Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Trevor Pinnock (director), Rachel Redmond (soprano), Claudia Huckle (alto), James Way (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), Zürcher Sing-Akademie
Barbican Hall, 11th December 2019
The Tourist’s annual Messiah. Almost Billy No Mates. But eventually MSBDB1 stepped into the breach. For which many thanks as Messiah is best shared.
Now the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is one of the many top drawer German period music ensembles and Trevor Pinnock, where he is a principal guest conductor, needs no introduction. Since leaving the group he founded, The English Concert, now directed by Harry Bicket, he has followed a portfolio career, conducting, performing on the harpsichord and teaching. Handel and especially Bach are his specialisms apparent in the many benchmark recordings, a few of which are cherished by the Tourist.
His 1988 Messiah recording changed the way most professional outfits engage with the work in terms of instrumentation, tempi, dynamics and texture. Of course if a choir of billions is still your bag then be my guest. But trust me this is better.
He didn’t rush things here with the FBO, in contrast to some other period ensembles and Handel’s foot tapping fugal tunes were given space to breathe. Trumpets and timpani kept in reserve until required. Which added clarity to the text and allowed each of the soloists to make an impact. (Though I was marginally more partial to Claudia Huckle’s graceful alto and Ashley Riches’s, er rich, bass-baritone. Marginally mind, and Rachel Redmond belied her last minute substitution especially in …. Redeemer … ). The Zürcher Sing-Akademie was divided 8 to a part and pretty much vibrato free. No OTT operatics here. Less a punch to the gut. More a massage of the temples. Lighter, brighter and more transparent than big Brit choruses. Just the way I like it.
Handel’s Messiah, Barbican Hall, 19th December 2018
Jacqueline Shave (violin/director), Sophie Bevan (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allen Clayton (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)
Christmas on the way. Full house at the Barbican. MSBD as wingman. Messiah. A quartet of outstanding soloists. The Britten Sinfonia Voices. The Britten Sinfonia. And the very wonderful Jacqueline Shave leading the band.
It is of course impossible not to delight in the Messiah. At least that is the received wisdom. Yet, like so much Handel, I was worried it might, well, go on a bit. For this my friends was amazingly the first ever time I had seen and heard a live performance, Which given its Baroque lineage, its status as a Christmas fixture and its frequency of performance, especially by amateur choirs, is something of a surprise even to me. I suspect its appeal to a certain sort of Englishman (and woman), of which there were plenty on show at this performance, explains part of my reticence. The type that stands for the Hallelujah chorus, showing up our shared sheepish enthusiasm for imagined tradition. (And look what a mess that has got us into). It might also be my fear (not too strong a word) of really large scale choral performance. You know, where it all just becomes and aural blur.
So I figured the best way to get over this likely unfounded prejudice was to see an appropriately scaled performance, from an orchestra, choir and soloists at the top of their game, and in the company of MSBD, whose enthusiasm and all round gracious affability knows no bounds.
Well I can report that divvying up the Christ story (with the lead actor written out as it happens) into three sections and loads of parts (I think 54 in total), arias, recitative and chorus, plus the overture and pastoral symphony instrumental, makes for a much lighter affair, with more contrast and texture, than I had expected. Of course you will already know that no doubt, but for the uninitiated, this HIP style of performance, on modern instruments, is definitely the way in. You are probably familiar with the big numbers, the aforementioned Hallelujah chorus (we are suckers for anything fugal), “I know that my redeemer liveth” for soprano, “The trumpet shall sound for bass” as well as the choruses “Surely he hath borne our grief”, “Worthy is the Lamb” and the final Amen with its OTT dramatic pause before the end. Yet to be fair to old GFH is is rammed with good tunes. Pretty much throughout.
GFH never had a problem finding good tunes. he just had a bit of a problem in stopping them. At least that is my limited experience of the operas. other oratorios and assorted vocal extracts I have heard. And it wasn’t just in the vocal music. Those organ concerti can grind on a bit. I prefer those works when the format keeps it short, sweet and long on variation. The Concerti Grossi, bits of the Latin music and some of the trio sonatas. But frankly the old boy churned out, and recycled, so much stuff that I reckon, like your man Vivaldi, it is impossible to really know where you are in any of it, so best to just let it flow.
