The 2014 Lufthansa Festival – end of an era?

As the 2015 London Festival of Baroque Music approaches, I thought I would re-publish my review of last year’s festival, under the then title of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music.

“This year’s Lufthansa Festival (the 30th) marked the end of an era.  It was the last to benefit from the 30-year sponsorship of Lufthansa (and, for the past 12 years, also Rolls-Royce plc), one of the most remarkable musical/financial partnerships in the modern history of music.  The Festival will continue with the same wealth of performers and performances under the name of the London Festival of Baroque Music, and is seeking funding Continue reading

Purcell & Charpentier: Te Deum

Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School
Spiritato!  Iestyn Davies
St John’s, Smith Square. 29 April 2015

Purcell: Suite from Abdelazer, Jehova Quam Multi Sunt Hostes Mei, Te Deum and Jubilate in D. Rameau: Suite from Les Indes Galantes, Charpentier: Te Deum

I wouldn’t normally review a concert given by a boys’ school choir, but the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School is well-known for their music education and performances.  The Schola Cantorum supports the liturgy of the school services, but is better known as one of the few school choirs that are regularly called upon for professional engagements. These have ranged from the Harry Potter films to a recent live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of James MacMillan’s complex St Luke Passion. Individual boy singers are also often to be heard at Covent Garden and the Coliseum.

Continue reading

Handel Peace & Celebration – European Union Baroque Orchestra

Handel Peace & Celebration European Union Baroque Orchestra, Choir of Clare College Cambridge, Alex Potter, Lar Ulrick Mortensen.
Obsidian CD711 69’ 34”
    £13 from

Zadok the Priest, Let thy hand be strengthened, Concerto Grosso Op3/2, My heart is inditing, Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne, The King shall rejoice.

This is live recording (with a little judicious patching) of a St John’s, Smith Square concert (under the title ‘Handel: A Royal Celebration’) that I reviewed in last December’s issue of Early Music Review.  It is a timely issue in the anniversary year of the accession of the first Hanoverian King, George I.  The talented young musicians of EUBO (a training orchestra re-formed each year) come to the fore in the Concerto Grosso Op 3/2, with its distinctive Largo featuring two cellos and oboe (played exquisitely by Guillermo Turina Serrano, Nicola Paoli and Clara Geuchen).  The rest of the piece involves outstanding playing by the two violinists Zefira Valova (the concertmaster for this tour, and formally a EUBO member) and Roldán Bernabé-Carrión.

For the rest of the disc they are in an accompaniment role.  The outstanding feature of the vocal works is the opening movement of the Birthday Ode, ‘Eternal source of light divine’, beautifully sung by Alex Potter, with the terrifying trumpet solo played with absolute conviction and surety by EUBO trumpeter Sebastian Philpott. You should buy this CD for this track alone – it is spine-tingling!  I noted in my concert review that the other soloists were drawn from the Clare College choir, “with varying degrees of success”.  The choir as a whole however do sound good, although there is occasionally a bit of a wobble from the alto line.  In these shaky financial times, EUBO needs the support of funders more than ever.  Buying this CD is a particularly good investment in the future of young musicians.

First published in Early Music Review, April 2014.

Upon a Ground – Tabea Debus, recorder.

Upon a Ground
Tabea Debus, recorder.
ClassicClips CLCL 124.   77’ 32”

Finger: A Division on a ground by Mr. Finger; Dornel: Première Suite; Taeggio: Vestiva i colli; Bellinzani: Sonata No. 12 Op 3/12; Barre: Chaconne der Sonata L’Inconnue; Blavet: Sonata Secunda; Anonymous: Durham Ground; Pandolfi Mealli: Sonata Quarta “La Castella”; Barsanti: Sonata V in F; Purcell: A New Ground in e. 

