Bach and Telemann: Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review *****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Rachel Brown (flute and recorder), Rachel Beckett (recorder), Alistair Ross (harpsichord) 

Bach and Telemann: Reversed Fortunes, Milton Court Concert Hall, 7th December 2017

I see I am now close to being a Academy of Ancient Music groupie. Not in a sinister way, that would be very strange. Just that I seem to pitch up to most of their London concerts. Unsurprising given their repertoire I suppose. And what a joy it always is to hear them play. This was no different. And I had a new chum in MSBD to join me.

Now the theme here was to contrast the contrasting fortunes of a certain Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. They were mates in the 1720s, 30s and 40s, with GPT becoming CPE Bach’s godfather, and both successively securing the reputation of the Collegium in Leipzig. Back in the day though Telemann (pictured above), with his suave, easy listening modelled on his French contemporaries, was by far the more popular composer, with JSB and his knotty, brainy counterpoint, and strong Lutheran faith, some way behind. As we all know JSB’s music languished for centuries, now some might say his is the daddy of all Western art music. Meanwhile whilst Telemann maintains a cherished place in the baroque world of the Baroque enthusiast, he is not much performed beyond this.

The influence of Vivaldi’s vast concerto output was much greater on JSB, and is clearly visible in the Brandenburg’s especially when played one to a part as here. In particular in the Fifth with its single tutti violin, though it is the solo harpsichord cadenza, the first ever of its type, that is the most memorable part of the concerto. Alistair Ross didn’t hold back once the harpsichord emerged from the string ritornello and his rubato was unleashed. A bit showier than Steven Devine in the last BC5 I heard in SJSS with the OAE. However, I think the Brandenburg 4 here with Rachel Brown and Rachel Beckett on the recorders was the highlight. Once the two Rachels got into the swing of it there was no stopping them, propped up by Bojan Cicic masterful violin playing, and by the end those recorders produced as sweet a sound as you could imagine (not always the case for the period recorder).

Having said that I think the most satisfying piece of the evening was the Telemann Concerto for flute and recorder. He wasn’t the only one to pair the “old” and the “new” wind instruments, Quantz was on to this, but he clearly mastered it. Written in 1712, the Concerto has some very attractive galant homophonic playing from the two instruments looking forward to the Classical. Elsewhere the soloists chase the lines from one to the other against very attractive dances, including nods to the eastern European folk tunes that he studied. The French influence on GPT is more apparent in the Overture suite, (he wrote over two hundred of these), with its simple dance rhythms and story based on Don Quixote. There is plenty of easy on the ear comic effect, (listen out for donkeys), and lots of colour. It is all so pleasant (though if I was critical maybe a tad too pleasant).

So another fine concert from the AAM who really seemed to be enjoying themselves. As I think did MSBD. In fact I know he did as he said so. I shall miss the AAM Messiah in the Barbican Hall and their intriguing Haydn and Dussek programme in April, but will be back here for the 15th February Pergolesi, Corelli and Handel gig, and for the 31st May concert in the Hall with Nicola Benedetti. Unmissable I reckon.

“Italy in England”, Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court review ****

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Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic (director and violin), Frank de Bruine (oboe)

Italy in England: When Handel Met Corelli, Milton Court Concert Hall, 19th October 2017

  • Corelli – Concerto Grosso in D major Op. 6 No. 4
  • Handel – Concerto for Oboe No. 3 in G minor
  • Geminiani – Concerto Grosso Op. 5 No. 3 (after Corelli)
  • Sammartini – Sinfonia in G major
  • Avison – Concerto Grosso in D minor No 3 ‘The garden of harmony’ (after Scarlatti)
  • Sammartini – Concerto for Oboe in E flat major
  • Handel – Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 5

We don’t know too much about Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713). From the late 1670’s through to his death though he was a big noise in Rome, heralding a great leap forward in violin playing and an instrumental (ha ha) influence on the sonata and concerto form. Unless you are a Baroque nutjob, (there are more of them than you might think), you may only be peripherally aware of him. Yet you will certainly have heard snatches of his most famous composition the Op 6 12 Concerto grossi. Odds are if you hear Baroque music on a telly or film soundtrack, (and it isn’t Vivaldi Four Seasons or a blast of Handel), then it will be Corelli.

If you are just an occasional dipper-in to the Baroque canon, or just fancy some nice background stuff, get your hands on a recording of his Op 6. You won’t regret it. Here he is. Poodle wig and all. Fine looking fellow.

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By the late C17 Italy was the bees knees for all things musical, (as it had been in art for a couple of centuries), albeit with stiff competition from the French. Europe was stuffed with on trend Italian musicians and performers. Printed music was now ubiquitous assuming you mixed in the right circles. This concert from the consistently brilliant Academy of Ancient Music under its new(ish) leader Bojan Cicic sought to show how the the Italian Concerto grosso form, perfected by Corelli, and here his compatriots Geminiani and the Sammartini brothers, influenced composers in England, especially the mighty GF Handel. Both Geminiani and the elder Sammartini, Giuseppe, an oboist, ended up living in London, jus as Handel did. Handel had travelled to Italy from 1706 through to 1710  to learn from both Corelli and the other great master (of the keyboard especially) Scarlatti.

