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

Edinburgh 1742

Edinburgh 1742
Ensemble Marsyas
Alec Frank-Gemmill and Joseph Walters, horns,
Emilie Renard, mezzo-soprano, Peter Whelan, directot
Linn CKD567. 68′

The rather underwhelming title of this CD doesn’t really do justice to the wealth of surprises within. Barsanti’s Horns might be just one possible alternative, and a listen to track 2, the Allegro from Francesco Barsanti’s Concerto grosso in D (Op3/3) will explain why. Horn players Alec Frank-Gemmill and Joseph Walters and timpanist Alan Emslie mount an extraordinary attack on the senses with some of the most thrilling writing for horns and timpani that I can think off. The return with gusto at the end of the innocently entitled Menuet. This recording includes the first five of Barsanti’s ten Opus 3 Concerti grossi, all with dramatic writing for the horns and times, and four of his arrangements of Scottish songs, enclosing a central burst of Handel.

Francesco Barsanti (c1690-1775) was one of many Italian musicians that came to England during the 18th century, arriving in London in 1723. He earnt his living from teaching, music copying and occasional oboe playing. He was a companion of his fellow import from Lucca, Francesco Geminiani, who invited to join his short-lived Masonic lodge. He spent a year or so in York around 1732, and moved to Edinburgh in 1735 to join the Edinburgh Musical Society and playing in their professional orchestra. He returned to London with a Scottish wife in 1743, the year that his Opus 3 concertos were published. They followed much earlier collections of recorder and flute Sonatas (opus 1 and 2) in the 1720s. Back in London he started playing the viola rather than the oboe, and became involved with the Academy of Ancient Music and the Madrigal Society.

Emilie Renard joins in the Barsanti fun with one of Handel’s most dramatic arias, Sta nell’Ircana pietrosa tana from the 1735 Alcina, metaphorically depicting an angry tigress trying to protect her young from approaching hunters, to the inevitable accompaniment of the two horns. Emilie Renard enters into the drama of the aria with some brilliantly executed runs and ornaments, although she seems to have developed a rather alarming depth of vibrato since I raved about her singing in years gone by. This is followed by Handel’s arrangement of two movements from The Water Music as a Concerto for horns in F (HWV 331), seemingly first performed in 1723, and the little March in F for two horns and bassoon (HWV346, known as the ‘March in Prolemy’ on account of its appearance in the overture to his 1729 opera Tolomeo. 

As a contrast to the energy of the horn dominated programme comes a selection from Barsanti’s Old Scots Airs, published some time before the 1743 concertos, and here performed with violin and harpsichord. They reflect the enormous interest in all things Scottish in the decades after the Act of Union.

Michael Talbot’s notes give a fascinating insight into the Edinburgh Musical Society and the life of the hitherto overlooked immigrant musician Barsanti. The performances from Ensemble Marsyas, and the direction of Peter  Whelan, are excellent. They met during studies in Basel and touring with the influential European Union Baroque Orchestra.

Returning to the opening query about the CDs title, I still haven’t managed to work out the relevance of the year 1742. Perhaps I have missed something obvious, but the date doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere in the CD notes. A follow up CD of the rest of Barsanti’s 1743 Opus 3 concertos, written for trumpet and two oboes is inevitable, and I look forward to it.

 

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

Handel: Radamisto

Handel: Radamisto
Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Milton Court Theatre. 12 June 2017

Watching people watching opera was the premise behind John Ramster’s production of Handel’s Radamisto at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Milton Court Theatre. A Heads of State meeting has been arranged in a museum, displaying artifacts from the ancient kingdoms of Armenia and what is now eastern Turkey. As they take their seats on opposite sides of the stage, the bristle between them is palpable. A crusty army figure on one side, and a thrusting young woman on the other, with the museum and security flunkies flitting about between them. And then the entertainment begins, in the form of Radamisto. The interaction between the two VIPs, as well as their own interaction with the opera, became key to the development of this production. Continue reading

European Union Baroque Orchestra: Farewell

European Union Baroque Orchestra
Maria Keohane, Lars Ulrik Martensen
London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square. 19 May 2017