The Hülsta Woodwinds competition (in Münster, Westphalia) awards two first prizes, and Tabea Debus won one of them in 2011.  This CD is one of the elements of her prize.  And it certainly shows that the competition judges were on to a good thing.  Tabea Debus’s playing is an absolute delight.  She plays with a beautiful sense of musical line and phrasing, wearing her obvious virtuosity lightly, and producing results that are first and foremost musical.

Another excellent feature of this recording is the imaginative interpretations of the accompanying continuo instrumental players, Lea Rahel Bader (cello), Johannes Lang (harpsichord), Kohei Ota (theorboe & baroque guitar) and Jan Croonenbroeck (organ). Taeggio’s 1620 diminutions on Palestrina’s Vestiva i colli are preceded by the original piece played on a very attractive little chamber organ (by Johannes Rohlf, based on Näser, 1734).  Bellinzani’s Sonata opens with a delightfully Handelian Largo with wide leaps for the solo line.  After an Allegro (also with leaps and with a lovely dialogue between recorder and organ) and a harpsichord solo (to give the soloist a rest), it ends with a lively Folia.

Although the Pandolfi Mealli La Castella Sonata is performed in pure meantone, the other pieces are either in fifth-comma meantone or the so called ‘Bach’ tuning proposed by Robert Hill.  And, as if to prove that recorder players do have a life, when you take the CD out of its case, you are greeted on the inside of the rear cover by a photograph of Miss Debus apparently leaping over a fence.  See

First published in Early Music Review, April 2014.

Vivaldi: Four Seasons & String Concerti – European Union Baroque Orchestra

Vivaldi The Four Seasons & String Concerti  European Union Baroque Orchestra, Huw Daniel, Bojan Čičič, Johannes Pramsohler, Zefire Valova violins. Lars Ulrich Mortensen. 52’50.
Obsidian CCL CD713

Not another Four Seasons, you might think.  But this is different, in several ways.  Firstly it is from the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO) who regular readers will know I am a fan of.  Secondly the four violinists are all ex-members, and later concertmasters, of EUBO. And thirdly because this not only also includes the charmingly inoffensive little Concerto RV124, but also Vivaldi’s sonnets, read in Italian by another EUBO alumnus, Antonio de Sarlo (the CD booklet includes the texts).  And finally, although not obvious from the CD, this whole project was accompanied by a commissioned puppet show for children using Vivaldi’s music – hopefully this will be released on DVD in the future, but a video can be found on the EUBO website.

The Concerto RV124 introduces the first of the spoken Sonnets.  The four soloists then take their turns at portraying the various seasons with Huw Daniel as Spring, Bojan Čičič, Summer, Johannes Pramsohler, Autumn, and Zefire Valova as Winter.  All four excel throughout, but particularly in the slow movements when their collective ability to play on the edge of their tone with such musical conviction is outstanding.

For some reason, the recording balance of director Lars Ulrich Mortensen’s harpsichord is frequently far too prominent, becoming a distractingly percussive intrusion.  Currently shorn of their usually EU funding, EUBO is trying to survive on the occasional concert and on the sale of CDs like this until stable financial support can be found.  Anybody who has ever heard the talented young players of EUBO (who reform each year – or did, until their recent financial problems) will know how excellent they are, and how important a training experience it is for its members, many of whom go on to distinguished careers.  The CD can be ordered from

Andrew Benson-Wilson
First published in Early Music Review, December 2014


Mozart. Mendelssohn – Chiaroscuro Quartet

Mozart. Mendelssohn Chiaroscuro Quartet 58’ 06”
Mozart Quartet K421, Mendelssohn Quartet 2, Op 13
Aparté AP092. 58’ 06”

 I first heard the Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernan Benedi, Emilie Hornlund and Claire Thirion) when they were London students, and their talent was obvious from the start. Alongside Alina Ibragimova’s impressive (and well-deserved) solo career, the quartet are now making their mark in the world of period instrument quartets, with three CDs to date, all combining Mozart with a later composer.  After comparing Mozart with Schubert and Beethoven, they now turn to Mendelssohn, drawing connections between the 18 year olds’ Quartet No 2 and Mozart’s D minor Quartet (K421), written when he was a comparatively mature 27.  These talented young musicians, playing on gut strings with no vibrato to disturb the musical line, demonstrate inspiring musical minds and exceptional techniques, which they dedicate to the service of the music rather than self-aggrandisement.

