Bach: Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Padmore
The Anvil, Basingstoke. 31 March 2018

During Easter Saturday, I watched a broadcast from Berlin of the powerful Simon Rattle/Peter Sellars staging of the St Matthew Passion that I had reviewed back in 2014 at the Proms. And in the evening, an unstaged, but equally powerful Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performance in Basingstoke’s Anvil. The common factor was Mark Padmore, appearing as the Evangelist and, in the case of the OAE, as director. I don’t object in principle to stagings of the Bach Passions. Sellar’s use of the space in and around the orchestras was very effective, and I also liked Jonathan Miller’s inspiringly human reading in the mid-1990s, and Deborah Warner’s 2000 ENO staging of the St John Passion, which drew the audience directly into the unfolding drama. But sometimes just being presented with the music itself, without additional layering, is the way to focus on the complex human emotions that Bach portrays.  Continue reading

JS Bach/JC Bach/CEP Bach: Magnificats

JS Bach, JC Bach & CPE Bach: Magnificats
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Hyperion CDA68157. 76’48

This recording has the same programme as the concert in St John’s, Smith Square in October 2015. The CD was recorded a few days after the concert, in the church of St Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, but has only recently been released. The acoustics of this large Gothic church (with its wide nave and tiny side aisles) are more generous than St John’s, Smith Square, giving an added bloom to the sound, although the spacing of the musical forces sometimes gives more of a sense of distance that the more compact London stage avoided. Unlike the concert performance, the CD opens with JS Bach’s 1733 reworking of his earlier E flat version, written for his first Christmas in Lübeck in 1723. It is given a forthright performance without the irritating gaps between movements that I mentioned in the concert review.  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

OAE: The Brandenburgs

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
St John’s, Smith Square. 2 May 2017

It is not that often that all six Brandenburg Concertos are performed in one concert. One issue is the logistics of gathering so many instrumentalists together, several for just one piece. Another is the length, in this case overrunning an ambitious estimate by some 20 minutes. On this occasions, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment performed the six concertos in the sensible order of 1, 3, 5 interval 4, 6, 2, providing some key contrast, and saving the most powerful concerto to the end. There had been some shifting of personal before the start of the concert, with the former second violinist Huw Daniel stepping up to concertmaster to replace the indisposed Pavlo Beznosiuk, and Naomi Burrell stepping in to take his place in the line up. Continue reading

Royal Academy of Music: Early Music Prize

Royal Academy of Music
Nancy Nuttall Early Music Prize
RAM Duke’s Hall. 29th April 2016

The Royal Academy of Music’s annual early music prize has in recent years been known as the Nancy Nuttall Early Music Prize, rather than its earlier incarnation with the name of a sherry manufacturer who donated a crate of sherry to the winners. The competition is for groups of from 3 to 10 players playing music from before 1800 on historically appropriate instruments. The winning group receives £1,000. It is a few years since I have been able to get to this event, and the increase in the standard of performance, and in the number of performers, was noticeable. Around 24 young musicians appeared, with very little duplication within the six groups.

It started with one of those awkward reviewer moments when I realised that instead of arriving embarrassingly early for a 6pm start I was actually embarrassingly late for the 5pm start. So I missed the first two groups, although I Continue reading

Jommelli: Il Vologeso

Niccolò Jommelli: Il Vologeso
Classical Opera Company, Ian Page
Cadogan Hall, 28 April 2016

It is when you hear music from composers like Niccolò Jommelli (1714-74) that you realise just how deep the musical well is, if you peep behind the wall of well-known composers. Writing in that fascinating limbo period between the Baroque and Classical era, Jommelli perhaps completed too many operas for posterity to master. Il Vologeso is one of his best-known works and, on the strength of this performance by Classical Opera Company (giving the UK premiere), deserves to be heard more, and in a full staging rather than this concert performance. This was another part of their MOZART 250 project, aimed at exploring the works of Mozart and his contemporaries on the anniversary of their composition – which, in the case of Il Vologeso, was on 11 February 1766, in the enormous theatre at the Duke of Württemberg’s Ludwigsburg Palace near Stuttgart.

The opening extended Overture showed many of the features of Jommelli’s writing that would be reinforced as the evening progressed, including Continue reading

London Festival of Baroque Music – Day 3

‘Women in Baroque Music’
St John’s, Smith Square, 17  May 2015

The third day of the festival started with ‘Sing Baroque’, with Robert Howarth, one of the Robert HowarthOrchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s regular conductors, leading a Sunday morning workshop on the choral sections of Vivaldi’s Gloria – “for all aspiring Baroque singers – no experience necessary!”. This is certainly not the sort of event that should be reviewed, but I will comment on the experience of watching a conductor at work from the other side of the podium. Conducting styles vary by personality (and over historic time), but there is a generation of younger conductors who focus on using collaboration, cooperation and genuine good humour (rather than dictatorship or bullying) as the key to communicating their ideas. It was clear that Robert Howarth is one of those. As well as giving the gathered singers an excellent insight into the music and aspects of performing it, Robert Howarth also made it an extremely entertaining occasion. Music’s gain is stand-up comedy’s loss.

The Sunday afternoon included a guided tour of The Wallace Collection exploring ‘Music, Dance and Gallentry in 18th-century French Art’, followed by a concert focusing on the harpsichord music of Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) given by Béatrice Martin. Continue reading