Bach: St John Passion Academy Choir & Baroque Players, Matthew Best St John’s, Wimbledon, 12 March 2022
Choral societies have a long and noble tradition in the UK. They provide much-needed employment opportunities for the young professional musicians brought in as soloists as well as giving the opportunity to perform for the vast body of amateur singers whose membership fees keep the shows on the road. The Academy Choir is one such. It was founded in Wimbledon in 1980 and since 2000 has been based at the church of St John the Baptist, Spencer Hill, Wimbledon. It is an auditioned choir, rather than taking all-comers, and the musical standards are obviously high. Since 2017 their musical director has been Matthew Best. My invitation to review their performance of the St John Passion promised that “our concerts tend to be ‘a cut above’ what might typically be expected to be found in a suburban church, given by a local choir”, a claim that proved itself correct.
Handel: Messiah Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr Live-stream from The Barbican, 19 December 2020
In what is becoming the ‘new normal’, the annual Academy of Ancient Music’s London performance of Handel’s Messiah was live-streamed (from behind a paywall) from London’s Barbican Hall. The socially-distanced, modest-sized period instrument orchestra (5,4,2,2,1 strings) and 17-strong choir filled the entire width of the stage with no apparent loss of acoustic focus in the recorded sound – the acoustics were excellent. Like any well-designed concert hall, the Barbican Hall retains the same acoustics whether or not there is an audience presence, the empty seats designed to have the same acoustic properties when empty as when sat upon. As far as I can tell, the concert is no longer available to watch, although this website might lead you to a possible viewing. The programme notes can be accessed here.
Apollo e Dafne Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Roderick Williams Rowan Pierce, Katharina Spreckelsen OAE Player. 9 November 2020
Telemann Der am Ölberg zagende Jesus TWV 1: 364 JS Bach Cantata, Ich habe Genug BWV 82 Handel Concerto Grosso Op. 3 No. 2/1 HandelApollo e Dafne HWV 122
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) has responded to the Covid crisis by opening a new digital platform, OAE Player. For this Premiere Night concert, they were billed as returning to their resident home at the Southbank Centre for the first time since the first lockdown although, as you will read, that turned out to be not quite the reality. Each of the filmed concerts (there are currently twenty available on the OAE Player) are available to watch individually for a great deal less than a concert ticket (and without the costs of travel) or there is an option of accessing all the concerts with an annual pass.
Purcell: King Arthur (1691)
Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh
Concert: St John’s Smith Square, 30 October 2019
CD: Signum/Winged Lion SIGCD589. 2CD. 97’38
The new recording by the Gabrieli Consort & Players of Purcell’s King Arthur was launched at an impressive concert performance at St John’s, Smith Square. Lacking the two biggest-name singers from the recording (Carolyn Sampson and Roderick Williams), the concert was otherwise the same as the CD apart from the late replacement bass Robert Davies, standing in for Marcus Farnsworth and a smaller orchestra. Omitting all the spoken text of the original play, the music of King Arthur makes for a musically excellent, but texturally confusing, listen. None of the main characters of the King Arthur story appears. The music occurred at intervals during the play, generally as little masques, only occasionally as one-off songs responding to moments in the play. Continue reading →
Purcell: The Fairy Queen
Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh St John’s, Smith Square. 1 November 2018
The Gabrieli Consort and Players could probably perform The Fairy Queen in their sleep, such is their experience of Purcell’s music, and this particular work, over many years. They have performed it at the BBC Proms, the Barbican, the Spitalfields Festival and many other venues around the world. They now plan to record it, along with King Arthur, early in the New Year, with the same forces as appeared in this St John’s, Smith Square performance. Their crowdfunding campaign page can be found here.
One of the continuing successes of the Gabrieli’s and their director Paul McCreesh is their ability to reinvent themselves and to continually question and push boundaries in their approach to their music making. For this particular recording (and this concert) they stress that “Gabrieli also brings a forensic understanding of contemporaneous performance techniques to this repertoire, including a new bow hold for string players which transforms articulation and influences tempi; wind instruments using more basic, coarser reeds, for a more martial sound; and natural trumpets performing on instruments without holes, playing entirely through the adjustment of embouchure – a high wire act!“. This was also the premiere of a new performing edition, prepared by McCreesh and Christopher Suckling, their principal bass violinist. It was performed at the low ‘French’ pitch of 392Hz and the violins played using French bow holds. If this suggests an academic approach to music making, the experience of this concert proved to be anything but. It was a compelling and exuberant performance, semi-staged, albeit with only one ‘prop’ – in the shape of an enormous bleached-white wig for Mopsa, aka Charles Daniels. Continue reading →
Dido and Aeneas
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr, Thomas Guthrie
The Barbican, 2 October 2018
For anybody who was not already familiar with the story of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the Academy of Ancient Music’s semi-staged performance (directed by Thomas Guthrie) at The Barbican opened with something of a plot-spoiler. The first half was a 40-minute exploration of the funeral rites of the dead Dido, albeit a couple of hours or more before she was ‘laid in earth’. Actually, laid in earth she wasn’t, instead lying on a funeral catafalque over which Belinda, Aeneas and assorted mourners (the AAM chorus, who opened the show with some rhythmic drum bashing) acted out their reaction to her death as they remembered her. And when I write ‘she’ in fact it was a half-size puppet of the upper half of Dido who represented her throughout the evening. The full panoply of puppets came to the fore in the second half performance of Dido and Aeneas itself where the entire cast of soloists and chorus sported puppets – torsos for Dido and Aeneas, heads and gauze cloths for the rest. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →