Steinitz Bach Players 50th

London Bach Society’s Bachfest 2018
Steinitz Bach Players, Rodolfo Richter
St John’s, Smith Square, 6 November 2918

For the fourth and final day of their 2018 Bachfest, the London Bach Society (LBS) celebrated the 50th anniversary of their own orchestra, the Steinitz Bach Players, with this St John’s, Smith Square concert. The orchestra was founded, along with the London Bach Society, by Paul Steinitz (1909-88), one of the pioneers of the British Bach revival. Made up of leading freelance period instrumentalists, the orchestra performs under different directors during the annual Bachfest. On this occasion, they performed without a conductor, but with direction from the violin by Rodolfo Richter, a practice that I am sure Bach himself would have approved of.   Continue reading

Purcell: The Fairy Queen

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

Invictus: a Passion

Goodall – Invictus: a Passion
Handel – Foundling Hospital Anthem
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
Stephen Darlington, Mark Dobell, Kirsty Hopkins
Lanyer Ensemble, Oxford Baroque
St John’s, Smith Square. 25 May 2018

Invictus: A Passion was commissioned (at the suggestion of its composer Howard Goodhall) by the Choir of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas and their Director of Music and Fine Arts, Sid Davis. It was the second Goodall work to be commissioned by them and they gave the first performance on Palm Sunday 2018. This was its European premiere. The piece is described as “a contemporary reflection on the themes of the traditional Christian Passion story with particular attention to the role and perspective of women”. Interspersed with extracts from Æmelia Lanyer’s 1611 passion story Salve Deus Rex Judæorum (one of the first books by a female poet in the English language) are texts from “various periods of historic turmoil, written or inspired by women which eloquently portray humility in the face of tyranny”. These include Gethsemane by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Mary Magdalene and the Other Mary by Christina Georgina Rossetti and Slave Auction by Ellen Watkins Harper. Its themes include “persecution of the innocent, malevolent authority exerting itself against ideas that threaten and challenge, the redemptive power of love, and the resilience of the human spirit”.  Continue reading

London Festival of Baroque Music 2018

London Festival of Baroque Music
Treasures of the Grand Siècle
11-19 May 2018

The London Festival of Baroque Music (LFBM) is now in its 35th year. Previously known as the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, it is London’s leading early music festival, not least for the number of non-UK performers that it has traditionally featured. Last year’s change in the management means that the executive director of the festival is now Richard Heason, director of St John’s, Smith Square, the festival’s principal London home. For the 2018 festival, he is joined by a guest artistic director, Sébastien Daucé. They are bringing to London a sizeable chunk of French music, musicians and culture under the title of Treasures of the Grand Siècle. Described as an “immersive exploration” of the music of the French Baroque from the time of the Sun King, Louis XIV and the Palace of Versailles, the festival features some 22 events over 9 days. It is a comparatively rare opportunity in the UK to hear French Baroque music performed by French musicians including, for the latter part of the festival, Sébastien Daucé’s own group, Ensemble Correspondances. Along with several other musicians performing, I first heard Ensemble Correspondances and Sébastien Daucé when I as reviewing at last years Ambronay festival, reviewed here.

IMG_20180512_172504233_LL.jpg

Continue reading

Bach: B Minor Mass

JS Bach: B Minor Mass
Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh
St John’s, Smith Square. 1 April 2018

The St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival concluded with an Easter Sunday performance of the B Minor Mass. it is a piece not normally associated with Holy Week, but it reflects in glorious musical form the belief system of the Christian believer. It is one of Bach’s last works and one that he clearly wanted posterity to hear, even though he never heard it performed himself. In fact, it wasn’t performed complete until a 100 years after Bach’s death. Its compositional background is complex, with versions of some individual movements dating back to 1714 (the Crucifixus) and the Kyrie and Gloria (the Missa) completed in 1733 and presented to the new Saxon Elector with a view to getting the title of Composer to the Electoral Saxon Court, which he eventually got three years later. In the last few years of his life, Bach extended the Missa to include the full Latin Ordinary of the Catholic Mass by adding the Credo (the Symbolum Nicenum), Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the concluding Dona nobis pacem, the latter a repeat of an earlier Gloria movement. Even its current title is misleading, not least because only a few of the movements are actually in B minor. Continue reading

