Bach: Mass in B Minor
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, John Butt
Royal Albert Hall, 29 March 2022
How should an atheist approach Bach? And, in particular, his Mass in B minor, arguably his finest work and one that, to him, seemed to sum up a lifetime of music dedicated to Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone) – the meaning of the S.D.G that Bach appended to all his sacred works?
‘A New Created World’
Haydn: The Creation
Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings, Nina Dunn Studio
Barbican Hall. 28 Sep 2021, and online
After a successful series of AAM Live 2021 live-streamed Covid concerts, the Academy of Ancient Music returned to live performance with Haydn’s Creation, conducted in the Barbican Hall by Laurence Cummings, making his debut as the AAM’s new Music Director. Haydn’s joyous paean of praise to the Biblical creation story was a splendid way to open their post-lockdown “New Worlds” themed season. Their performance also featured inventive and elaborate video designs by Nina Dunn Studio, projected onto the wide wooden rear screen of the Barbican stage.
Symphony No. 5 Le grand Inconnu & The Sun Danced
The Sixteen, Genesis Sixteen + Alumni, Britten Sinfonia
Mary Bevan, Harry Christophers
You wouldn’t normally associate The Sixteen with a recording of a Symphony. But with their continuing involvement with the music of Sir James MacMillan, which included giving the premiere of his Stabat Mater in 2016, it was perhaps inevitable that, with his thoughts of making his next symphony a chorale piece, a commission was put together for a choral symphony, sponsored by the Genesis Foundation. This is the premiere recording, made live at a concert in The Barbican, London, on 14 October. Continue reading
Thomas Arne: The Judgement of Paris
Brook Street Band, John Andrews
Dutton Epoch CDLX 7361. 67’50
If it wasn’t for his Rule Britannia (1710-1778), Thomas Arne would probably be more-or-less forgotten today. Although he wrote music for nearly 100 stage works, most of his scores are lost, many destroyed in the 1808 Covent Garden fire. Such was the fate of the full score of The Judgement of Paris, although parts if it had been published. The version performed here is based on that publication, with the missing recitatives and choruses reconstructed by Ian Spink for his Musica Britannica edition. It was first performed at Drury Lane Theatre in March 1742 and, three months later, in Dublin alongside his masque Alfred. His wife Cecilia Young sang the role of Venus. Continue reading
Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld
English National Opera
Coliseum, 23 October 2019
Act II – Mount Olympus
The classical legend of Orpheus, dating back to the 6th century BCE, has been an inspiration for artists and musicians for more than 2,000 years. The related story of the death of his wife Eurydice has a more complex background. It has been the focus of musical commentaries from Monteverdi’s sublime 1607 opera L’Orfeo (one of the first known operas) to present-day pop songs and video games. Following Monteverdi, we have Gluck’s 1762 Orfeo ed Euridice, and Jacques Offenbach’s 1858/1874 comic operetta Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers), a satirical parody of Gluck, which formed the basis for this ENO production. Continue reading
Barbara Strozzi: Star of Venice
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment
Mary Bevan, Christian Curnyn
Kings Place, 10 January 2018
Barbara Strozzi: L’amante modesto, Pace arrabbiata, Lagrime Mie, Canto di bella bocca,
E pazzo il mio core, Le tre Gratie a Venere, Silenzio nocivo
Claudio Monteverdi: Volgendo il ciel, Il ballo delle ingrate
For several years now, Kings Place has selected a specific theme for each year under the banner of ‘Unwrapped’. Past examples have included Time Unwrapped, Cello Unwrapped, Baroque Unwrapped, and Minimalism Unwrapped. Their offering for 2019 is the enticing named Venus Unwrapped. The year-long series of around 60 concerts aims to “unlock the secret history of music by women”. It opened with a focus on Barbara Strozzi, one of the best known of the very few female composers of the Baroque era – or, indeed, of any era if musical history is to be believed. The painting below (The Viola da Gamba Player) is believed to be off Barbara Strozzi.
The distinguished conductor Christian Curnyn directed a group of singers and instrumentalists from the Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, with Mary Bevan as the main billed soloist, although several other singers had prominent roles.
Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 2
London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham
Signum SIGCD479. 59’44
This recording is the second part London Early Opera’s exploration of the music of Handel as it might have been performed at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in the 1740s. Their 2017 recording, Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 1 (reviewed here) presented the first half of a conjectural reconstruction of typical evening’s entertainment, and we now have the second half, continuing the fascinating mix of orchestral, organ and vocal music. Each half of these concerts usually had around eight pieces, usually including an organ concerto, other instrumental pieces, songs and dances, performed from the central bandstand. The opening song of the second half, Spring Gardens: Flora, goddess sweetly blooming sets the scene, noting that “Belles and beaux are all invited / To partake of varied sweets . . . as breaking notes descending / Break upon the list’ning ear”. In complete contrast, it is followed by the Concerto Grosso (Op 6/4), one of a set of twelve published in 1739/40 in homage to Corelli. Continue reading
Sally Beamish: The Judas Passion
Orchestra & Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan
St John’s, Smith Square, 25 September 2017
One of many puzzles that leap from the pages of the Bible is the curious position of Judas Iscariot in the wider scheme of things. The synoptic gospels do not agree on his role or the story of his apparent ‘betrayal’ of Jesus: actually, a literal ‘handing-over’ or ‘delivery’ of Jesus if the word paradidomi is more correctly translated. Two of the gospels suggest that the ‘devil’ entered him, something that Jesus had already proved adept at dealing with by a bit of casting out. Why didn’t he do so on this occasion? And if, as seems likely, Jesus foresaw, and may have actively encouraged Judas’s paradidomi, then it was not an act of free will and should not be punishable, let alone seen as the ultimate betrayal for which the ‘loving and forgiving God’ has left the hapless Judas to be almost alone among the irrevocably damned, notwithstanding his clear remorse. And if preordained, why the personal condemnation of the man who fulfils the prophecy – “It would be better for that man if he had never been born”? It was one of many New Testament events that were, apparently, preordained in the Old Testament, the juggling of which has caused many problems of Christian interpretation.
