Bach: Christmas Oratorio
Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Stephen Layton
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
St John’s, Smith Square, 22 December 2018
Whatever joys the St John’s Smith Square Christmas Festival comes up with year after year (this is the 33rd), the climax comes with the final two (always sold-out) concerts conducted by the festival director, Stephen Layton, firstly with his own Trinity College Cambridge choir, and then with his professional choir, Polyphony. In recent years both concerts have been accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). The first of the two concerts is usually Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Parts 1, 2, 3 & 6), sung by the student choir of Trinity College, the second, Messiah, sung by Polyphony.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings
Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 22 July 2018
Glyndebourne’s new production of Handel’s Saul was one of the highlights of the 2015 season, gaining rave reviews from, amongst others, me – see here, which also gives more background to the oratorio and the production. Glyndebourne has a long tradition of staging Handel oratorios, and I have no problem at all with that, subject to my normal reservations about what some some opera directors get up to with their productions. This was not entirely devoid of some concern on those grounds, but the sheer spectacle of Barrie Kosky’s direction and the musical integrity of Ivor Bolton’s direction allayed most of my concerns. The same applies to this revival, at least musically, on this occasion conducted by the equally distinguished Laurence Cummings, directing the same Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Glyndebourne’s resident period instrument orchestra.
Handel: Giulio Cesare
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 10 June 2018
It is no surprise that David McVicar’s 2005 production of Handel’s glorious Giulio Cesare proved to be so popular. Revived twice in the years just after its first performance, it now, after a gap of a few years, reaches its third revival. The first night on 10 June was the 38th performance at Glyndebourne, and the remaining performances are already sold out. Handel’s opera, and McVicar’s interpretation, really do tick all the boxes, added to which is the outstanding cast of the current run (three of whom survive from the original cast) and the return of the original conductor, William Christie. Continue reading
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
Bach and Handel: Great Balls of Fire
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Steven Devine
Kings Place. 1 March 2018
Handel: Organ Concerto Op. 4 no. 1
Handel: Organ Concerto Op. 7 no. 5
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 5
Under the banner of the Kings Place ‘Turning Points’ series (which aims to explore the hidden secrets of the great composers) and a very silly concert title (‘Great Balls of Fire’), the OAE presented three examples of the 18th-century keyboard concerto, contrasting two of Handel’s Organ Concertos with Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto. Composed for entirely different audiences and occasions, the Bach and Handel pieces reflect key moments in the development of music. A pre-concert talk by the chief executive of the OAE, given in the rather booming style of a schoolmaster (I use the gender-specific term deliberately) lecturing a lower-sixth general studies course, gave some background to the concert and the three pieces were to hear. The concert itself lasted just one hour, without interval. It was followed by a Q&A session with the performers and an encore, voted for by the audience from a list of three. Continue reading
Bach, the Universe & Everything
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Kings Place. 14 January 2018
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s regular Kings Place Sunday morning ‘Bach, the Universe & Everything‘ series is billed as a “Sunday service for inquiring and curious minds; a place to bond with music lovers and revel in the wonders of science.”. In conjunction with The Institute of Physics, each event includes a Bach cantata and a talk from a distinguished scientist. This first event of 2018 reflected the Kings Place theme for 2018, ‘Timed unwrapped‘, with a talk by Professor Helen F Gleeson on Time and Perception. These are very popular events, but it was my first visit. Although not in the style of the many totally secular Sunday ‘services’ that have sprung up around the country in these post-religious days, there were elements of a church service in the organ pieces played before the start (of non-conformist, rather than C of E length), a reading, a choir ‘anthem’, notices, a hymn (in this case, of course, a Lutheran chorale) and a ‘collection’ at the bar in return for coffee and cake.
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
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
Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
BBC Prom 59. Royal Albert Hall. 28 August 2017
The tradition of bringing one of the season’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera productions to the Proms continued this year with their version of Mozart’s often overlooked opera La Clemenza di Tito. Although I didn’t see the fully staged version at Glyndebourne, I did see the live webcast of the performance, and my feelings about the much-reduced staging in the Albert Hall is influenced by that.
