18/1
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Night Shift
Baroquestock Summer BBQ weekend special
Heath St Baptist Church, Hampstead. 17 August 2017

This turned out to be a Tale of Two Churches. On my way to Hampstead for the first event of the Baroquestock Summer BBQ weekend at Heath Street Baptist Church in Hamstead, I stopped off at the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in Holborn, known for many years as the Musicians’ Church, and an important venue for rehearsals and concerts for many musicians and choir. There I joined a flashmob drawing attention to the recent decision by the church (now run as a ‘plant’ of the evangelical Holy Trinity Brompton) to stop all rehearsal and concert bookings – an extraordinary decision that has caused a justifiable uproar.

IMG_20170817_194155010_HDR.jpgIn sharp contrast to the situation in, of all places, the Musicians’ Church, Heath Street Baptist Church in Hamstead is one of many London churches that have actively embraced music and musicians, running a regular series of lunchtime concerts as well as occasional musical festivals, the latter recently under the title of Baroquestock in food-related weekend festivals. Their latest Baroquestock weekend includes concerts by Spiritato and Istante Classical, the latter including Haydn’s La Poule Symphony to the accompaniment of BBQ chicken. Their opening event was a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, to the culinary accompaniment of, you’ve guessed – Schoenbergers!  Continue reading

Grimeborn: Armide

Lully: Armide
Ensemble OrQuesta Baroque

Grimeborn. Arcola Theatre. 9 August 2017

IMG_20170809_204353174.jpgAs the deliberately chosen name suggests, Grimeborn is not Glyndebourne, its location in the Arcola Theatre, a converted textile factory in Dalston, East London, being just one of the differences. Founded in 2007, the Grimborn opera festival focuses on new operas and experimental productions of more established repertoire. The limited space and budget in comparison to its more glamorous inspiration is one of its main strengths, as it forces directors, singers and instrumentalists to rethink basic opera practice. One key factor for the singers is that, rather like the more glamorous Iford Opera season, the singers are performing within a few feet of the audience, sitting on three sides of the central stage area.  Continue reading

BBC Proms: Berlioz Faust

Berlioz: The Damnation of Faust
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Monteverdi Choir, National Youth Choir of Scotland, Trinity Boys Choir
BBC Prom 31: Royal Albert Hall. 8 August 2017

Whoever thought of turning Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust into a staged opera seems, to me, to be missing the point. Quite apart from the extraordinary challenge of depicting the dramatic scenes on stage, the sheer drama of which would distract from what the music and the libretto is telling us, it is clear that Berlioz intended this as music to be listened to, not watched. That said, there was plenty to see in this Proms performance given by the period instruments of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique together with the Monteverdi Choir, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and Trinity Boys Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Continue reading

Itinéraire Baroque: A Telemann year

Itinéraire Baroque en Périgord Vert
‘A Telemann Year’

27-30 July 2017

IMG_20170731_122006589.jpgThe annual Itinéraire Baroque en Périgord Vert festival is based in the communes of Ribérac and Verteillac in the northern part of the Dordogne region of south-western France. It was founded by Robert Nicolas Huet and Ton Koopman, the former a local resident and now President and Director of the organising committee, the latter the Artistic Director and an occasional import from The Netherlands, together with his musical friends and family. The festival was initially the one-day event that still gives the now festival its name – the Itineraire Baroque, a musical tour of some of the extraordinary Romanesque churches of the region. But it has now expanded to fill four days over the last weekend in July with a wide range of concerts of Baroque music.

The focus for this year’s festival (the 16th) was Georg Philip Telemann (on the 250th anniversary of his death), a composer now usually overlooked by Bach and Handel (both of whom he knew personally), but who in his time was held in equally high esteem. A self-taught musician, he started to study law in Leipzig, but quickly moved into the city’s musical world. After short spells in princely courts, he moved to Frankfurt and eventually Hamburg where he directed the music in all the city churches. He was the first choice for the Leipzig post that Bach, the third choice, eventually accepted in 1723. He left an enormous amount of music, demonstrating his musical talent and ability to absorb national styles into his own music, notably from France and Poland. Continue reading

BBC Proms: Israel in Egypt

Handel: Israel in Egypt (original 1739 version)
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall. 1 August 2017

A combination of Handel, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and William Christie is bound to sell out the vast auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall, but the first performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, in 1739, was not so successful. Many stayed away because of the biblical context of the work, and those that came were not overly impressed. The reasons are complex, but are generally to do with Handel’s move from opera to the new musical form of oratorio. The slightly earlier oratorio Saul, written just before Israel and Egypt, was a great success, no doubt because the musical style included more elements of opera. Israel in Egypt was far more hard-core, not least in the use of choruses. The first part, nearly always omitted in present day performances, is a continuous sequence of 12 choruses. Part Two has 7 and Part Three 8, but these are broken up by a few arias, duets, and recitatives. Handel made many subsequent changes to the score, and it is usually now performed in the 1756 version, with its odd recitative start (which refers back to the non-existent Part One) and no Symphony. It was the inclusion of Part One, and what was supposed to be (but I think was not quite) the original 1739 version, that made this Proms performance so special. Continue reading

