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.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos at St John’s Smith Square review ****

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Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: The Brandenburgs

St John’s Smith Square, 2nd May 2017

Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 5
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 4
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6
Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 2

JS Bach. Tick. Brandenburg Concertos. Tick. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Tick. St John’s Smith Square. Tick.

What’s not to like. Might as well just stop there. A superb period ensemble with some of Europe’s finest instrumental specialists playing a series of the finest works of the Baroque age.

However, there is always something new to be found in the Brandenburgs and so it was this evening. With excellent harpsichord (Steven Devine) and cello (Luise Buchberger) continuo lines and a bit of double bass action when required from Ceccelia Bruggemeyer, and with one instrument to each part, we could focus on the key contributions of individual players/instruments: in No 1 Huw Daniel on the violino piccolo (yep that’s a tiddly violin), Katharina Spreckelsen on flute and the two horns of Roger Montgomery and Nicholas Benz: in No 5 on the violin of Huw Daniel now standing in for Pavlo Beznosiuk, and its interplay with the flute of Lisa Beznosiuk  and the harpsichord cadenza of Steven Devine: in No 4 Huw Daniel’s violin again and the recorders of Rebecca Miles and Ian Wilson; and in No 6 the same violinist and recorder with the oboe again played by Katharina Spreckelsen and the F trumpet of David Blackadder (how on earth does he do that – its just a tube of old metal with holes in!!). Nos 3 and 6 are the all string affairs but in No 6, Simone Jandl and Max Mandel made a mighty racket on their violas.

Now I confess I can bounce between period (Pinnock, Hogwood) and modern recorded versions of the Brandenburgs (with a special fondness for Benjamin Britten’s conducting) but in concerts period is best (and pretty much the only option these days). And this was properly raw and thrilling. For those who have never heard a period horn, trumpet or recorder, get up close and embrace the vitality and skill. It is a tricky business making these things do what you want but when it all falls into place the energy is palpable. The quality of the instruments, the skill of the players and the depth of the scholarly advance over the last couple of decades means you are now really hearing all these scores as (probably) they were intended. If I had to pick out a couple of faves it would be No 6 with the aforementioned violas offset by the grumbling gambas and the violone (a little double bass) and the oboe/trumpet/recorder combo in No 2. .

The excellent OAE programme (a numpty like me learns a lot from these which do not assume too much but neither are they patronising or just biographical) reminds us that these now ubiquitous works started as a speculative venture by JSB for a customer, the Margrave of Brandenburg (I would love to be a Margrave if  had to be a Continental European aristo), who never bothered to look at them. What a silly Margrave. The reason why the Brandenburgs are so popular and wonderful is because they have all the brilliant, diverse yet condensed musical ideas that JSB excelled at, but they also deliver the tunes and the visceral, show-offy excitement that the best of the Italian baroque supplies.

So I say if you are a newcomer to the classical world (this blog is aimed at you), ignore all those miseries who would have you listening to the endless droning on from the likes of Strauss, Mahler and Bruckner and get down instead with the funky muthas that are JSB and Vivaldi. And if you are anywhere near Manchester or Cheltenham they will be bringing this to you in the next few days.