IMG_20170519_163842318.jpgOne of the key events of the London Festival of Baroque Music was final concert of the current incarnation of the European Union Baroque Orchestra, and orchestra I have been reviewing enthusiastically for many years. After extensive annual training auditions attracting around 100 applicants, aided by leading period performers, around 30 instrumentalists are selected each year to tour a series of concerts around Europe. But this concert was also, very sadly, the very last EUBO concert in its present state as a UK-managed organisation. Founded 32 years ago as a UK initiative (during the 1985 European Music Year), and managed ever since from its base near Oxford, the vote by a small percentage of the UK population to drag the UK out of the European Union means that it is no longer viable to run an EU venture from the UK. In its 32 years, EUBO has encouraged and nurtured around 1000 young musicians, giving some of the finest period instrumentalists around an early grounding in performance practice at the start of their careers. For the future, after a hiatus of a year to allow for the transfer, when there will be no auditions or orchestra , EUBO will restart from a new base, and with new management, based in the music centre AMUZ in Antwerp. Continue reading

The Courts of Earth and Heaven

Crickhowell Music Festival: The Courts of Earth and Heaven
Crickhowell Choral Society, Stephen Marshall
St Edmund’s, Crickhowell, 30 April 2017

Handel: Eternal source of light divine (Birthday Ode for Queen Anne)
Delalande: Regina coeli 
Campra: Quam dilecta
Vivaldi: Gloria (RV588 – the ‘other’ Gloria!)

A walking weekend in the Brecon Beacons happened to coincide with the annual Crickhowell Music Festival. I have reviewed the whole Festival in the past but, on this occassion, could only manage one performance, given in St Edmund’s Church, Crickhowell by the Crickhowell Choral Society and a ‘festival’ orchestra, together with a very impressive group of soloists. One of the things that most impressed me on my earlier visit was the ability of their director Stephen Marshall to attract outstanding and international renown singers such as, on this occasion, Grace Davidson, Nicholas Mulroy, and Catherine King.

The ambitious programme featured music from England, France, and Italy. It opened with Handel’s 1713 Birthday Ode – a homage to Queen Anne, and indeed, to Purcell, whose style he so perfectly absorbed. The opening arioso ‘Eternal lource of light divine’ is one of the most beautful musical creations of all time, with Handel’s understanding of Purcell’s style made obvious. It makes for a very exposed start to a concert, and one which tenor Nicholas Mulroy coped with magnificently. His high lyrical tenor voice hasn’t quite the timbre of a countertenor that Handel intended, but was nonetheless quite exquisite, in this, and in later movements. Grace Davidson’s soprano aria ‘Let all the wingéd race’ was similarly impressive. Both of these key singers demonstrated their excellent ability at singing Baroque ornaments properly, rather than using the often heard reliance on vibrato alone. Continue reading

Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 1

Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 1
London Early Opera
Bridget Cunningham, Daniel Moult, Kirsty Hopkins, Sophie Bevan
Signum SIGCD428. 48’18

Preceding the two recordings of Handel in Italy (reviewed here), London Early Opera explored the music of Handel (and his contemporaries Thomas Arne and John Hebden) as it might have been plerformed at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Pleasure Gardens like Vauxhall were a focus for musical, and other entertainments in 17th and 18th century London. This fascinating programme (but very short, at just over 48 minutes) is based on a conjectural reconstruction of part of a typical evening at Vauxhall in the early 1740s, and includes a wide variety of music including orchestral, organ and vocal music.  Continue reading

Handel in Italy

Handel in Italy
Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh, Gillian Webster
St John’s, Smith Square. 28 March 2017

Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D Op. 6 No. 4; Handel: Donna che in ciel HWV233; Dixit Dominus HWV232

Although, in true British fashion, George Frederic Handel is usually claimed as the quintessential English composer, some of his most exciting music was composed during the four years he spent in Italy (1706-10). Early training seemed to set Handel on course to be an organist and church musician, to the extent that he travelled to Lübeck in 1703 with a view to succeeding the great Buxtehude at the Marienkirche. But three years in Hamburg’s opera world (1703-6) changed that ambition, and resulted in an invitation by a Medici to come to Italy. He was already well-versed in the Italian music through his early training with Zachow in Halle, but his ability to immediately absorb national styles quickly became apparent, as it later did on his arrival in London in 1710. Continue reading

ENO: Partenope

Handel Partenope
English National Opera
The Coliseum, 22 March 2017

Partenope is an entertaining, if over-long, venture into cross-dressing, disguise, sexual and political intrigue and, at least in the original 1730 production, some impressive special effects, including a battle that employed a stage army. The story is a slight, but attractive one, with scope for drama, betrayal, intrigue, humour and sexual goings on.