In what is a rather intense programme, there are several magical moments, not least in the interpretation of the dark transition passage at the beginning of the second section of the first Mozart movement.  In contrast, their almost flighty playing of the Mozart trio is a delight, and a bit of relief in what is otherwise a pretty complex work. Their tonal unity in demonstrated in the several passages where the melodic line passes from one instrument to the other – imperceptibly in their case. The Mendelssohn is an emotionally powerful work, opening with what seems to be an innocuous song-without-words but quickly developing a much darker and more complex hue.  The slow movement opens with a similarly song-like theme before the viola leads into a plaintively chromatic fugue and a turbulent central section. Ever the tune-smith, Mendelssohn opens the Intermezzo with another song-without-words, before dissolves into a fairy dance.

One of the many strengths of the Chiaroscuro Quartet is their ability to play quietly, drawing the listener into their musical world. There are several examples in these two quartets, notably in transition passages. This is playing and musical interpretation of the highest degree.

My own quibble is with the complex programme notes, by Tom Service.  Rather than looking for links between the two pieces on the CD, his essay concentrates on rather convoluted links to Beethoven. The language become fanciful to a degree – do we really need to be told that our hearts will be in our mouths at the audacity of Mozart’s plunge into a discombobulating E flat major?

Extracts at


Sammartini: Concertos for the Organ

Giuseppe Sammartini Concertos for the Organ, op 9.
Fabio Bonizzoni, La Rizonanza 63′ 17″
Glossa GCDC81505

This is a re-release of a 2000 recording. Giuseppe was the elder brother of the better known Giovanni Battista Sammartini.  Born in 1695, he left Milan for London in 1728, where he stayed until his death in 1750, making quite a name for himself.  These concertos, published after his death for “Harpsichord or Organ”, are domestic in scale, with just two violins, cello and bass alongside the organ. It is not clear when they were composed, but they have more of a Rococo than Baroque feel to them, rather enhanced by the playing style on this CD. The spiky solo registrations are not in keeping with the English organ of the period, and nor is the over-articulated performance style.  Bonizzoni keeps to the two-part structure of most of the organ solos (without infilling the harmonies, a debatable point for this repertoire), but it is a shame that he doesn’t make more of the organ when in its continuo role – it is more-or-less inaudible.  The notes give no information on the organ, but I have a feeling it is later than this repertoire.  It is certainly not in any English or Italian early to mid 18th century style. Two lively little Sonatas by Giovanni Battista Sammartini complete the disc. 

Sammartini Concertos For The Organ La Risonanza Fabio Bonizzoni Glossa


The Famous Weiss

The Famous Weiss David Miller, baroque lutes 68’21
Sonata No 5 in D minor, Prelude & Fantasie in C minor, Sonata No 30 in G minor, Prelude in D major, Campanella in D major, Passagaille in D major, Giga in D major.
Timespan TS1401

The thoughtful and reflective mood of the opening D minor Prelude sets the scene for this enthralling CD of lute music by Silvius Leopold Weiss.  I was introduced to the music of Weiss by David Miller in a Dartington concert in the mid 90s.  An almost exact contemporary of JS Bach and Handel, Weiss spent time in Rome (alongside Handel and Scarlatti) before settling as lutenist to the Dresden Court. His visit to Berlin produced the ‘Famous Weiss’ comment from the sister of the future Frederick the Great.