Director Claus Guth and designer Christian Schmidt’s Glyndebourne staging divided the world of Tito into two, a clean modernist upper floor executive office positioned above a reed-clogged swamp where much of the action took place. A video played during the overture (or didn’t, depending on which performance you saw) which explained, apparently, the director’s interpretation of why Tito relationship with his boyhood chum Sextus went sour. The transfer to the Proms retained the dual levels, but with Tito’s domain behind the orchestra on the upper steps of the stage, the swamp rather pathetically alluded to by about half a dozen clumps of reeds and a rock on the stage in front of the orchestra. But, as is so often the case with semi-staged or concert performances of opera, this rather helpfully pulled the opera away from being the inspiration of the director towards being that of Mozart. Continue reading
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht / Brahms: Andante from Sextet Op18/1
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Night Shift
Baroquestock Summer BBQ weekend special
Heath St Baptist Church, Hampstead. 17 August 2017
This turned out to be a Tale of Two Churches. On my way to Hampstead for the first event of the Baroquestock Summer BBQ weekend at Heath Street Baptist Church in Hamstead, I stopped off at the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in Holborn, known for many years as the Musicians’ Church, and an important venue for rehearsals and concerts for many musicians and choir. There I joined a flashmob drawing attention to the recent decision by the church (now run as a ‘plant’ of the evangelical Holy Trinity Brompton) to stop all rehearsal and concert bookings – an extraordinary decision that has caused a justifiable uproar.
In sharp contrast to the situation in, of all places, the Musicians’ Church, Heath Street Baptist Church in Hamstead is one of many London churches that have actively embraced music and musicians, running a regular series of lunchtime concerts as well as occasional musical festivals, the latter recently under the title of Baroquestock in food-related weekend festivals. Their latest Baroquestock weekend includes concerts by Spiritato and Istante Classical, the latter including Haydn’s La Poule Symphony to the accompaniment of BBQ chicken. Their opening event was a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, to the culinary accompaniment of, you’ve guessed – Schoenbergers! Continue reading
Francesco Cavalli: Hipermestra
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, William Christie
Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 21 May 2017
For somebody who believes an oracle that he will be murdered by one of his nephews, it was particularly unfortunate that Danao, King of Argos, had 50 of them, the sons of his brother Egitto, King of Egypt. As it happened, Danao had 50 daughters, so married them all off to his nephews with the instruction that they must all murder their husbands on their wedding night. With one exception, Danao’s plan worked, the exception being his daughter Hipermestra and her new husband Linceo, who had fallen for each other. The subsequent plot of Cavalli’s 1658 opera is based on the complex series of events that occurred after the 50 potential murderous nephews were now reduced to a more manageable one. Continue reading
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
Bach: B Minor Mass
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton
St John’s, Smith Square, 22 December 2016
The annual St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival is now in its 31st year, the last 20 of which have been curated by Stephen Layton, conductor of Polyphony, who traditionally give the final concert, and Director of Music at Trinity College Cambridge whose choir gives the penultimate concert of the series. This year’s penultimate concert was a re-run of last year’s, reviewed here. I will not repeat the comments I made about last year’s concert, so it is worth reading that review before this one.
This year the Trinity College choir was 46-strong, two up from last year, with 16 additional alumni singers bought in to reinforce the 30-strong current student choir. Several of the alumni singers have been making their way in the post-university musical world, with at least two receiving honorable mentions on this website. This year a mezzo-soprano was added to the line up, alongside the countertenor Iestyn Davies. Mezzo Helen Charlston is one of the alumni I have already spotted as a singer of real promise and, although she only had a brief moment front stage (at the start, in the duet Christe), she again demonstrated a excellent voice.
Bach: Christmas Oratorio 1-3, Singet dem Herrn
Choir & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Masaaki Suzuki
Cadogan Hall. 9 December 2016
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was originally performed as six separate cantatas on the major feast days of the Christmas Day, starting on 25 December. Unlike present day marketing operations and shops, Christmas in Lutheran Leipzig started on Christmas Day, not sometime in late-October. The first three cantatas were performed on the successive days, 25, 26, and 27 December 1734, with performances in both the Thomaskirche and Nicolaikirche. The last three cantatas were performed on 1, 2, and 6 January 1735, again with performances in both churches (with the exception of Part 3 and 5, which were only performed at the Nicolaikirche).
Notwithstanding the separate nature of the six cantatas, Bach clearly saw them as a unified whole, grouping them together under the single title of Weihnachts-Oratorium, and giving the whole set a logical key structure and theme development. As in many of his major works, Bach borrowed from his previous compositions (including three entirely secular cantatas), making for fascinating thoughts about the creation of a religious masterpiece balanced against the practical considerations of coming up with so many cantatas in such a short space of time and Bach’s allocating of religious texts to music composed for secular purposes. It is a shock to realise that, despite the importance that this work apparently meant to Bach, the Christmas Oratorio was not performed again until 1857.
Shorn of the setting of a Lutheran service in wintry Leipzig, present day performances are inevitably compromises. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment came up with the sensible plan of splitting the piece over two successive evenings, Continue reading
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
Glyndebourne: Le nozze di Figaro
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Jonathan Cohen
Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 15 July 2016
Le nozze di Figaro was the first opera to be performed at Glyndebourne at its opening festival in May 1934, and it has been a regular ever since. This performance was a return of the 2012 production, directed by Michael Grandage, with Ian Rutherford as the revival director. I didn’t see the 2012 version, so am not able to compare or note any differences, but the sumptuous sets, and costumes are the same. Those who wanted more of the story of Figaro could also have seen Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Glyndebourne a few weeks earlier, for the back-story to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, with Figaro relieved of his interim job as a barber and returned as the servant of Count Almaviva and his Countess.