Edward Armitage: The Remorse of Judas, 1866. Tate Britain
The Clare Reformation 500 Project
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, Clare Baroque, Graham Ross
St John’s, Smith Square. 30 March 2017
Bach Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild; Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott
Brahms Warum ist das Licht gegeben den Mühseligen?
Mendelssohn Wer nur den lieben Gott laßt walten
Vaughan Williams Lord, thou hast been our refuge
As part of their Clare Reformation 500 Project, the choir and associated period instrument orchestra of Clare College, Cambridge, gave a concert of music inspired by the musical legacy of Martin Luther’s 1517 Reformation. It was the culmination of the Lent Term series of Sunday services in the College chapel, each featuring a liturgical performance of a Bach cantata, using a variety of instrumental groups to accompany them. On this occasion they used Clare Baroque which, despite its name, was not a student orchestra but was made up of many of the ‘usual suspects’ from London’s early music performers, led by the ex-Clare violinist (and Director of Performance in the University Faculty of Music) Margaret Faultless. Continue reading
Spitalfields Music: Shakespeare in Love
The English Concert, Harry Bicket, Mary Bevan, Tim Mead
Shorditch Church, 7 December 2016
The Spitalfields Music Winter Festival is one of the highlights of the London musical calendar, sensibly positioned in early December just before the Christmas musical silliness takes hold. Founded in 1976, initially to raise interest and money for the restoration of the fabulous Nicholas Hawksmoor Christ Church Spitalfields, Spitalfields Music has grown to became a major arts and community organisation working throughout the year in the East End of London. It’s 40th year included 15 new commissions, programming more than 65 performances across East London, enabling some 5000 local people to take part in free musical activities, and working with communities ranging from 1500 local school children to care home residents. The week-long festival ranged from contemporary jazz, a Bollywood show with ‘a tuba the size of Belgium’, a show for toddlers, musical dinners in a hidden Masonic Temple together with the usual array of top-notch classical music events, with the usual focus on early and contemporary music.
I missed the first few days (including Gothic Voices in the Tower of London, The Sixteen, Melvyn Tan, and a dance and music theatre show. So for me, the festival started with The English Concert’s tribute to the music inspired by Shakespeare in his own anniversary year. A cleverly designed programme focused on Purcell’s Fairy Queen and Handel’s Guilio Cesare in the two halves, and featured soprano Mary Bevan and Countertenor Tim Mead, two of the finest singers around. Continue reading
Handel in Italy: Vols 1 & 2
London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham
Benjamin, Mary & Sophie Bevan
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
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
The Roundhouse is the latest of the Royal Opera House’s ventures away from Covent Garden, another being the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at The Globe. The circular building (a former engine shed in North London, and one of my haunts in earlier rock concert days) made an impressive, if acoustical tricky, venue for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The audience sit in a 270° arc around the off-centre circular stage with the instrumentalists of the Early Opera Company at the back of the stage.
The Prologue opened with a young and rather sour looking Pluto and his entourage processing down a long sloping gangway onto the stage and up to a raised dais above the orchestra and what turned out to be the entrance to Hades. The gods were accompanied by be-robed priests who turned out to be the three Pastore (billed as ‘Pastors’ – very droll). It had the air of a court house, with the gods sitting in judgement as the scene unfolded below. Musica (who turns into Euridice via an on-stage costume change) sat with Orfeo draped pieta-like across her lap, a touching scene reversed at the end of the evening.The only prop was a simple chair, with the other scenes created by a lively group of 14 child dancers and acrobats (from East London Dance) who created arches through which the protagonists moved, as well as the ripples of the Styx.
This was the first attempt at opera direction by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s former Artistic Director, Michael Boyd, and he sensibly resisted the temptation to overly embellish the plot. The sparse setting allowed the focus to be on the music itself, something that the young singers rose to with considerable aplomb. The Transylvanian baritone, Gyula Orendt was a most impressive Orfeo, the clarity of his voice overcoming some slight pronunciation difficulties and the curious spectacle of him being hoisted precariously into the air at the end. Mary Bevan was outstanding as Euridice and Musica, both with her acting and the beauty of her voice. The other members of the cast were of a similar high standard, including the chorus drawn from Guildhall students. However, I was not convinced about casting Susan Bickley as the Messenger. The playing of the Early Opera Company and Christopher Moulds’ musical direction was spot on. There is more I could write about some of the production issues, but will certainly remember this as a fine musical event.