Bach: St John Passion
Academy Choir & Baroque Players, Matthew Best
St John’s, Wimbledon, 12 March 2022
Choral societies have a long and noble tradition in the UK. They provide much-needed employment opportunities for the young professional musicians brought in as soloists as well as giving the opportunity to perform for the vast body of amateur singers whose membership fees keep the shows on the road. The Academy Choir is one such. It was founded in Wimbledon in 1980 and since 2000 has been based at the church of St John the Baptist, Spencer Hill, Wimbledon. It is an auditioned choir, rather than taking all-comers, and the musical standards are obviously high. Since 2017 their musical director has been Matthew Best. My invitation to review their performance of the St John Passion promised that “our concerts tend to be ‘a cut above’ what might typically be expected to be found in a suburban church, given by a local choir”, a claim that proved itself correct.
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 November 2016
Serse was the first opera that the newly formed Early Opera Company performed, some 22 years ago. A well-received recording was released in 2013*, and they returned to it for their latest appearance at St John’s, Smith Square, an ideal space for baroque music. Serse is one of Handel’s more curious operas. Written in 1738 towards the end of his opera-writing career, its innovative compositional style was rather lost on the audience, as was the libretto, with Charles Burney referring to the latter as “one of the worst Handel ever set to Music”. He identified the issue as being that the work contained “a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery”, which is exactly what Handel intended. Other commentators noted Handel’s use of many short arias, without the usual convention of the da capo, linking it to the musical style of the many ‘ballad-operas’ that had become the rage. It only managed five performances, but after its modern resurrection has become one of Handel’s best known operas.
The first of the short arias is the opening Ombra mai fù, which became one of Handel’s most famous pieces, albeit under the incorrect name of Handel’s Largo (it is marked Larghetto). I wonder how many people outside the opera-loving world realise that this aria is sung by a clearly dotty King to a tree that he has taken a fancy to? Serse’s dottiness continues throughout the opera, to the bemusement of the other characters. In this concert performance, the only prop Continue reading
Bach, Secular and Sacred
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, John Butt
St John’s, Smith Square. 10 March 2016
Sinfonia (cantata 42), Lutheran Mass 3 & 4, Brandenburg Concerto 2.
“To make divine things humans and human things divine – such is Bach, the greatest and purist moment in music of all time”. This quote on the ‘miracle of Bach’ from Pablo Casals was mentioned in the programme note setting the concert in context. Built around two of Bach lesser known Lutheran Masses (Missa Brevis), the evening opening with Bach bustling Sinfonia from the cantata Am Adend aber desselbigen Sabbats, composed in 1725, the lengthy instrumental opening (pictured) was apparently intended to give the singers a bit of a break after a busy week. It has a jovial, extended and rather convoluted initial theme which bubbles along until a concluding, and very clever, skipped beat. A conversation between strings and two oboes and bassoon, this is the type of piece that Bach probably scribbled down before breakfast but, 300 years later, stands as an extraordinary example of his genius and skill at turning a string of notes into something inspired and divine.
The other instrumental work was Brandenburg 2, with its notorious discussion between the unlikely combination of clarino trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin. Continue reading