Messiah benefits from the fact that GFH only had 24 days to turn it around. I don’t hold with all that “genius in direct group chat with God” theory of inspiration, though I can see why the original 700 strong audience at the Musick Hall in Dublin (there it is above), might have felt that way. Sometimes, whatever your skill, you are just on it. And he certainly was here. Though infamously his librettist, who sort of commissioned him, Charles Jennens, didn’t think that much of his score. Bit rich coming from a man whose text, cobbled together from bits of the St James’s Bible and Coverdale Salter, is the very definition of fruity and defiantly non-linear (though to be fair this gave GFH a chance to properly ham up his own music). Anyway the fact that GFH had to take the rich outpouring of ideas and get them down without overworking or extending them was to his, and ultimately our, advantage. And for once he didn’t, or couldn’t, nick tunes from other composers, as he was wont to do. No shame in doing that then as there isn’t now.
Of course Messiah is just an opera without sets or costumes. With a plot we likely know inside out. By 1742 GFH’s actual operas were out of fashion. The public who now turned up and paid to hear music couldn’t be doing with this expensive and drawn out entertainment. (My theory is that the royals and aristos who generally funded opera and similar such entertainments in the C17 were, like the rich have done since time immemorial, mostly just showing off and couldn’t be arsed to watch what they paid for). So the resourceful Handel yet again, a few decades late, simply nicked an idea from Italy, fitted his music to English and served it up to us Protestant Brits (and the Irish) under our then German ruler. Interesting that Jennens became GFH’s bessie and advocate, publishing all his later scores, as he originally opposed the Act of Settlement that brought the Hanoverian line to England.
And he didn’t just nick the idea of the oratorio from Italy. Some of the tunes here are lifted from Italian madrigals that he had previously written, which, together with Jenner’s eclectic libretto, explains why it doesn’t really feel that sacred. And that ultimately is its genius and what probably explains its enduring appeal.
I have said before that the Britten Sinfonia is on the way to being my favourite band, probably because of the repertoire they tackle but also because their ethos, no principal conductor or director, means they can’t. and won’t, get away with just dialling in a performance or grumpily going through the motions with a parachuted in conductor. I get the impression they choose who they work with, and what they work on. And if, as here under Jacqueline Shave, the leadership comes from one of their own, then so much the better. This means the energy they bring to performance, the direct connection with the audience and the texture they create through interpretation is second to none. Now having a professional choir of the calibre of the BS Voices under Eamonn Dougan has opened up even more opportunities.
Now GFH’s original manuscript score is for 2 trumpets, timpani, 2 oboes, 2 violins, viola, and basso continuo (cello, double bass, and harpsichord). The might have proved just a little too hair-shirt for the Barbican Hall so on this evening the BS sported the bassoon of Sarah Burnett, another cello alongside Catherine Dearnley, and another viola alongside Clare Finnimore, and a full 13 violins. Which is still, given the standard Baroque practice leaving later copyists to specify the appropriate instrumentation, as perfectly minimal a band as the work requires. With the 21 strong choir we were treated to absolute clarity with none of the blaring out using huge orchestras and choirs that started at the end of the C18 and continued through the C19. Apparently in 1857 at the Crystal Palace there was a performance with an orchestra 500 strong and a chorus of 2000. And that was not the record. Nuts.
For the bizarre thing is that the beauty of GFH’s invention lies in its restraint. His tunes are always pretty simple to understand, that is what makes them wonderful, and Messiah has a conveyor belt of terrific ideas. But GFH doesn’t feel the need to overdo with the orchestra, often surprisingly spare, and holding back, for example the trumpets and timpani until near the end. The music thus fits the text like a glove and the absence of a defining tonal scheme means that GFH can go where he will with the key to match the “emotion” in the words.
Having the soloists at either side of the stage, walking to the centre for their turns, was at first a little distracting but the payoff, each singer able to “tell”their part of the story and allowing us to focus solely on them and their voices, quickly became apparent. Now I am not smart enough to work out why, in choral works, any particular soloist is more convincing than another, it is a gut feeling, but normally there are one o0f two that stand out. Not here though. All four genuinely wowed. I remember Sophie Bevan from her performance in The Exterminating Angel. Here she had lifted time in the spotlight (not literally, this isn’t Broadway) but the was sublime. I could listen to Iestyn Davies’s countertenor all day, which trust me a few decades ago is not a phrase I thought I would ever write. He probably gets the best of the Messiah arias but even so he didn’t rest easy, ramping up the emotion. Like Mr Davies, I had heard Roderick Williams rich and dramatic baritone pretty recently, in the ENO War Requiem. Wonderful. And hearing the phrasing and virtuosity of Allen Clayton in this, rather than the recent LSO Spring Symphony, which I didn’t really get on with, was a joy.
So, I admit, I get it. Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton with Polyphony and two of these soloists now on order.
