French Baroque music meets Indian Classical Dance

French Baroque music meets Indian Classical Dance
BBC Singers, Academy of Ancient Music, Sofi Jeannin
Sanskriti UK & Ankh Dance
Milton Court, 19 October 2018

Lully: Te Deum 
Rameau: In convertendo Dominus;
extracts from 
Les Indes galantes, Les fêtes d’Hébé Castor et Pollux 

In what was a rather brave bit of programming for a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast, the BBC Singers and the Academy of Music, directed by Sofi Jeannin, the new Chief Conductor of the BBC Singers, presented an evening of French Baroque music, the second half of which was accompanied by two contrasting forms of Indian dance. The first half was of liturgical pieces, starting with Lully’s jubilant 1677 setting of the Te Deum. This was first heard at Fontainebleau and later became the piece that led to Lully’s death after he stabbed himself in the foot with his conducting baton during Chapel Royal celebrations for the Sun King’s recovery from surgery – surgery that Lully decided, fatally, to refuse. No such calamity occurred here as Sofi Jeannin demonstrated her commendably straightforward style of conducting, her focus clearly on the music itself rather than on any sense of self-aggrandisement. She coped well with the complications of this particular occasion, which included a late start after an overrun of the previous Radio 3 show, and complicated coordination between dances, singers, instrumentalists, a BBC announcer and the paraphernalia of a live BBC broadcast.  Continue reading

Academy of Ancient Music: Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, Thomas Guthrie
The Barbican, 2 October 2018

For anybody who was not already familiar with the story of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Academy of Ancient Music’s semi-staged performance (directed by Thomas Guthrie) at The Barbican opened with something of a plot-spoiler. The first half was a 40-minute exploration of the funeral rites of the dead Dido, albeit a couple of hours or more before she was ‘laid in earth’. Actually, laid in earth she wasn’t, instead lying on a funeral catafalque over which Belinda, Aeneas and assorted mourners (the AAM chorus, who opened the show with some rhythmic drum bashing) acted out their reaction to her death as they remembered her. And when I write ‘she’ in fact it was a half-size puppet of the upper half of Dido who represented her throughout the evening. The full panoply of puppets came to the fore in the second half performance of Dido and Aeneas itself where the entire cast of soloists and chorus sported puppets – torsos for Dido and Aeneas, heads and gauze cloths for the rest. Continue reading

Handel’s Agrippina at The Grange

Handel: Agrippina
Academy of Ancient Music, Robert Howarth
The Grange Festival, Hampshire. 16 June 2018

Handel’s Agrippina was first performed in 1709 during the Venice Carnival when he was just 23. It was towards the end of his three-year stay in Venice and used a considerable amount of borrowed material from Handel and other composers. It was an immediate success, with a further 26 performances, but was not revived again until modern times. It is now considered his first major operatic success. With its story of intrigue, rivalry, and deception in historic Rome, Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani’s libretto for Agrippina is said to reflect his own political rivalry with Pope Clement XI. The plot tells of Agrippina’s ruthless plan to usurp her husband Emperor Claudius and place her son, the youthful Nerone, on the throne. The sexually provocative Poppea joins in the fray in a complex plan to undo Agrippina’ plot, not least in her attempts to discredit Ottone, who Claudius wants to create Emperor as a reward for saving his life. It certainly had many political and cultural undertones at the time, and perhaps still does today.

Stefanie True (Poppea)_Jonathan Best (Lesbo)_Handel's Agrippina_The Grange Festival 2018 ©Robert Workman.jpg

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

Academy of Ancient Music: The Bach Family

The Bach Family
Academy of Ancient Music, Lucy Crowe, Reinhard Goebel
Barbican. 18 June 2016

Unfortunately this concert will be remembered by me because, not for the first time, I found the behaviour of conductor Reinhard Goebel disturbing, both on and off stage. This started with his pre-concert talk, an event he totally dominated, arriving with his hands fumbling all over the hapless female AAM communications manager before announcing himself, and then suggesting that his much-handled companion also announce him. She then managed to ask one very simple question, which led to a rambling, incoherent, and often incorrect 30 minute monologue on practically anything but the question asked. For some reason, that probably didn’t reduce his ego, there was only one chair provided, meaning that the unfortunate communication manager ended up sitting at his feet on the floor at the edge of the dais. Amongst Goebel’s more alarming contentions was that Bach didn’t compose anything in the last two decades of his life, an extraordinary error that he only partially reined back on later in his talk. He also described Bach as a ‘nasty person’ who ‘hated the world’.