Iford Arts: Jephtha

Iford Arts: Jephtha
Contraband, Christopher Bucknall
Iford Manor, 25 July 2017 

Jephtha was Handel’s last oratorio, composed in 1751 as his sight was failing to the extent that at one point in the autograph score he wrote “unable to go on owing to weakening of the sight of my left eye.” It is rather telling that note occurs at the chorus that concludes Act 2, How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees, All hid from mortal sight. Despite Handel’s personal difficulties at the time, and the frankly bizarre Biblical story upon which it is based, it is one of his finest oratorios, full of the most glorious music for six solo singers and chorus with a succession of attractive and dramatic arias linked by relatively short recitatives.

This Iford Arts production, in the delightfully intimate surroundings of the Italianate cloister at Iford Manor, was directed by Timothy Nelson, with Christopher Bucknall directing the 14 instrumentalists of JEPH17_198.jpgContraband. It was set in recent times in a fundamentalist (and militaristic) Christian community of cult-like weirdness, led by the controlling Zebel (Frederick Long), with behaviours frequently bordering on what might have been found in a lunatic asylum of Handel’s day. As it happened, on my drive down to Iford, I listened to a Radio 4 broadcast of an account of the 1993 siege of a fundamentalist sect at Waco in Texas. The comparisons were chilling. Continue reading

Festival de Saintes

Festival de Saintes
Abbaye aux Dames: la cité musicale, Saintes
14-22 July 2017

The Abbaye aux Dames was founded in 1047 by the Count of Anjou as a Benedictine abbey for women, usually of aristocratic origin. Around 1120, the Abbey church was altered and the spectacularly carved west end facade and belIMG_20170717_094834230.jpgl tower were added. Internally, the Romanesque triple-aisled basilica was altered, rather inelegantly, by inserting two enormous domed cupolas into the original external walls, resulting in a bit of an architectural mess. After two major fires in the 17th century (which destroyed the cupolas), the church was restored, and impressive new convent buildings were added, with cells for 45 nuns. During the Revolution, the Abbey first became a prison (1792), and then a barracks (1808). In the 1920s, the Abbey complex was purchased by the town of Saintes. In the 1970s, restoration of the monastic IMG_20170716_191740421.jpgbuildings (abandoned since the war) was started and, in 1972, an annual Festival of Ancient Music was created, later becoming the Festival de Saintes. In 1988 the Abbey was launched as a cultural centre by President François Mitterrand, and in 2013 it became la cité musicale, housing a Conservatoire of Music and a range of year-round musical activities, including many for young people. The former nun’s cells now sleep visitors and guests of the Festival.
Continue reading

Puccini: Suor Angelica

Puccini: Suor Angelica
LunchBreak Opera
St Botolph’s Church, Bishopsgate. 13 July 2017

Image may contain: textLunchBreak Opera is a new venture, launched earlier this year. Its first production was Puccini’s one-act opera Suor Angelica, given in nine fully staged and costumed lunchtime and early evening performances (10-14 July) in St Botolph’s Church, Bishopsgate, London – a prime position, next to Liverpool Street Station. Lasting just 50 minutes it is ideal for lunchtime and post-work entertainment. Continue reading

Nonclassical Club Night

Nonclassical Club NIght
Freya Waley-Cohen, The Hermes Experiment, Liam Byrne
The Victoria, Dalston. 12 July 2017

Nonclassical is an enterprising musical set up combining a record label with monthly club nights around London, founded in 2004 by composer Gabriel Prokofiev. The club nights bring classical music, both newly composed and more traditional, to the rock club scene, with events usually held in pub entertainment rooms. If the aim was to attract the sort of audience that wouldn’t be seen dead in places like the Wigmore Hall, it has certainly succeeded. The audience stands, drinks in hand, around a stage packed with loudspeakers. Between the acts, DJs continue the theme of inventive new music. The associated record label includes extracts from the live gigs as well as remixes of new compositions. Continue reading

Ceruleo: Paradise Lost

Ceruleo: Paradise Lost
Guildhall Artist Fellowship Recital
Music Hall, Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 10 July 2017

The five-strong group Ceruleo (two sopranos, cello, theorbo, and harpsichord) got together at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2014. They have just completed a one year Artist Fellowship there, the first time a this has been awarded to a group. During their year, they gave several performances of their programme ‘Deplorable Fire’ commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, including a live performance on BBC Radio 3. They presented their Paradise Lost programme, based on John Milton’s poem (published 350 years ago in 1667) as their final recital of their Fellowship year. The music was interspersed by extracts from Paradise Lost. Continue reading