The two Sonatas (in practice, multi-movement Suites) from the Dresden manuscripts are nicely contrasted, the simpler D minor suite forming a foil to the more substantial, elaborate and musically advanced G minor set.  Of the six other pieces from a British Library manuscript, the Prelude in C minor, with its distinctive octave opening, shows Weiss’s imaginative use of harmonic modulation, a factor specifically mentioned in relation to a competition with Bach in Dresden. As the opening Prelude demonstrates, David Miller plays with a particular sensitivity to musical ebb and flow, as well as producing a beautifully rich and refined tone.

There is an informative video made during the recording process at—baroque-lute.html.

Picture Picture


Mésangeau’s Experiments

Mésangeau’s Experiments Alex McCartney
Veterum Musica

Suites in B flat, F minor and C.

René Mésangeau (fl 1567-1638) was one of the pioneers of what was to become the Baroque lute, not least through his experiments in lute tuning that led to the ‘standard’ Baroque lute tuning based around a D minor chord. After a time in Germany he returned to his native Paris and the Court of Louis XIII.  Three Suites are included on this CD, in B flat, F minor and C, the latter Suite including two movements by an anonymous composer. Each Suite opens with an unmeasured prelude following by groups of Allemendes and Courantes, finishing with Sarabands or a Chaconne. The playing is sensitive and musical (albeit with a fair bit of finger noise), the acoustic adding a nice resonance to the sound, particularly in the many pieces at low pitch. The sleeve notes are minimal, and there is no indication of track or total timings – something to watch out for if you want anybody to broadcast tracks.

Samples and ordering from


Ulysses returns to Iford

One of the posh frocks and picnic venues that combine musical excellence with spectacular gardens is Iford Manor, near Bath. This year’s early music offering was Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria performed by the Early Opera Company (2 Aug 2014) in a setting that could not be more Italian. Iford’s Peto Garden is full of Italian references, and the operas take place inside a pastiche 100 year-old Italian cloister – one of the most intimate opera spaces I know.

The 12-strong (and vocally strong) cast was headed by mezzo Rowan Hellier as the complex and emotional confused Penelope with Jonathan McGovern as the returning Ulysses. Penelope’s three suitors were Callum Thorpe, Russell Harcourt and Alexander Robin Baker, with Oliver Mercer as their advocate Eurymachus. Elizabeth Cragg and Annie Gill made fine contributions as Minerva and Melanto, as did Daniel Auchincloss as Eumaeus, here portrayed as a gamekeeper. The Prologue was sensibly omitted, allowing the opening focus to be on Penelope’s grief.

The audience sit within a few feet of the central stage and it is impossible not to feel personally involved in the unfolding drama. It is a real test of the singers’ sense of character and voice to be able to project to such a close audience. Justin Way directed, using Christopher Cowell’s sensible ENO English translation, and an excellent and beautifully lit staging by Kimm Kovac, using imaginative and vaguely modern dress with a hint of the abdication era. Christian Curnyn directed his seven Early Opera Company players from the harpsichord, the violins of Catherine Martin and Oliver Webber being much in evidence.


Garsington’s Fidelio

Garsington Opera opened its 25th anniversary season with a revival of Fidelio (13 July 2014), first heard (albeit not by me) in 2009, the opera company’s final year in Garsington village. Now planted just beyond the ha-ha of the Getty’s Wormsley estate, the extraordinary new opera house is a slightly incongruous setting for the bleakness of Fidelio’s prison, although it was a delight to see the prisoners brought into the (fading) light and out over the bridge into the ornamental gardens. But Fidelio remains a troublesome work. The elevated ideals that inspired Beethoven compositional struggles are marred by compromise of structure and plot, not least the rather inconsequential love scenes between Marzelline and Jaquino. Fidelio is frequently used as a vehicle for the political aspirations of the director, thereby overlying additional layers of complexity, usually very far from the original plot. But here, John Cox’s production plays it commendably straight, supported by period costumes and a neutral staging.