Harmonic Spiritual Theatre

Harmonic Spiritual Theatre
Sacrifice, betrayal, passion – The Birth of Oratorio

Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
St John’s, Smith Square, 26 March 2018

Following the mostly secular early evening concert by the Choir of Royal Holloway (reviewed here), the St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival continued with a more sacred, although not entirely Holy Week based, concert by the Birmingham based choir Ex Cathedra. The first part of the rather complex three-part title of the event comes from the title of Giovanni Anerio’s 1619 Teatro armonico spirituale di madrigal (Harmonic Theatre of Spiritual Madrigals)14 of the 62 pieces are in the form of dialogues, and two examples opened each half of the concert, Rispondi, Abramo, setting the story of Abraham and Isaac to music and Sedea lasso Gesù, reflecting the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

The latter part of the concert title reflected the early days of the development of the early Baroque oratorio, inspired by the Roman Oratory of Filippo Neri, and consisting of semi-theatrical presentations of Bible stories through the musical use of recitative and arias with continuo accompaniment. As well as the Anerio’s examples, each half of the concert ended with large-scale oratorios by Charpentier (Le reniement de St Pierre) and Carissimi (Jepthe). Inserted between these early oratorios were two groups of the sometimes very secular Monteverdi madrigals ‘made spiritual’ by Aquilino Coppini, published between 1607-9 a few years after the original publications of Monteverdi’s madrigal Books IV and V. A close friend of Monteverdi, Coppini wrote that he saw in Monteverdi’s music “… a wonderful power to move the passions exceedingly”. His alteration of the texts is extremely well done, matching Monteverdi’s original use of vowel sounds and textural accents.

The unforced tone of the ten singers of Ex Cathedra was attractive, although it occasionally came over as a little reticent, notably in the chorus sections. There were some excellent individual contributions. particularly from soprano Angela Hicks, the unaffected clarity of her voice and her impressive use of ornaments proving ideal in her portrayals of the boy Isacco in Rispondi, Abramo, the Samaritan woman in Sedea lasso Gesù and as soloist in the Monteverdi/Coppini Ure me, Somine. Tenor Declan Costello was a gentle Jesus in the Charpentier oratorio on the denial of Peter, while Greg Skidmore provided a solid bass in Charpentier’s Narrator and in Jephte.

Katie Tretheway portrayed the unfortunate daughter of Jephte, notably in the concluding lament as she bewails her virginity prior, so she thought, to becoming a burnt offering to God. In her virginal circumstances, and given her concerns, I can think of more interesting ways of spending your last two months on earth. Carissimi doesn’t even give her the biblical redemption in his oratorio, so the evening finished with the weeping children of Israel.

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for an unspecified future broadcast.

Royal Holloway: Into the Night

Into the Night
Choir of Royal Holloway
St John’s, Smith Square, 26 March 2018

As part of St John’s, Smith Square’s Holy Week Festival, the Choir of Royal Holloway College (part of the University of London) gave an early evening recital of a programme that was probably better suited to a later time slot. Their programme, ‘Into the night’ featured sacred and secular music by contemporary composers from Latvia, Lithuania, and the USA, reflecting issues of night and death. They opened and closed with music by Ēriks Ešenvalds. Evening evokes the ‘shimmering sound’ of birds at sundown, with little snatched rhythmic phrases floating above evocatively scrunchy harmonies, ending with a delightfully sung soprano solo and the line ‘Oh let me like the birds / Sing before the night’. The closing Ešenvalds piece was Long Road, with two recorders and the tinkle of little bells added to the choral clusters and a final descent into sleep. Continue reading

LHF: Handel – Acis & Galatea

Handel: Acis & Galatea
London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings
St John’s, Smith Square. 21 March 2018

The first of the London Handel Festival’s anniversary events was a performance of Acis and Galatea, first performed in 1718 at Cannons, the palatial mansion north-west of London where James Bridges, by then the Earl of Carnarvon and later to become Duke of Chandos, demonstrated the enormous wealth he had gathered through his position as Paymaster General to the army. Cannons became the only example in England of a Germanic-style princely court orchestra (24-strong) outside the royal family. Handel was house composer from 1717-19 working under Pepusch. It had originally been a small-scale masque, probably performed outdoors, with a small orchestra and five singers, who together formed the chorus. Considering it was the anniversary of the 1718 premiere, it was rather curious that the work was here presented in its 1739 incarnation – one that Handel himself never heard.