Partenope is the Queen and mythological founder of Naples, who legend believes was also one of the Sirens who attempted to lure Odysseus onto the rocks. She has three admirers: Arsace, Armindo and Emilio. As the opera opens, her favourite, Arsace, is surprised to see his former lover (Rosmira) turn up disguised as a man (Eurimene). As a man, Eurimene becomes a rival for the Queen’s affections whilst, as a women and only recognisable to Arsace, she proceeds to mock and goad Arsace to the extent that the Queen demands that they fight a duel. Arsace, wanting to reveal Eurimene’s true identity, demands that they should both fight topless. Unfortunately for the dirty old men in the audience, Eurimene gives in at this point and reveals herself as Rosmira.

This was the first revival of Christopher Alden’s 2008 production. It is set in 1920s Paris around the complex interconnected lives of surrealist artists and the exotically (and erotically) wealthy. Continue reading

A Giant Reborn: the restored 1735 Richard Bridge organ of Christ Church, Spitalfields

A Giant Reborn
The restored 1735 Richard Bridge organ of Christ Church, Spitalfields, London
Gerard Brooks
Fugue State Records FSRCD010. 2CDs. 77’02+66’35

Music by Prelleur, Handel, Greene, Stanley, Bull, Barrett, Purcell, Croft, Heron, Boyce, Walond, Arne, Nares, Reading, James, Keeble

Spitalfields CD.jpgThe completion of the restoration of the famous 1735 Richard Bridge organ in Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields was one of the most important musical events in London during 2015. My review of John Scott’s opening recital, and details of the organ, can be seen here. Tragically it was one of the last recitals that John Scott gave before his death . Equally tragically, the master organ builder William Drake, the finest restorer of historic organs in the UK, died the year before the organ’s completion, so never heard what must now stand as his memorial.

Christ Church, Spitalfields was built between 1714 and 1729 as part of the ’Fifty New Churches’ Act of Parliament of 1711. It is one of the six East London churches WP_20150605_18_45_24_Prodesigned by the famed Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. The organ was built in 1735 by Richard Bridge, who became one of the leading organ builders of the day. Spitalfields seems to have been only his second commission, perhaps explaining the comparatively low price of £600 for such a substantial instrument. For the following 100 years or so, it was the largest organ in the country. It suffered the inevitable changes over the years, but retained enough of its original pipework to form the basis for a historically based reconstruction, returning it broadly to its original specification and construction. It was dismantled in 1998 while the church was being restored and was then restored to its 1735 specification, with very few concessions. Its completion in 2015 makes this by far the most important pre-1800 organ in the UK.

This is the first recording of the restored organ. As well as being a comprehensive account of the instrument’s forces, it is also a fascinating reflection of the organ music in 18th century England, covering most of the principal composers, many of which are little known outside of their organ compositions. Rather like Continue reading

Messiah

Messiah
Les Arts Florissants, William Christie
Barbican, 19 December 2016

wp_20161222_18_10_35_pro-2Over the years, William Christie has done much to introduce French baroque music to British ears, and has opened our ears to Purcell. But I had not heard his take on Messiah live before. It was bound to be rather different from the usual variety of British interpretations, and it was. We are increasingly used to lightly scored performances with moderately sized choirs, in contrast to the cast of thousands of yesteryear, but this very Gallic interpretation added a layer of delicacy and dance-like joie de vivre to Handel’s music, all done in the best possible Bon Goût. Les Arts Florissants fielded a choir of 24 (quite large, by some standards today, and in Handel’s time) and an orchestra with 6, 6, 4, 4, 2 strings, together with five soloists. Both instrumentalists and the chorus were encouraged to keep the volume down, usually by a finger on the Christie lips. This seems to be in line with Handel’s intentions, as indicated by his scoring and, for example, his very limited use of the trumpets. When things did let rip, there was still a sense of restraint amongst the power. Continue reading

The Celebrated Distin Family

The Celebrated Distin Family: Music for Saxhorn Ensemble
The Prince Regent’s Band
Resonus RES10179. 55’40