The Concerto grosso, as its probably not too complicated to surmise, is a piece of music where a small group of soloists, maybe a couple of violins and another instrument, called the concertino, pass the ideas between themselves and a larger orchestra, the ripieno. Simples. Mind you this is the Baroque so the orchestra is still pretty tiny by later standards. It is the forerunner of the single instrument concerto with orchestra we see today and which developed in the later Classical period. Vivaldi set the ball rolling with his acres of beautiful single violin (and other single instrument) concerti though the musical patterns are similar to his mates elsewhere in Italy.

Here, in addition to the violin led concerti on show from Corelli himself (the very jolly No 4), Geminiani, based on material from one of Corelli’s works, and Handel (No 5 from his own Op 6), we also had the same from Charles Avison, new to me, but I gather a big favourite of the cogniscenti. This was based on some of Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas and was really absorbing. The oboe of Frank de Bruine joined the AAM in two other concerti and we had a sinfonia from the younger Sammartini Giovanni, a form that would develop further into the Classical period. Like the Avison I really enjoyed this and will investigate further.

Now I deft anyone now to get perked up by these pieces. They are dramatic, with vibrant rhythms, the typical motoric underpinning from cello and double bass, the continuo underpinning of the harpsichord, and the immediately catchy tunes from the other strings. It is dead easy to follow, the movements are short and sweet and the tempi unwaveringly fast-slow-fast.

The playing of the experienced AAM was pretty much faultless. We even had a moment of high drama (sort of) as Frank de Bruine had to simultaneously play and re-order his music in the Sammartini piece. I could listen to hours of this stuff, especially in this hall. Can’t wait for the next fix.

Monteverdi Vespers at the Barbican Hall review *****

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The Academy of Ancient Music, Choir of the AAM, Robert Howarth, Louise Alder, Rowan Pierce, Thomas Hobbs, Charles Daniels

Barbican Hall, 23rd June 2017

It was the Academy of Ancient Music and its choir performing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. It was bound to get 5 stars.

If you have spent your life blissfully unaware of Monteverdi’s Vespers then I implore you to take a listen. I can see that a few people have accidentally stumbled upon this blog, normally when looking for reviews of plays that proper critics and bloggers haven’t bothered to see. So they had no choice but to read my nonsense. If you are one of these people and you happen to open this post by mistake, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE find a way to listen to the Vespers of 1610.

I don’t care what bag of music you are into. I don’t care if you think classical music is a load of nonsense. This is different. I promise. It does go on a bit I admit. Hour and a half. But it is broken up it to lots of different chunks. And it is divine. In both the sacred and secular sense.

Now if you or I wanted a new job we would ask around. Probably scan the press, specialist and general. Contact an agency or if you are an important sort, tap a headhunter. You would dust off the CV and hawk it around. Not our Claudio though. When he wanted to escape from his overbearing employer the Duke of Mantua, feeling overworked and under-appreciated, he wrote this and sent it off to the movers and shakers in the rest of Italy (though it wasn’t Italy then of course) with a particular eye on a job with the cashed up Pope. He was well known largely for his madrigals, where he was the bees knees, the Ed Sheeran of his day. But he wanted a more prestigious position where he could churn out more weighty stuff – like what happens to all talented pop stars when they “want to be taken seriously”. In the end he got the top gig at St Mark’s in Venice.

This explains why Monteverdi mixed up the various styles of church music, some taken from tunes he had already written, to create this Vespers. The title says it all: “To the Most Holy Virgin: a Mass for four voices, for Church chorus, and Vespers to be sung by several voices, with a few sacred songs”. All of the elements of the standard Catholic Vespers are there but interspersed with other elements which make for a masterly mash-up. The piece is unique for its time in the way it looks back to the Renaissance with plainchant melodies anchoring the structures in the five psalms, the hymn (Ave maris stella) and the choruses of the Magnificat, that make up the Vespers. Yet it also looks forward into the Baroque of Bach, and even some proto-Classical homophony, in the four “concertos” and sonata which are more “secular” in sound despite still praising the Virgin Mary to the hilt. All of the contrasting textures, both for voices and instruments, also show why Monteverdi effectively invented opera.

The performance by the AAM and chorus under the guiding hand of Robert Howarth at the harpsichord was excellent I think. Of the soloists we, (BUD wasn’t going to be allowed to miss this one), were most taken with Thomas Hobbes (tenor) and Louise Alder (soprano) but it almost seems churlish to say so. The twenty strong choir was on top form and the AAM (which is made up of some of the finest period music interpreters anyone) was magnificent.

Now you will find smartarses who reject this way of performing the Vespers – several voices to a part, two tenors and two sopranos, step out soloists, “echo’ effects meaning soloists whizzing around the building and so on – but trust me, they can safely be ignored. A perfect Vespers might need a Cathedral and candlelight rather than the Barbican stage but the music is just so amazing that I strongly recommend that you just add this to your bucket list and get on with ticking off. I cast iron guarantee you won’t regret it.