IMG_20180321_193228041_HDR (2).jpg

The interior of St John’s, Smith Square (built at the same time of the premiere of Acis) was transformed by director Martin Parr into a cross between some sort of down-market 1980’s rave and a children’s party, with a pall of dry ice engulfing the audience as they entered, party balloons hanging over the mist enveloped orchestra, and rather innocuous drapes suspended from scaffolding, for no apparent reason. It was the first of many production issues that I felt really didn’t work. That said, and more anon, musically it was well worth the trip.

Continue reading

SJSS: Muffat Festival

Muffat Festival
The Brook Street Band
St John’s, Smith Square, 25 February 2018

With four concerts, a dance workshop and a talk spread over a weekend, the St John’s, Smith Square Muffat Festival focussed on Georg Muffat (1653-1704), that most innovative of composers, and the music that both influenced him and was, in turn, influenced by him. Curiously, of the 26 works played during the weekend, only six were actually by Muffat, a sadly missed opportunity to highlight more of his music, much of which is underperformed. The first concert (23 February) concentrated on the German Violin School, with pieces by Schmelzer, Biber and Krieger following the opening Muffat Sonata 2 from his 1682 Armonico Tributo. Dance was the focus of the second concert (24 February), with Muffat sharing the honours with Lully, Handel and Bach. The Italian Influence was explored in the first of two Sunday concerts (25 February), with pieces by Corelli and Handel and a Muffat Violin Sonata. The weekend finished with a focus on the Concerto, with more Bach and Handel along with Geminiani, all at least one generation younger that Muffat. It concluded with Muffat’s Sonata No. 5 in G from Armonico Tributo with its extraordinary extended concluding Passacaglia – one of the highlights of Muffat’s orchestral output.  Continue reading

Music in New France & Québec

Music in New France & Québec
Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal
St John’s, Smith Square, 15 February 2018

The Canadian choir, Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal (SMAM) was founded in 1974 by Christoper Jackson. For their UK debut, they presented a programme of music from Québec and the area of the North Americas generally known between 1534 and 1763, as ‘New France’, the northern part of which is now in Canada. In similar, if less flamboyant fashion to the Spanish and Portuguese Christian conquerors in Central and South America, the imported French musicians adopted some aspects of the aboriginal music styles, represented in this concert by a series of anonymous pieces sung in Abenaki, an almost extinct indigenous language.  The programme also included some of the earliest motets and plainchants composed in French North America alongside polyphony introduced by the first French settlers, whose only surviving sources are now in Québec libraries. As well as the early pieces, we also heard the European premiere of Ja de longtemps by Québec composer Maurice-G. Du Berge, setting an eyewitness account of the early explorations of the St. Lawrence River. Continue reading

Heigh Ho Holiday

Heigh Ho Holiday
Christmas Revels in 17th-century London

The City Musick, William Lyons
St John’s, Smith Square. 13 December 2017

King James I issued his ‘Declaration of Sports’ in 1617, noting that he had heard that people had been ‘barred from all lawfull Recreation, & excercie vpon the Sundayes afternoone, after the ending of all Diuine Seruice‘. So wrote Wiliam Lyons, director of The City Musick in his programme note for this concert, as an example of the encouragement of festivals and holy days during the early 17th century, despite opposition from Puritans and Catholic gentry. These occasions included Christmastide festivals, a time when the virtuosi musicians of the local city waits came into their own, perhaps with the opportunity to relax a little from their normal role of providing music for civic ceremonies, processions, dances, masques etc. Their musical repertoire was wide, as was the range of instruments that they played, both aspects revealed in this concert by a 21st-century incarnation of the waits – the seven musicians of The City Musick. Continue reading

Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning

Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning
Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh
St John’s, Smith Square
7 December 2017

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation gave the Gabrieli Consort & Players the chance to revisit the music of their most successful recording, Praetorius’s Mass for Christmas Morning. The recording dates from 1994 and was recorded in the splendour of Denmark’s Roskilde Cathedral. That venue was chosen because of the historic Roskilde organ, dating back to 1544 with additional work in 1611, 1654 and the 1690s, the whole restored back to its pre-1700 state. For this short tour, the Gabrieli Consort & Players visited Hull, Bradford and London’s St John’s, Smith Square, on each occasion joining with local choirs to expand the resources.  Continue reading

Classical Opera: Apollo et Hyacinthus

Mozart: Apollo et Hyacinthus
Classical Opera, Ian Page, Thomas Guthrie
St John’s, Smith Sq. 13 June 2017

‘Lambach’ Symphony in G; Grabmusik, Apollo et Hyacinthus

As part of their ambitious Mozart 250 project (presenting Mozart’s music on the anniversary of their composition, culminating in 2041), Classical Opera presented the last of four concerts focussed on 1767, Mozart’s 11th year, with a staged performance of Apollo et Hyacinthus, preceded by his ‘Lambach’ Symphony in G and the Grabmusik, also staged.  This was a very clever and extremely well performed concert, exploring music that is not as well-known as it should be, with very sensitive stagings conceived and directed by Thomas Guthrie. The ‘Lambach’ Symphony in G (K45a) is believed to have been written in 1766 by the 10-year old Mozart. It was found in two manuscripts in Lambach Abbey, Austria. Like many other early Mozart works, it is beguiling in its elegant simplicity and harmonic inventiveness, here added to by having the first movement main theme first appearing in the bass, although on this occasion it wasn’t all that prominent. While it was playing, people walked across the St John’s stage, their relevance becoming clear when the bustling final movement of the Symphony segued directly, and very effectively, into the opening of the Grabmusik. Continue reading

Gabrieli Consort: A Rose Magnificat

A Rose Magnificat
The Gabrieli Consort, Paul McCreesh
St John’s, Smith Square. 8 June 2017

Leighton Of a Rose  /  Tallis Videte Miraculum á 6
Warlock As dew in Aprylle  /  White Magnificat á 6
Macmillan  /  Sheppard  /  Park Ave maris stella
Wylkynson Salve Regina á 9  /  Howells Salve Regina
Lane There is no rose  /  Matthew Martin Rose Magnificat (world premiere)

This fascinating concert collected together a seemingly random selection of pieces from old to very new, all dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Grouping the pieces in twos or three enhanced the experience of contrast, starting with the pairing of Kenneth Leighton’s setting of the 15th century text Of a Rose with Tallis’s magnificent 6-part Videte Miraculum. Soprano Ruth Provost was the soloist in the Leighton, weaving the refrain Of a Rose around and through the rhythmically homophonic choir texture. The contrasting tight-knit and multi-stranded polyphony of Tallis, with his distinctive ‘false relations’ provided a perfect contrast. This pair was followed by the slithering close harmonies of Warlock’s short and rhythmically complex double choir As dew in Aprylle, contrasted with White flamboyant and expansive six-plus part Magnificat, the continuous inner movement and long melismas of the latter giving the piece a timeless quality. Continue reading

Les Talens Lyriques: Zefiro Torna

Zefiro Torna
Les Talens Lyriques
St John’s, Smith Square. 7 June 2017

This concert celebrated the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, as well as the 25th anniversary of Les Talens Lyriques. Tenors Emiliano Gonzalez Toro and Anders J. Dahlin joined with director and keyboard player Christophe Rousset, cellist Emmanuel Jacques, and violinists Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Josépha Jégard to explore Monteverdi’s more intimate, but nonetheless dramatic music. Each half concluded with opera extracts, but started with extracts from four of Monteverdi’s madrigal books. Throughout these madrigals, we had to work around the curious implications of two men both singing about the same love interest. Continue reading