Music by Mayerbeer, Berlioz, Donizetti, Verdi, Handel, Arne and the Distin family

Unless you have been weaned on the sound of brass bands (which I wasn’t) the sounds and the instruments on this recording might appear rather unusual. It features no fewer than seven saxhorns, ranging from contralto to contrabass, along with five different cornets, and a ventil horn, all dating from around 1850-1900 (pictured below). The five players of the period brass ensemble, The Prince Regent’s Band, share these out amongst themselves as they explore the music of the extraordinary Distin family who, between 1835 and 1857, journeyed around Europe and North America performing and promoting new designs of brass instruments. They were instrumental, so to speak, in the development of new valved instruments, one being the saxhorn, designed by Adolphe Sax (who they met in Paris in 1844) but improved by the Distins, who gave the instrument its name.

Instruments used in the recording: 

Continue reading

Handel: Serse

Handel: Serse
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

European Union Baroque Orchestra: Handel etc.

Handel and his London Colleagues
European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO)
Lars Ulrik Mortensen, director, Jan Van Hoecke, recorder
Royal Greenwich Early Music Festival
St Margaret’s, Lee Terrace, Blackheath. 22 November 2016

Galliard: Dances from Pan & Syrinx;  Handel: Concerto Grosso Op 6/2;  Babell: Recorder Concerto Op 3/1; Handel: Ballet music from Alcina; Sammartini: Recorder Concerto in F
Geminiani; Concerto Grosso Op 3/2; Handel: Water Music Suite No 3.

For most of my reviewing career, one of the musical highlights has been the visit of the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO) to the UK. This extraordinary orchestra was founded in the UK in 1985, during European Music Year and the anniversaries of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. Over the intervening 30 years or so, through their concerts and recordings, they have carved out an enviable reputation as an exciting orchestra whose professional and musical standards are always of the very highest. Many people listening to a EUBO concert for the first time are amazed to find out their unusual story. Not only is the orchestra made up of young post-graduate instrumentalists, broadly around the mid-20s age range, but every year the entire orchestra is disbanded, to be reformed the following year after a round of auditions.

Eubo Blackheath 2.jpg

Around 100 musicians attend one of two four-day residential training courses. All attendees gain from specialist training in their instrument as well as experience of playing in small groups and as an orchestra. From these courses, Continue reading

Handel: Apollo e Daphne

Handel: Apollo e Daphne
Ensemble Marsyas
Linn Records CKD 543. 69′

Il pastor fido (Overture), HWV8a [22:25]; Arias in F major HWV410/411; Apollo e Dafne HWV122 [40:20]

Handel’s early works, particularly those written during his period in Italy have a very special vitality, musical elegance and sense of melodic delight. The secular cantata  Apollo e Daphne is one such, started in Venice in 1709. but not completed until he briefly moved to Hanover, in 1710, as Court Kapellmeister to the Elector of Hanover. It is the music performed during his time in Hanover that is the focus for this recording from the Irish/Scottish Ensemble Marsyas. Apollo e Daphne lacks an overture, so the curiously lengthy example from Il pastor fido has been included here, although at more than half the length of the cantata it makes for an unnecessary imbalance to the following cantata. That imbalance is further exaggerated by adding two curious Arias in F for wind band between the overture and cantata (here with added percussion), with a segue between the second Aria and the opening recitative of Apollo e Daphne. It’s a rather odd musical construction, but that should not detract from the many delights of this recording.

The silly story of Apollo e Daphne provides many opportunities for Handel’s sense of musical drama to be explored, along with with some gorgeous melodic moments from the two singers and, particularly, from the many solo and obligate instrumental contributions. And it is the latter that make this such an impressive recording.  Continue reading

English Touring Opera: three 17th-century ‘Venetian’ operas

English Touring Opera: three 17th-century ‘Venetian’ operas
Handel Xerxes, Cavalli La
Calisto, Monteverdi ‘Ulysses’ Homecoming
English Touring Opera
Hackney Empire. 8, 14, 15 October 2016