The setting was clearly Seville, although the dating takes a little while to reveal itself. Glorious architectural depictions of Moorish architecture Continue reading
Weber: Der Freischütz
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, London Philharmonic Choir, Sir Mark Elder
Royal Festival Hall. 7 June 2016
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have been celebrating their 30th anniversary year with a remarkably wide range of music, culminating with this Birthday Concert performance of Weber’s Der Freischütz. Perhaps most noted for their exploration of Baroque and Classical music, it can be forgotten that the OAE have also performed many pieces from the Romantic era, with remarkable success – indeed, their second concert, 30 years ago, under Roger Norrington, was devoted entirely to Weber. And so it was with this powerful semi-dramatised performance.
‘Not all orchestras are the same’ is one of the OAE’s mottos, and they do seem to relish pushing boundaries. That was also the case with Weber and Der Freischütz, one of the opening salvos of the German Romantic movement. Set in a forest Continue reading
Mahler: Resurrection Symphony
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Philharmonia Chorus, Vladimir Jurowski
Royal Festival Hall. 12 April 2016
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is a remarkable institution. They are equally at home as a tiny Baroque trio sonata format, a string quartet in a crowded pub or, as they were on this occasion, with nearly 120 players fronting a choir of more than 130 singers in one of the major works of the late Romantic repertoire. They bring an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and expertise of period instruments and performing styles, and nurture, support and influence the conductors that they invite to direct their concerts. With Sir Simon Rattle soon to lead them in Bruckner, this was Vladimir Jurowski’s chance to put them through their paces with Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the so-called ‘Resurrection’.
This often performed giant of the repertoire is very rarely, if ever, heard with the instrumental sound of Mahler’s time. And although that is only just over 100 years ago, the sound difference to the modern orchestra is almost as great as that between Mahler’s time and Mozart’s, 100 years before. The most 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
Compulsive Lyres and Fowl Play
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sir Roger Norrington
Royal Festival Hall. 14 February 2016
Haydn: Symphony No.83 (La Poule); Mozart: Concerto in C for flute & harp, K.299; Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George: Overture, L’amant anonyme; Beethoven: Symphony No.2.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Department for Thinking up Silly Concert Titles had a field day with this one, coming up with ‘Compulsive Lyres and Fowl Play’. Under the benevolent direction of Sir Roger Norrington, the OAE’s programme was centred on the fascinating character Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George (b1745), the son of a wealthy French plantation owner in Guadeloupe, and his African slave. Educated back in France from the age of 7, he first became known as a fencer, graduating from the Academy of fencing and horsemanship aged 21 and somehow collecting the title of chevalier (knight) on the way. Quite how he achieved his skills in music is not known, but the composers Lolli and Gossec had already dedicated works to him before he was 21. He quickly became one of the leading Parisian violinists and orchestra leaders. He briefly lived in the same house as Mozart (the mansion of his mentor, the Duke of Orléans in Paris), and was leader of the enormous Masonic Loge Olympique orchestra, for which Haydn wrote his Paris Symphonies.
It was one of those Paris Symphonies that opened the programme, No 83 in G minor, the so-called La Poule, nicknamed after the hen-like clucking Continue reading
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
Glyndebourne Festival Opera. 6 August 2015
I don’t normally read other reviews until I have seen for myself, but I was aware that Glyndebourne’s new production of Handel’s Saul had gone down well. And well it should. It is one of the most successful productions that I have seen. Directed by Barrie Kosky, with designs by Katrin Lea Tag and lighting by Joachim Klein, the sumptuous settings and costumes would inevitably tick most opera-goers’ boxes. Of course, Saul isn’t an opera, but one of his finest oratorios, written in 1739 and the first of his collaborations with Charles Jennens. There is now a long tradition of staging oratorios, not least at Glyndebourne, dating back to 1996 and Peter Sellars’ Theodora. And with its dramatic story of family intrigue, love and hate, a youthful hero and a king loosing his mind, it certainly has all the dramatic possibilities of opera seria.
‘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 Orchestra 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
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Kati Debretzeni, director & violin
Frances Kelly, harp, Elizabeth Kenny, theorbo
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 12 May 2015
Despite being no spring chicken myself, the audience at most classical music concerts make me feel rather young – perhaps naively. Not so the OAE’s innovative Night Shift events, specifically aimed at young people and therefore making me feel rather old. Although these events have taken place in pubs and bars, I usually experience them, like this one, as late-night one-hour events repeating part of the earlier evening OAE concert. On this occasion, the OAE included three of the pieces played in the earlier concert reviewed below (Telemann’s Violin Concerto in Bb and Handel’s Concerto for harp & lute and he Concerto Grosso, Op 6/1), unfortunately omitting Stevie Wishart’s new work which had just been given its world premiere. I would have loved to have heard what the young audience thought of that work.