London Festival of Baroque Music

‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries’
London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square & Westminster Abbey
12-20 May 2017

IMG_20170515_091152885.jpgAfter reforming, renaming, and regrowing itself from the long-running Lufthansa Festival, the London Festival of Baroque Music has become, phoenix-like, one of the most important early music festivals in London. Under the banner of ‘Baroque at the Edge: pushing the boundaries‘, this year’s LFBM used the music of Monteverdi and Telemann, from either end of the Baroque (and both with anniversaries this year) to explore ‘some of the chronological, geographical and stylistic peripheries of Baroque Music’. With one exception, all the concerts were held in the Baroque splendour of St John’s, Smith Square. Continue reading

European Union Baroque Orchestra: Farewell

European Union Baroque Orchestra
Maria Keohane, Lars Ulrik Martensen
London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square. 19 May 2017

IMG_20170519_163842318.jpgOne of the key events of the London Festival of Baroque Music was final concert of the current incarnation of the European Union Baroque Orchestra, and orchestra I have been reviewing enthusiastically for many years. After extensive annual training auditions attracting around 100 applicants, aided by leading period performers, around 30 instrumentalists are selected each year to tour a series of concerts around Europe. But this concert was also, very sadly, the very last EUBO concert in its present state as a UK-managed organisation. Founded 32 years ago as a UK initiative (during the 1985 European Music Year), and managed ever since from its base near Oxford, the vote by a small percentage of the UK population to drag the UK out of the European Union means that it is no longer viable to run an EU venture from the UK. In its 32 years, EUBO has encouraged and nurtured around 1000 young musicians, giving some of the finest period instrumentalists around an early grounding in performance practice at the start of their careers. For the future, after a hiatus of a year to allow for the transfer, when there will be no auditions or orchestra , EUBO will restart from a new base, and with new management, based in the music centre AMUZ in Antwerp. 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

SJSS: Holy Week Festival

Siglo de Oro & New London Singers
St John’s, Smith Square: 
Holy Week Festival. 15 April 2017

WP_20170415_12_49_34_Pro (2).jpgThe St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival (also reviewed here and here) concluded with a vocal workshop and lunchtime concert with Siglo de Oro and an evening concert from the New London Singers. The morning workshop was led by Patrick Allies, director of Siglo de Oro, and focussed on Bach’s motet Jesu meine freude, giving useful insights into the structure, text and musical contents of this most complex piece. Siglo de Oro’s lunchtime concert sandwiched this piece between two shorter meditative pieces by Purcell Hear my Prayer, and Remember not, Lord, our offences, concluding with Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater a 10.  Continue reading

Tallis: Songs of Reformation

Thomas Tallis: Songs of Reformation
Alamire, David Skinner
St John’s, Smith Square: 
Holy Week Festival. 12 April 2017

WP_20170415_18_59_25_Pro.jpgAfter the Holy Week Festival showcase Good Friday afternoon St John Passion came a concert focussed on one of England’s finest composers, Thomas Tallis. Living though the reigns of five monarchs (from Henry VII to Elizabeth), and composing in the latter four of them, Tallis managed to negotiate the complex religious twists and turns of Tudor life. The highlights of the evening came at the end, with the first modern performance of David Skinner’s reconstruction of a piece composed by Tallis  (an early version of the famous Gaude gloriosa Dei mater), but with new words (See, Lord, and behold) added by Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s eighth and final Queen. Continue reading

Clare Reformation 500 Project

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 SchildEin 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

Handel in Italy

Handel in Italy
Gabrieli Consort & Players, Paul McCreesh, Gillian Webster
St John’s, Smith Square. 28 March 2017

Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D Op. 6 No. 4; Handel: Donna che in ciel HWV233; Dixit Dominus HWV232