Hackney Empire.jpgEnglish Touring Opera (ETO) has built a solid reputation for their two annual opera tours around England. In their most recent season, they visited 91 venues, with two groups of fully-staged operas (sung in English) plus various wider educational and community projects. It is a remarkable organisational undertaking and a tough call for the singers in each tour, with many singing in two operas and covering a role in the third. Usually touring two or three operas in the spring and autumn, they open with one-off autumnal London showings before hitting the road. Their choice of operas usually has a theme, or is otherwise related in style and period. This year’s autumn focus is on early operas written in, or inspired by, Venice, with Handel’s 1738 Xerxes, Cavailli’s 1651 La Calisto, and Monteverdi’s 1639 “Ulysses’ Homecoming” (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria), performed in reverse order to the dates of composition, and premièring in the magnificent surroundings of the Edwardian Hackney Empire. Continue reading

The Concerto in England: Handel & contemporaries

The Concerto in England: Handel & contemporaries
Avison Ensemble
Kings Place. 30 September 2016

Concertos by Avison, Garth, Handel, Herschel and Stanley.

As part of the Kings Place ‘Baroque Unwrapped’ season, the Newcastle-based Avison Ensemble explored the world of the 18th century concerto, and the equally interesting world of English provincial musical life. Charles Avison (pictured) was a Newcastle born organist and composer who absorbed the musical style of Geminiani and Scarlatti during a short period in London before being enticed back to Newcastle with the promise of prestigious organist post complete with a new organ. He made a handsome living through teaching and arranging subscription concerts. He was also a fierce reviewer of other composers, including Handel.

Avison’s 1758 Concerto Grosso in D (Op6/9) was an excellent example of the rather conservative type of piece that he wrote for the Newcastle Music Society. A rather bucolic opening reminiscent of hunting horns over a drone Continue reading

Handel in Italy: Vols 1 & 2

Handel in Italy: Vols 1 & 2
London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham
Benjamin, Mary & Sophie Bevan
Signum Classics
SIGCD423. 43’00.
SIGCD462. 55’12. 

Some of Handel’s most exciting and dramatic music was composed during the three short years he spent in Italy, starting when he was just 21. Despite offers of financial assistance from a Medici Prince, Handel famously ‘made his way on his own bottom’, as his biographer Mainwearing put it. Mainwearing suggests that prior to his visit, Handel ‘could see nothing’ in Italian music which, if it is true, is rather surprising, as Italian music had been at the forefront of much of the European Baroque, not least because of the developments in opera, oratorio and cantata. Handel very quickly absorbed the taste and style of Italian musicians both from Rome and also from his shorter visits to Venice, Florence and Naples. In his compositions from this period, he often outdid the Italians in writing in their style – as he did in England later in his life.

These two CDs (recorded together in 2013)  give a comprehensive account of the compositions for solo voice from that period. Interestingly, the three singers are all from the same extended Bevan family who, collectively and individually, have become prominent fixtures on the vocal scene. Continue reading

Handel: Alcina

Handel: Alcina
Ryedale Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
 ‘Experience Scheme’
Oriental Club London, 29 July 2016

After two performances during the Ryedale Festival (16 and 18 July), Ryedale Festival Opera brought their production of Handel’s Alcina to the courtyard of the Oriental Club in London. In collaboration with eight young instrumentalists from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s ‘Experience Scheme’, conducted from the harpsichord by Ian Tindale, this was a staged and impressively costumed production, but with minimal props and no sets or scenery, and given an impressively light directorial touch from Nina Brazier.

Like Handel’s operas Orlando and Ariodante, the story is based on a tale from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the epic early 16th century poem of knightly chivalry and fantasy set amidst the wars between Christians and Saracens in the time of Charlemagne. Continue reading

Handel: Apollo e Daphne

Handel: Apollo e Daphne
The Brook Street Band
17 July 2016

Given their name (referring to the London street where Handel made his home) it was not surprising that The Brook Street Band chose to celebrate their 20th anniversary with a concert of Handel: his cantata, Apollo e Daphne preceded by two Trio Sonatas and the ‘Oxford’ Water Music.  Normally appearing as a quartet of two violins, cello and harpsichord, they added a flute for part of the Water Music, and oboes, bassoon and viola for the cantata. All the instrumental pieces had an interesting back story, Continue reading

Handel: Theodora

Handel: Theodora
Basingstoke Choral Society, Hanover Band, Erica Eloff
The Anvil, Basingstoke. 2 July 2016

Local choral societies do not normally come within my reviewing remit, but the addition of the period instrument orchestra, The Hanover Band and the outstanding soprano Erica Eloff to the event at my local concert hall proved irresistible. The Basingstoke Choral Society has local roots going back to the late 19th century. An 1889 programme of a performance of Elijah by its predecessor, the Basingstoke Musical Society, mentions a choir of around 100 singers. For this performance of Handel’s oratorio Theodora, they fielded 108 singers, with 38 sopranos, 38 altos, 13 tenors and 18 bass singers, arranged in six rows overflowing from the stage on the rear stalls seats.