Divine Geometry: London Symphony Orchestra, Kristjan Jarvi, Simone Dinnerstein (piano)
Barbican Hall, 29th November 2018
Charles Coleman – Drenched
Charles Coleman – Bach Inspired
Philip Glass – Piano Concerto No 3
Kristjan Jarvi – Too Hot to Handel
Steve Reich – Music for Ensemble and Orchestra
Funny one this. As part of our project to embrace the classics of minimalism the Tourist, MSBD and MSBDB schlepped off to the Barbican. Primarily to hear the new(wish) Reich piece in its UK premiere, and to catch up with the Glass, similarly making its UK debut. Didn’t really have a Scooby about the other pieces I am afraid.
Now somewhere in Estonia, (actually it relocated to the US) there is a factory which produces conductors. It is family owned and goes by the name of Jarvi and Sons, (in Estonian obvs). For Kristjan, along with older brother Paavo, is son to the veteran, and oft recorded, conductor Neeme. Sister Maarika plays the flute though I have no doubt she too is a dab hand with a baton.
Anyway young Kristjan, who has the gig as the AD of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic which he founded, sees himself as a bit of a musical chameleon and genre-buster. Having got his hands on the LSO again he wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to showcase one of his own works, Too Hot To Handel, nor a couple from his mate Charles Coleman. Drenched takes Handel’s Water Music as its starting point, and Bach Inspired, er, a string-only snatch from the Mighty One’s Well-Tempered Clavier and his “Nun common Der Heiden Helland” chorale, plus a couple of his own movements. Too Hot …. you can work out for yourself. Suffice to say it has pretty much undigested chunks of GF’s Concerto grossi mashed up with KJ’s own Stravinskian, post-minimalism, as well as a lot of running around for the LSO’s three percussionists, Neil Percy, Sam Walton and Jake Brown, and a starring role for Chris Hill on bass guitar (I kid you not).
Worshipping at the altar of the Baroque Gods and drawing the parallels with the Minimalists is self evidently “a good idea” but always better done with the C17 and C18 originals. These pastiches, whilst certainly not dull, and played with gusto by the LSO, ended up as classic classical “classic rock” if you get my drift. Not quite Smashie and Nicey, but skirting awfully close. The Coleman pieces, especially Bach Inspired had a bit more heterogenous invention, and wit, about them but even so it was all a bit weird to be honest. At near 40 minutes and over 13 movements, Jarvi’s own work I am afraid outstayed its welcome, was shown the door but still came back again.
As for the main events, well the Piano Concerto No 3 was a little too close to the pleasant warm waves of swirling arpeggios that Philip Glass can presumably churn out in his sleep and the Steve Reich piece was, guess what, just amazing.
The Concerto was written for this evening’s soloist Simone Dinnerstein and premiered in Boston in 2017. Glass, now 81, has moved a long way from the “hard-core” rhythmic minimalism (“repetitive processes” in his argot) of the 1960s and 1970s. His music now is much more melodic, chromatic, even romantic. When he composes for piano, as with the three concertos, the lovely Etudes and Metamorphosis and the film music transcriptions, he is a right old softie and gets all emotional. It can be moving and occasionally stirring stuff but it is mostly like being immersed in a nice warm metaphorical bath with Brahms and Rachmaninov.
You could be forgiven for thinking popular art-house film soundtracks, which have been, after all, a fair contributor to the old boy’s estate in the last few decades. And one of the reasons, perhaps along with his generosity in collaboration, why his music has been so influential. In fact it is pretty difficult to think of another composer of music in the second half of the C20, and into this millennium, his musical ideas have been quite so pervasive. It will be interesting to see whether Glass’s legacy, like much of post-modernist culture, survives. Whilst love for Schubert, another compositional production line, who I suspect Glass would most liked to be identified with, has pretty much continued to increase year in, year out since his early death, other comparable piece-work composers from the Baroque itself, Bach say, or Vivaldi, spent hundreds of years being ignored. Mind you in the age of digital junk it will be hard to forgot anything ever.
Yet amidst all the familiarity Glass is still capable of surprises and here it comes in the final movement, which is simplicity itself, being a homage of sorts to Arvo Part, he of the “holy minimalism”, with a simple, chiming melody over a bass drone. The introspective concerto, which is essentially three slow to medium paced movements, begins with soft oscillating chords against a processional base-line, which drifts in and out of the similarly paced orchestra. Crotchets become quavers then triplets, rising to a swell and then subsiding. The second chaconne-ish movement is all repeated arpeggios which ends with the unflashiest of cadenzas.
As its dedicatee, and given she is an acknowledged interpreter of Glass’s music, Ms Dinnerstein, who is what you might call a “self-made” performer, more in line with the You Tube pop generation, was unsurprisingly accomplished in her playing, technique, emotion and understanding all present and correct, and if it didn’t wow then that is more the fault of the music than her or the LSO strings. She encored with a Glass Etude. I would have liked more of those.