Although, in true British fashion, George Frederic Handel is usually claimed as the quintessential English composer, some of his most exciting music was composed during the four years he spent in Italy (1706-10). Early training seemed to set Handel on course to be an organist and church musician, to the extent that he travelled to Lübeck in 1703 with a view to succeeding the great Buxtehude at the Marienkirche. But three years in Hamburg’s opera world (1703-6) changed that ambition, and resulted in an invitation by a Medici to come to Italy. He was already well-versed in the Italian music through his early training with Zachow in Halle, but his ability to immediately absorb national styles quickly became apparent, as it later did on his arrival in London in 1710. Continue reading

Thierry Pécou: Outre-mémoire

Thierry Pécou: Outre-mémoire
Ensemble Variances
St John’s, Smith Square. 22 February 2017

Villa-Lobos: Le Cygne noir
Thierry Pécou (b 1965): Outre-mémoire

There are many ways to listen to music. One is to just let it waft over you, without knowing anything about it. The other end of the spectrum is to study the background to the composition and composer, the social situation in which it was composed, the composers notes about it, the score (if accessible), and anything else you can get hold of. Those attending this performance of Thierry Pécou’s 2004 Outre-mémoire (Beyond memory) who adopted the first approach would have missed a vast amount of information that is (possibly) essential to understanding the 75 minutes long piece.

For those who just watched and listened, what they heard was an extraordinary range of musical textures, using piano, normal and bass flute and clarinet, and cello, together with tiny high-pitched little bells, a gong, fingers waggling in a bowl of water, rustled blue plastic bags, and several sound effects produced from the instruments themselves. Continue reading

The Harmonie in Beethoven’s Vienna

The Harmonie in Beethoven’s Vienna
Boxwood & Brass
St John’s, Smith Square. 20 February 2017

The words Harmonie, or Harmoniemusik (translatable as ‘windband music’), are little known in the UK, although they are important aspects of the late Classical and early Romantic musical eras in continental Europe. With arguable roots in earlier military bands, the formation of wind instrument consorts started to grow into prominence from about 1750, and reached its zenith in the 1780s in Vienna. It became the preserve of aristocratic households, and its decline around 1830 was a symptom of the decline in aristocratic resources in post-Napoleonic Europe. Emperor Joseph II formalised the line-up of his own court Harmonie to pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns together with a 16′, usually string, bass. This was the nine-strong line-up of Boxwood & Brass for this concert, although they also perform in the various other Harmonie formats.

It is the ambition of Boxwood & Brass to bring the extensive Harmonie repertoire to a wider UK audience. To that end, they combine their performing and musical skills with an impressive academic and musicological background. Several are linked to the University of Huddersfield Centre for Performance Research and many already have, or are approaching, doctorates in music. Their recent début CD, Franz Tausch: Music for a Prussian Salon (reviewed here) featured original compositions for Harmonie. This St John’s, Smith Square concert included one original composition together with two examples of the important genre of arrangements for Harmonie. Continue reading

Palisander: Beware the Spider!

CONCERT: Antidotum Arachne
Palisander
St John’s, Smith Square. 16 February 2017

CD: Palisander Beware the Spider!
PALG-33. 37’51

The St John’s, Smith Square Young Artists scheme gives emerging soloists and ensembles a platform to showcase their talents through three SJSS concerts, a chance to commission new music, and opportunities to develop skills in marketing, education and outreach. The latest batch of six  (for the year 2016/17) includes the recorder quartet Palisander. They already seem pretty adept at marketing, and took the opportunity of the first of their three concerts (given under the title Antidotum Arachne) to launch their debut CD, Beware the Spider!.

The concert and (rather short) CD explore the world of the Tarantella, a curious aspect of folk medicine in 16th and 17th century Italy where victims of venomous spider bites were not offered any medicinal cure or relief but were regaled by local musicians (often funded by the municipality) with a variety of musical pieces, some known as Tarantella, intended to cure them of their otherwise fatal symptoms. In a well-chosen and varied programme, Palisander’s CD and concert reflected aspects of the various symptoms along with arrangements of original Tarantellas by Miriam Nerval, who also provided the programme notes for the CD and concert. For a few of the pieces they were joined by Toby Carr, playing theorbo and baroque guitar. Continue reading