Theordora is a curious work. One of Handel’s least successful productions, it only ran for three poorly attended performances, and was only revived once during Handel’s lifetime. It was one of his last oratorios, written when Handel was 64, and is now seen as a masterpiece, with some notably arias and choruses. The story is unusual when compared with other Handel oratorios and operas. It is based on the story of a fourth century Princess who refused to Continue reading

Varietas: Jean-Christophe Dijoux

Varietas
Jean-Christophe Dijoux, harpsichord
Geniun GEN 16420. 81’31

Works by Handel, Buxtehude, Böhm, JS and CPE Bach, Mattheson, and Telemann

Jean-Christophe Dijoux was the winner of the harpsichord category of the 2014 Leipzig International Bach Competition, and this CD stems from that success.  Born in Réunion, Dijoux studied in Paris, Freiburg and Basel, spent a year touring with the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO), and won awards for continuo playing at the 2013 International Telemann Competition. Using two harpsichords (built by Matthias Kramer of Berlin after 1701 and 1754 originals) and four different temperaments, he explores music with a connection to Hamburg. Both instruments have 16’ stops, adding an impressive gravitas to the sound.

Improvisation is at the heart of music of this period, and very clearly also of Dijoux’s own playing style. That is evident from Continue reading

Early Opera Company: Silete venti

Silete venti
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn, Sophie Bevan
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 March 2016

Handel: Concerto Grosso Op6/10, Silete Venti; Wassenaer: Concerto 5 from Concerti Armonici; Biber: Battalia a 10; Muffat: Concerto 5 from Armonico Tributo

Christian Curnyn, biographyThe players of the Early Opera Company, directed by Christian Curnyn, stepped out of their more usual orchestra pit for an almost instrumental evening of music making at St John’s, Smith Square, with music generally representing the Concerto Grosso format.

Their final work was one of the first examples, albeit billed under the more innocent name of Sonata, with the fifth sonata from Georg Muffat’s Armonico Tributo. These pieces were rehearsed in Corelli’s house during Muffat’s trip to Rome, and were clearly influenced by Corelli’s music and the Italian style. Muffat later spent time with Lully in Paris, and developed a skill in writing music in the French style, before combining the two. But even before then, in this early Italian work, he concludes with a very French Passagaglia, with its distinctive repeated phrases and the use of the opening passage as a refrain, with its lovely little violin motif of rising triplets. In the opening Allemanda we hear a foretaste (or should I say, forehear) of a similar swirling violin motif. With frequent passages for a trio of two violins and cello, set against the full orchestra, this was a Concerto Grosso in all but name. Continue reading

Handel: Trio Sonatas

Handel: Trio Sonatas
The Brook Street Band
Avie AV2357. 76’10

Sinfonia in B flat HWV 339; Trio Sonatas in F HWV 392, B flat HWV 50a ‘Esther’, G minor HWV 393; in E HWV 394; C minor HWV 386a; C HWV 403 ‘Saul’.

Trio Sonatas for Two Violins and Basso ContinuoThe Brook Street Band, named after the London street where Handel lived for the last 36 years of his life, celebrate their 20th anniversary this year. As well as his well known Opus 2 and 5 sets of Trio Sonatas, Handel left a number of isolated examples of the genre, three of them normally referred to as the ‘Dresden’ sonatas where the manuscript is housed. To these three (HWV 392-4), are added two other proper trio sonatas (386a and 403) and two other pieces arranged by the Brook Street Band in a trio sonata format, the early Sinfonia and an early version of the overture to Esther, both of which helpfully lack an viola part. Many of the movements are examples of Handel’s re-use of material, and there are a number of familiar melodies that crop up with an otherwise lesser known group of pieces. Notable amongst Continue reading