In the concert itself, Goebel pranced onto the stage clad in a clownish bright red cummerbund and matching bow tie and, bizarrely, carrying two batons. Continue reading

Bach: St Matthew Passion (1727 version)

Bach St Matthew Passion (1727 version)
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr.
AAM Records. AAM004.  

Richard Egarr director & harpsichord, James Gilchrist Evangelist, Matthew Rose Jesus, Elizabeth Watts soprano, Sarah Connolly alto, Thomas Hobbs tenor, Christopher Maltman bass. Choir of the AAM.   3 CDs. 58’40+49’39+36’19=144’38

Richard Egarr’s introductory article to this new recording of Bach’s most famous work is headed ‘Oh No, not again’.  It concludes with ‘Don’t be a bowl of petunias’, an enigmatic reference to the frequently reincarnated bowl of petunias in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’.  His article questions the perceived wisdom of assuming that later incarnations of a piece of music are inevitably the best and most complete.  Like Handel, Bach often changed and re-ordered his music, often for the most pragmatic of reasons.  Normally heard in the version developed from performances in 1736, 1742 and 1746, the Academy of Ancient Music has returned to its first known incarnation of the Matthew Passion, dating from an (assumed) Good Friday Vespers performance in Leipzig’s Thomaskirche in 1727.  This early version was copied down a few years after Bach’s death by a pupil of one of Bach’s singers, but we do not know why.  It is a remarkable survival.

There are several differences from the later version, many very subtle.  The major ones include the fact that the double choir and orchestra structure is weakened by having just one continuo group, rather than two.  This implies that the two choirs and their orchestras would have been positioned closer together, as they are on this recording.  In contrast, the separation of the two orchestras is then emphasised by having both orchestra leaders (rather than just one) take on the two big violin solos, the solo in Erbame dich played from orchestra 2, accompanied by orchestra 1, with Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder the other way round.  Part One ends, not with the usual O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, but with the simply-stated chorale Jesum lass ich nicht von mir.  The Second Part opens with Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hun!, but sung by a bass rather than an alto. This might have spiritual significance, but could equally have been the purely practical result of which singer happened to be in best voice at the time. Perhaps the most distinctive change from the later version comes closer to the end, with the famous bass aria Komm, süßes Kreuz.  This is normally the moment when the viola da gamba player takes centre stage for the complex obligato accompaniment.  But here Bach chooses the elegiac sound of the solo lute (with organ), a strikingly compelling tonal alteration to the more usual sound.  Other changes in instrumentation include the use of the organ and winds (rather than a ripieno choir or soloist) to bring out chorale melody in the opening chorus. More subtle changes are found in the relative reduction in ornamentation, notably in the lack of appoggiaturas (for example, in the orchestral accompaniment of So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen) – often tricky in performance.

Stephen Rose’s intelligent programme note introduces the liturgical and musical background to the Leipzig Passion.  It is difficult to imagine the response of the Leipzig congregation to first hearing a work of such power, but Rose helpfully analyses the Passion’s arias within the context of Luther’s 1519 three stages of meditation and contemplation on the Passion story, something listeners of the day would have understood better than we do today.

The Academy of Ancient Music field a strong cast of soloists and instrumentalists, with an exceptional performance from James Gilchrist as the ever-communicative Evangelist.  The two 10-strong choirs give gutsy readings of the turbo choruses although, when at full throttle, the sopranos display rather too much vibrato for my taste.

Richard Egarr’s interpretation is characteristically distinctive, not least for his occasionally relaxed approach to pulse and rubato.  For example, in the alto aria, Buß und Rei, (CD1:10) he lingers on the penultimate note of phrases, perhaps signifying the repentance and regret of the opening line. Moments like this certainly attracted attention on my first listen, but I found my initial surprise lessened with repeated listening.  Indeed, the performance as a whole combines musically strength with sensitivity, and can be thoroughly recommended, not just for the undoubted importance of hearing this rarely performed 1727 version.  I have only heard it live once before, during the 2012 Leipzig Bachfest performed by Bach Collegium Japan and the Tölzer Knabenchors under Masaaki Suzuki.

The CD was recorded over a 7-day period in St Jude-on-the-Hill, with Philip Hobbs as the distinguished producer and engineer.  It comes in a hardback booklet format, with the full text and an English translation. A sound sample and an introductory video can be found at http://www.aam.co.uk/#/recordings/discography/js-bach/bach-matthew-passion.aspx.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/29/bach-st-matthe…n-1727-version/]

AAM Mat Pass