The Queen Elizabeth Hall stage lighting was given a sexy twist Continue reading
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Kati Debretzeni, director & violin
Chi-Chi Nwanoku, double bass, Frances Kelly, harp, Elizabeth Kenny, theorbo
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 12 May 2015
Telemann: Overture (Suite) in B flat, TWV.55:B8 (Ouverture burlesque), Concerto in B flat for violin, TWV.51:B1,
Stevie Wishart: Concerto à double entendre (World premiere)
Handel: Concerto in B flat for violin & orchestra, HWV.288 (Sonata a 5), Concerto in B flat, Op.4 No.6 for lute & harp, Concerto grosso in G, Op.6 No.1
Nestling in between the familiar OAE territory of Telemann and Handel was the world premiere of Stevie Wishart’s The Rough with the Smooth: Concerto à double entendre. Lasting about 23 minutes, it was structurally based on the traditional form of the concerto grosso, the three-movements headed Prelude and Fugue, Air, and Passacaglia. So far, so Baroque. But Stevie Wishart is a composer with roots in early and contemporary music. So rather than highlighting the melodic aspects of the instruments that are usually key to Baroque music, Wishart focused on the “resonance, overtones and sympathetic vibration” of the string orchestra, commenting that “the entire orchestra play only open strings and harmonics so that melodies only surface through a barrage of ‘sound clouds’ and gentle noise.” Continue reading
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.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought their programme of music for winds to Basingstoke’s Anvil, the day after their performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (6 Feb). Under the banner of the OAE’s ‘Flying the Flag’ series, they focussed on central Europe and Bohemia, with Mozart and his little-known friend Josef Mysliveček, as well as the later Bohemian composer Josef Triebensee, who arranged movements of Don Giovanni for the Prince of Lichenstein’s harmonie wind band around 1790. The evening opened with Mozart’s monumental so-called ‘Gran Partita’ (Serenade No 10 for 13 wind instruments); nearly an hour of music of the most extraordinary intensity, and given an exceptional performance by the OAE players. I particularly liked the way that they slightly extended some key rests, adding to the air of suspense. Josef Mysliveček met the young Mozart in Bologna, and was an early influence despite their later falling out. The composer of some 29 operas and 55 Symphonies, the jolly little Wind Octet No.2 in E flat (discovered not so long ago in a pile of manuscripts in the Black Forest) was probably not the finest work to display his talents, but the OAE (in the more traditional wind band grouping of 8 players) bought out his humour of his writing, not least in one little passage where a oboe scale was finished off, after a slight pause, by the second oboe. The choice of Triebensee’s arrangement of Don Giovanni was apt, as the opera itself includes an on-stage wind band playing an arrangement of Mozart’s own Figaro – Mozart’s dig at the bourgeoisie habit of background music. A fine oboist himself, Triebensee played the tricky second oboe part in the first performance of The Magic Flute, and makes much of the oboe in his arrangements, generally of soprano arias. Although lacking a vocal line, his arrangements are clever reinterpretations of Mozart’s originals, and formed a light-hearted end to what had possible been a rather heavy evening for Basingstoke’s concert goers.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment continued their collaboration with The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with an imaginative performance of Matthew Locke’s music for the 1674 production of The Tempest (or Enchanted Island), devised and directed by Elizabeth Kenny with stage direction and text adaptation by Caroline Williams. Following the Musica Brittannica edition, the music included additional pieces by Pelham Humphrey, Reggio, Banister, Purcell and Hart. The five OAE instrumentalists were joined by three singers, two boy trebles together with two actors who cleverly acted all the parts in the extracts from the rather curious version of Shakespeare’s play for which Locke provided the music. Despite the oddities of the text, this Tempest was extraordinarily popular at the time, with frequent revivals over the following 150 years. Although 21st century eyes and ears might not rate the play quite so highly, setting Locke’s relatively well-known music in the context of at least part of the spoken text and stage action does help with understanding the context of music like this. Along with Purcell’s examples, this repertoire is difficult to slot into the mainstream European musical tradition of the late 17th century. The Wanamaker Playhouse is a gloriously intimate space for such performances, the candle lighting added much to the atmosphere. This was a lively and, at times, very funny production, not least when one of the actors portrayed a sword fight by playing both characters at the same time. The impressive singers were Katherine Watson, Frazer B Scott and Samuel Boden.