Handel: Orlando

Handel: Orlando
The English Concert, Harry Bicket
The Barbican. 1 March 2016

In the past I have been rather frustrated by The Barbican’s habit of promoting concert performances of operas, largely because I have known that most of them had been fully, and often very sumptuously, staged on the continent. But I gradually grew to appreciate the ability to concentrate on the music without the distraction of staging, scenery and sometimes weird directorial instructions to the singers. And, to be fair to The Barbican, there have been some staged operas in recent years from the likes of William Christie. The English Concert started a series of concert performances of Handel operas last year, and continued with their production of Orlando. Judging by this outstanding performance of Orlando, they really have got the practice of concert performances down to a fine art. Continue reading

Spitalfields Music: B’Rock & Julia Doyle

Spitalfields Music: B’Rock
Rodolfo Richter director/violin, Julia Doyle soprano
Christ Church Spitalfields. 11 December 2015

WP_20151211_18_39_34_Pro.jpgCorelli: Concertos grosso Op6/4 and Op6/8 ‘Christmas Concerto’; Handel: Gloria; Arvo Pärt arr Frank Agsteribbe: Fratres; A Scarlatti: Cantata ‘O di Betlemme altera’

Making a spectacular Spitalfields Festival debut, the Belgian group B’Rock gave one of the finest concerts I have heard in a while. It is easy for reviewers to overdo superlatives or, indeed, to run out of new ones to use; and I am always wary of writers whose every concert seems to be the ‘best they have heard’. But this really was something special.

The opening chords of Corelli’s Concerto grosso in D (Op6/4) demonstrated B’Rock’s ability to create enormous contrast out of a sparse musical text, in this case of just nine chords. Under the inspired direction of violinist Rudolfo Richter, they Continue reading

Inspired by Italy: European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO)

Inspired by Italy: European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO)
Lars Ulrik Mortensen, director, Zefira Valova, concertmaster
St John’s, Smith Square, 22 October 2015

Handel: Ouverture to Alessandro HWV21, Sonata in G HWV399, Concerto Grosso in F Op. 3 No. 4; Vivaldi: String Sinfonias in D RV124 & G minor RV157; Albinoni: Concerto for 2 oboes in F Op. 9 No. 3; Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D Op. 6 No. 4.

The European Union Baroque Orchestra was formed in 1985, and has recently successfully negotiated its way through a difficult period of financial uncertainty. It celebrated its renewed, if short term security with the first short series of concerts for the newly formed orchestra of young musicians. They are selected anew each year through combined educational and selection courses and then usually meet five or six times a year to rehearse and then tour a new programme. One of the key features of EUBO is giving the musicians the chance to experience life as a touring orchestral musician, evidenced on this occasion by Continue reading

OAE @ 30 – Bostridge sings Handel

OAE @ 30 – Bostridge sings Handel
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ian Bostridge, Steven Devine
St John’s, Smith Sq. 14 October 2015

Telemann: Overture/Suite in F; Ich weiss, dass mein Erlöser lebt;  So stehet ein Berg Gottes from Der Tod Jesu;
Handel: Concerto grosso in D minor Op. 3 No. 5; Scherza infida from Ariodante; Love sounds th’ alarm from Acis and Galatea; Silete venti; Water Music Suite No. 1

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are so much a part of musical life that it is hard to realise that they are just 30 years. Founded some years after (and in direct response to) the raft of director-controlled period instrument groups, so influential in those early days, they reacted against the control of individual conductors by setting up their own self-managed orchestra, employing their own conductors as and when required, but often directing themselves. Seemingly able to bring together a disparate group of highly individual and highly qualified musicians, each with their own views (and without, it seems, too much blood letting), they set a precedence for the musical world.

Early involvement with a youthful Simon Rattle probably taught him as much as he taught them, and they soon attracted conductors of the calibre of Ivan Fischer, Roger Norrington, Mark Elder and, more recently, Vladimir Jurowski, all now honoured as Principal Artists. The distinguished Bach scholar and conductor John Butt has just joined that impressive list. They often perform without a conductor, producing excellent results through the encouragement and support of one their own. They opened their 30th birthday season in such a fashion when Steven Devine, one of their principal keyboard players and an increasingly distinguished conductor in his own right, took over the conducting reigns (from the harpsichord) for a programme of Telemann and Handel with tenor Ian Bostridge. Continue reading