The character portrayals are convincing, notable in a young Fidelio/Leonore, sung with absolute integrity by the delightful Rebecca von Lipinski – a most impressive singer and actor, and equally believable in male and female incarnations. Stephen Richardson’s Rocco contrasted power with compassion – a nice twist is that it seems pretty clear that he knows exactly who Fidelio is. Peter Wedd’s Florestan dominated the second half, the sombre mood aided as the setting evening sun of the first half faded. Joshua Bloom’s Minister contrasted with the pantomime antics of Darren Jeffery’s Pizarro. Douglas Boyd conducted the house orchestra, playing modern instruments, with a fine sense of style and pace.


Glyndebourne’s La Finta Giarineira

Rather surprisingly, given Glyndebourne’s devotion to Mozart, La Finta Giardiniera was the first time they have staged any of his early operas (6 July 2014). Although obviously not on a par with the da Ponte operas, these earlier works are fascinating.  Had he died aged 20, I reckon Mozart would still rate pretty highly in musical history. That said, La Finta Giardiniera is not amongst the Mozart greats, and needs careful handling. Covent Garden didn’t altogether succeed in their troubled 2006 attempt although, more recently, the Academy of Music gave a commendable concert performance at The Barbican.

The plot is the usual nonsense. Nardo (who is really Roberto disguised as a gardener) loves Serpetta who loves Don Anchise who loves Sandrina (who is really the Marchioness Violante, and is also disguised as the ‘secret gardener’ of the title) who loves Count Belfiore (who previously stabbed her and left her for dead) who loves Arminda who used to love Ramiro but jilted him and would be very surprised if he happened to turn up unexpectedly. Musically, the 19-year old Mozart is starting to challenge the supremacy of opera buffa by introducing elements of opera seria, treating this buffa plot with seria intensity. The opening is pure buffa, with the characters appearing to be happy bunnies until you hear the words of the individual solos and asides. Another feature of this work is Mozart’s early development of his complex Act finales, one magnificent example coming at the end of the first act.

Director Frederic Wake-Walker set the goings-on in a Germanic Rococco-style room, the fabric of which deconstructed as the evening progresses, as did some of the characters. Christiane Karg’s Sandrina was the vocal highlight from a very strong young cast, her pure tone contrasting with the rather silly portrayals of Belfiore (Joel Prieto) as a wimp and Ramiro (Rachel Frenkel) as a Goth. Robin Ticciati (Glyndebourne’s music director) directed the ever-excellent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with a fine sense of pace. But, even with cuts, it was a rather long three hours.


Royal Baroque in Battersea  

The enterprising new series of monthly early Sunday evening musical events at St Michael’s, Cobham Close, Battersea continued with Royal Baroque, a group of young multinational musicians who met in 2010 at the Guildhall School of Music (8 Feb).  Their programme focussed on the French style, as represented in suites by Rebel and Telemann.  The solo instruments were played by Christiane Eidsten Dahl, violin, and Rebecca Vučetić, recorders, with Kate Conway adding many solo moments to her continuo role on viola da gamba – and demonstrating impeccable tuning well above the frets.  Continuo support came from Kaisa Pulkkinen, who didn’t have much chance to show her wares on baroque harp, and Katarzyna Kowalik, harpsichord.  Christiane Eidsten Dahl’s sensitive and delicate violin playing blended well with the quieter sound of the recorder.  All the players were well versed in French performing style, particularly evident in the gentler lyrical movements.


Mark Rylance v Iestyn Davies

As television screens seemed to be filled with lingering shots of Mark Rylance in his role as Thomas Cromwell in BBC’s Wolf Hall, he returned to his old hunting ground at the Shakespeare Globe to take the role of the dotty Philippe V of Spain, patron of Farinelli, in Claire van Kampen’s play with music ‘Farinelli and the King’ (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 24 Feb).  In a role that he could have been born to play, the mercurial Rylance mischievously teased and inveigled the audience into the world of the complexly depressive King, starting with the very opening scene where he chats to his goldfish as he tries to catch it with a fishing rod.