Musicall Compass: Lamentations

Lassus Lamentations & folk laments
Musicall Compass & Moira Smiley
St John’s, Smith Sq. 1 February 2017

The Musicall Compass have undertaken some fascinating projects in the past, combining vocal music with, for example, dance in a memorable performance of Buxtehude’s Memba Jesu Nostri in Christ Church Spitalfields. On this occasion they interspersed the nine five-voice Lamentations of Orlando di Lasso with folk laments from Eastern Europe, sung by Moira Smiley. Written to be performed during the three days leading up to Easter, the Lamentations set verses from Jeremiah’s rather morbid reflections on the decline of Jerusalem: ‘How doth the city sit solitary .. she has become a widow’. Three settings are sung on each day, each finishing with the lament Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God). Continue reading

Bach: B Minor Mass

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.

Continue reading

In honour of the Virgin

In honour of the Virgin
The Cardinall’s Musick
St John’s, Smith Square. 14 December 2016

facebook_1482140390703 (1).jpgThe 31st St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival features most of the usual suspects, including regulars, The Cardinall’s Musick. As is typical of their concerts, the focus was on Catholic liturgical music from the Renaissance, on this occasion in honour of the Virgin Mary. In a ‘greatest hits’ line-up of Renaissance composers, the first half was built around Lassus’s Missa Osculeter me osculo oris sui alternating with motets by Victoria; the second centered on Byrd’s Propers for the Nativity of the Virgin Mary and concluded with Palestrina’s Magnificat primi toni a 8. 

I have never quite understood how the Song of Songs managed to get accepted into the Bible. However much commentators from the Jewish or Christian tradition attempt to find allegorical links in the Song of Solomon, in the latter case, with the New Testament stories, it remains so obviously an evocation of sexual love of a most explicit kind: the closest that Solomon could get to internet porn. Continue reading

Handel: Serse

Handel: Serse
Early
Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 November 2016

Serse was the first opera that the newly formed Early Opera Company performed, some 22 years ago. A well-received recording was released in 2013*, and they returned to it for their latest appearance at St John’s, Smith Square, an ideal space for baroque music. Serse is one of Handel’s more curious operas. Written in 1738 towards the end of his opera-writing career, its innovative compositional style was rather lost on the audience, as was the libretto, with Charles Burney referring to the latter as “one of the worst Handel ever set to Music”. He identified the issue as being that the work contained “a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery”, which is exactly what Handel intended. Other commentators noted Handel’s use of many short arias, without the usual convention of the da capo, linking it to the musical style of the many ‘ballad-operas’ that had become the rage. It only managed five performances, but after its modern resurrection has become one of Handel’s best known operas.

The first of the short arias is the opening Ombra mai fù, which became one of Handel’s most famous pieces, albeit under the incorrect name of Handel’s Largo (it is marked Larghetto). I wonder how many people outside the opera-loving world realise that this aria is sung by a clearly dotty King to a tree that he has taken a fancy to? Serse’s dottiness continues throughout the opera, to the bemusement of the other characters. In this concert performance, the only prop Continue reading

The Grand Tour: Bologna & Verona

The Grand Tour: Bologna & Verona
La Serenissima, Adrian Chandler
St John’s, Smith Square. 9 November 2016

Music by Torelli, Bononcini, Brescianello, and Dall’Abaco

La Serenissima have set out on a musical version of the 18th century Grand Tour of Italy, with a series of 6 concerts at St John’s, Smith Square. The started their tour with a concert in September devoted to music from Venice, their usual musical home, and for this concert travelled on to Verona and Bologna. The concert was in two distinct parts, starting with music performed in the enormous Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, at the time the largest church in Christendom. Well before the completion of the Basilica, a musical foundation had been established (in 1436), and in 1476 a magnificent organ was built on one side of the choir. This was enlarged, and a corresponding organ added to the gallery on the other side of the choir, in 1596. Both organs survive to this day, in more-or-less original condition, and are amongst the most important surviving historic organs in the world.

In San Petronio, music was performed from the organ galleries, using the music desks built into the gallery frontage, and using the large organs as accompaniment to the singers and instrumentalists. Music was therefore Continue reading