BBC Proms at …: Purcell and his contemporaries

BBC Proms at …: Purcell and his contemporaries
Katherine Watson, Samual Boden, Callum Thorpe
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, 13 August

Purcell: Timon of Athens – Curtain Tune, I Spy Celia, I See She Flies Me, The Fairy Queen (excerpts), The Tempest (attrib. Purcell); Blow: Venus and Adonis (excerpts); Locke: The Tempest – Curtain Tune, The Tempest – Dance of the Fantastick Spirits (perhaps by Draghi).

As part of their ‘Proms at …’’ season, the BBC decanted from its usual home in the Royal Albert Hall to one of the most intimate performances spaces in London, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Shakespeare’s Globe complex on the South Bank. Since its opening in 2014, this reconstruction of a typical Jacobean (early 17th century) theatre has housed a number of excellent (and sold-out) musical events and small-scale operas, adding considerably to the range of London music venues. Sadly, under Sam Wannamaker.jpgthe new Globe management, those events seems to have ground to a halt, with only one listed in the current season – and that a hang-over booking from the previous management. So it was fortuitous that the BBC Proms chose the theatre for one of its ‘BBC at …’ events (alongside such venues as a multi-story car park in Peckham), not least because it enabled people to see the inside of this fabulous, but very uncomfortable, theatre for just £14, rather than the up to £62 the Globe are asking for their own next concert there. Continue reading

Barokksolistene: The Image of Melancholy

The Image of Melancholy
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 20 September 2015

The Norwegian group Barokksolistene make a point of ‘pushing boundaries’ with their occasionally curious mixture of Norwegian folk music, early music and electronic jiggery-pokery, played on period string instruments. They brought this combination to the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a programme based on their recent CD, The Image of Melancholy. The electronic jiggery-pokery opened the show with ambient background sounds whilst two of the Globe’s candle-lighters slowly lit the 48 candles on the six central candelabra, seemingly designed specifically to drip molten wax on to the performers below.  As the background electronics began to merge with an off-stage violin sound, the eight musicians (an enlarged string quartet, plus archlute and what was described as an organ) entered the stage one by one and sat in a circle, as if waiting for a group therapy session. It was clear from the title that this evening was unlikely to be a bundle of fun, but I wasn’t quite prepared for it actually turned out to be.

The thing that was ‘described as an organ’ turned out to be one of those little hand-pumped squeeze-box reed organs usually to be found in Indian ashrams, with what looked like a tiny midi keyboard sitting on top, linked to a laptop. I originally wondered if all the electronic sounds were coming via the latter combination, but it turned out that there was somebody sitting in the gallery producing ‘soundscapes’. By and large, these consisted of the ambience background sounds we had already heard, reminiscent of Brian Eno’s early pieces, plus some very electronic-sounding organ tones of the type used in late 1960’s alternative rock groups. Very few of the pieces we heard were without some sort of background sound like this, whether by the likes of Holborne, Dowland, Gibbons or Byrd or obscure (at least to me) Norwegian folk melodies.

Staging is key to Barokksolistene’s performances, and much thought had gone into this, with on and off stage comings and goings including, at one stage, a bizarre dance given by the group’s leader Bjarte Eike, out of sight of most of the audience behind the central door at the back of the stage. His rocking back and forth on his own in the dark reminded me of scenes from The Wicker Man. This came as the culmination of an extended passage of what I initially thought was tuning up (and still might have been), but which then morphed into this rather ritualistic scene. Eike sees himself as very much the centre of attention, visually and aurally, and despite the mood of a particular piece, was often to be found standing in the middle of the sitting circle. Not surprisingly, the concert ended with an extended violin solo with Eike standing at the front of the gallery to the accompaniment of phase-shifting ambient sound and the archlute while the candelabra rose and fell, seemingly randomly. There was a large and enthusiastic crowd of friends and family whose whooping and yelling at the end of the concert seemed slightly out of keeping given the subject matter of the evening’s concert and, particularly, the last piece, a lament on the death of the composer’s wife. But perhaps they do things differently in Norway – judging by the encores, Norwegian weddings have more than a touch of melancholia to them.

The highlight was the singing of soprano Berit Norbakken Solset (left), both in the folk songs and the early pieces, notably in Buxtehude’s bittersweet lament for his father, the Klag-Lied, and in the equally expressive Byrd ‘Ye sacred muses’, a lament on the death of Tallis with the mournful phrase “Tallis is dead, and music dies”. Instrumentally the finest sounds came from strings in the early pieces, producing a muted tone quite close to that of the viol consort which would have almost certainly been the preferred accompaniment to singers of the time. I am not sure what the likes of Dowland or Holborn would have made of the frequent foot-tapping from one of the players, but it seemed more of a performance tic than relating to any sense of rhythmic enhancement. The foot-tapping turned into foot-stomping from Bjarte Eike during some of the livelier Norwegian contributions and early English dance pieces.

Barokksolistene’s describe their take on early music as treating it as “just old pop music”. I did wonder whether the rather new-age sonic background to much of this music gave it the feel of ‘old pop music’, but from around 50 years ago.

Lachrimae: Anna Prohaska

Anna Prohaska & Arcangelo
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. 2 August 2015

The latest in the series of candle-lit concerts in the Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on London’s South Bank featured soprano Anna Prohaska with Arcangelo and a programme based around the theme of melancholy, under the title of ‘Lachrimae’. Devised by Anna Prohaska, the pieces chosen reflected the wide range of compositional possibilities used by early Baroque composers from England and Italy. The music ranged from intimate Purcell settings to dramatic Italian opera scenes.

Anna ProhaskaI first reviewed Anna Prohaska in 2012 Wigmore Hall concert (broadcast live on Radio 3) and noted that “… If I had read Anna Prohaska’s CV (full of names like the Berliner Philharmoniker, Weiner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Staatoper Berlin) before I heard her sing, I would have wondered why on earth the Academy of Ancient Music had booked her”. But, for the ‘early music’ vocal scene, she was a real find. I don’t know what, or how, she sings with these orchestral big boys, but her beautifully eloquent and pure voice is just the thing for this repertoire, as was her presentation. She is of impeccable musical stock – her father and mother were an opera director and singer, her grandfather and great-grandfather a conductor and composer respectively.  She has a very attractively un-diva like and engaging stage manner, giving the impression of singing with us, rather that at us, and involving us in the emotional turmoil of the various pieces.  She has an exquisitely warm timbre with a slightly mezzo-ish tinge and demonstrated a thorough understanding of her chosen repertoire (and its wide range of emotions), with fine da capo elaborations and the rare ability to trill properly. Her use of rhetoric to accent emotive moments was spot on, as was her heart-wrenching cries of “Gabriel” in Purcell’s ‘Tell me, some pitying angel’ – one of those moments when silence can be more intense than music. Continue reading

Candlelit Arcangelo

Arcangelo & Neal Davies
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 9 May 2015

Bach, Albinoni, Telemann

The latest of the candlelit concerts in the Shakespeare Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was given by Arcangelo (9 May). They were founded in 2010 by Jonathan Cohen, and appear in formats ranging from a duo to a chamber orchestra. On this occasion they were a small string group plus oboe, theorbo, and continuo organ/harpsichord, joined at the end by baritone Neal Davis (replacing his indisposed cousin Iestyn Davies).

The programme was one of contrasts, ranging from the frolics of Telemann’s Don Quichotte Suite to Bach’s serene cantata Ich habe genug. The size of Continue reading