Better known as the composer of the music for many of the Globe’s Shakespeare productions (and, perhaps, also as Mrs Rylance) this was Claire van Kampen’s debut as a playwright.  She has produced a play that is full of humour and sensitive insight into the world of madness and depression, as well as a fascinating insight into the world of Farinelli in the court of the crazy king.  In a similarly excellent performance, the appropriately named Melody Grove played the King’s wife, Isabella, who had procured Farinelli from London to aid the King.   Sam Crane acted the role of Farinelli, but in an clever twist to the play, we also had the outstanding countertenor Iestyn Davies taking on the singing side of Farinelli’s life, the combination of both sides of Farinelli’s personality on stage at the same time adding a fascinating psychological aspect to the evening.  This worked a great deal better than I thought it would, and proved to be an illuminating insight into the often divided personalities of performers, with Farinelli’s insecure and reticent side becoming all too evident as the evening progressed, and as his relationship with Philippe and Isabella grew stronger.

The miniature band of musicians was directed from the harpsichord by Robert Howarth, although unfortunately his pre-play playing was drowned out by the chatter of the excitably audience.  I was rather glad that, despite Rylance’s extraordinary (and unashamedly crowd-pleasing) acting, it was for Iestyn Davies that the audience reserved its strongest applause.  And so they should.



Les Passions de l’Ame, Robin Johannsen, Meret Lüthi.
Deutsche harmonia mundi / Sony Music 88843040882.  60’06.
Corelli La Follia; Geminiani ‘The Enchanted Forest’; Handel Armida abbandonata.

I praised the début CD (‘Spicy’, Deutsche harmonia mundi  88883748742) from the Swiss violinist Meret Lüthi and her Bern-based period-instrument orchestra, Les Passions de l’Ame in my review in Early Music Review (February 2014).  I am equally impressed with their second CD.  As with ‘Spicy’ they have produced an imaginative programme, in this case combining two pieces linked to the story of the crusader Rinaldo and his doomed love affair with the sorceress Armida, as told by Torquato Tasso in his La Gerusalemme Liberata.  After the opening salvo of Corelli’s La Follia variations, intended to represent the wildly contrasted emotions of Armida, we hear the first part of Francesco Geminiani’s orchestral suite ‘The Enchanted Forest’ (La Foresta Incantata), incidental music written for a 1754 pantomime ballet in the Grand Théâtre du Palais de Tuileries in Paris based on Tasso’s story. We do not know how the music would have been performed in the original production, as all that survives is this two-part suite, a collection of dance-like pieces of varying length and mood.

After the first part of the Enchanted Forest (in d minor), we hear Handel’s c1708 take on the story, the dramatic secular cantata Armida abbandonata (Dietro l’orme fugaci, HWV 105) for solo soprano, sung by the American soprano Robin Johannsen. I was impressed by Robin Johannsen when I first heard her in Hasse’s Romolo ed Ersilia at the 2011 Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik. Her singing is beautifully clear and focused, with a sensitively honed vocal timbre and an effective use of ornaments and da capo elaborations and the occasional use of a very gentle vibrato to colour the notes. She captures the contrasting moods of Handel’s exquisite cantata to perfection.  The opening accompagnato is interesting for having the continuo accompaniment provided by the solo violin alone, played by the director of Les Passions de l’Ame, Meret Lüthi.

We then return to the D major second part of The Enchanted Forest, the sensuous and subdued opening very effectively continuing the desolate mood of the Siciliana at the end of Armida abbandonat, before the full orchestra, with trumpet and horns blazing, takes overThe central part of the second half is a dramatic multi-section piece that could be a mini-opera in its own right. The playing of the 19 musicians of Les Passions de l’Ame is excellent, and is combined with sensitive continuo accompaniment to the Handel.  Merit Lüthi directs from the violin with an impressively light touch, bringing out both the Italian and French influences in Geminiani’s music.  At the time, Charles Burney thought he was too French, and the French thought he was too Italian! Today we appreciate the benefits of both musical styles.

You can hear extracts on the Les Passions de l’Ame website at