In less than a month’s time Philip Glass’s 12th Symphony will be premiered in LA under the baton of fellow “minimalist” grandee John Adams. You can’t fault his work ethic.
Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, premiered earlier this year in NYC, is Steve Reich’s first large scale orchestral work for 30 years, following The Four Sections in 1987. Reich is of course as much performer as composer and his ostensible reason for avoiding the orchestra genre was that performers were not really up to the task. Fair enough, but, as he admits, that is no longer true as there are now orchestral players, notably percussionists, but also specialists in the other sections, as well as the latest generation of conductors, who are more than up to the task, and who love and relish the challenge of creating his stunning sound-world. Mr Reich is a year older than his peer Mr Glass but they are chalk and cheese when it comes to productivity, as well as, despite the “minimalist” label, musical style.
SR can go a couple of years without a new piece. This is is no way a criticism for when they do arrive his compositions continue to be works of staggering genius. This, of course, assumes you are predisposed to his marrying of pulse, rhythm and process. Here he has contrasted an “ensemble”, lead strings, principal woodwinds, tuned pianos, vibraphones and keyboards, with an “orchestra” which adds a full string section and brass, in the form of four trumpets, to that ensemble.
The work is made up of five sections/movements, in typical Reich style simply numbered 1 to 5, which together form a Bartokian arch. the tempo is fixed across the sections but the speed varies according to note value: 16ths, 8ths, quarters, then 8ths and 16ths again. The key similarly changes across the movements, a minor third each time, from A to C to E flat to F sharp and back to A. All this remains moreorless gobbledygook to the Tourist but I reckon, as and when a recording appears, the structure that can be felt on first listening, will be understood by this musical dummy after repeated exposure. That is the big picture: second by second though it is the magical intricacy of melodic fragments repeated, echoed, chased and overlapped by different paired members of the ensemble with the rhythmic backbone provided by the rest of the orchestra. A Concerto grossi to match Handel though maybe not quite the Daddy of the form, Corelli.
Mr Jarvi, who likes a lively workout on the rostrum, seemed to have the measure of the piece, though I wouldn’t mind hearing the LSO take it on again under, say, their Conductor the Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas. He is, after all, the expert on great American music of the C20 and there was, I’ll warrant, a Coplandian/Ivesian twinkle in some of Reich’s invention. I see he will be premiering it in San Francisco next year as it revolves around the remaining or the six orchestras that co-commissioned it.
Academy of Ancient Music, Christian Curnyn (director and harpsichord), Keri Fuge (soprano), Tim Mead (counter-tenor)
Milton Court Concert Hall, 15th February 2018
Corelli – Concerto grosso Op 6 No 1 in D major
Handel – Cantata HWV 230 “Ah! Che troppo inequali”
Handel – Cantata HWV 82 “Il Duello Amoroso”
Pergolesi – Stabat Mater
As usual after BUD and I had chewed over the big economic, social, philosophical and political questions of the day, and reminded each other just how clever we are, as well as scoffed on some tasty, if evil, fare at the redoubtable Bad Egg in Moorgate, there was minimal time for a preview of the evening’s entertainment. Which meant that BUD got the shock of his life when Tim Mead opened his mouth in the second of the Handel cantatas in the programme. He wasn’t expecting a counter-tenor. Especially from a man who could easily pass as the next James Bond given his rugged good looks and sartorial elegance.
My what a voice though. Now if you are a fully paid up, Baroque, (especially Baroque opera), and, increasingly, Contemporary classical, music enthusiast, you are going to come across a fair few counter-tenors. I think I have heard voices with more power and range than Mr Mead’s but not as much clarity and brilliance. This was apparent in the “Il Duello Amoroso”, a decidedly dodgy tale of unrequited love between a shepherd and a goddess, where the counter-tenor and soprano voices sparred elegantly. It really came to the fore however in Pergolesi’s wham-bam, smash hit Stabat Mater.
Pergolesi didn’t get up to much musically. Dying at 26 from TB didn’t help, and, if I am honest, the bits of his output I’ve heard, (or have recordings of), beyond the Stabat Mater aren’t that memorable. Churning out lightweight, comic operas, for your ADHD aristocratic patrons is not, unsurprisingly, a recipe for a lasting musical legacy. When he hit upon this medieval Latin setting of the Christian staple of Mary lamenting her son’s suffering on the cross, he struck gold though. Just a shame it was only completed a few days before he popped his clogs. Still thanks to Bach, and others, the score was widely disseminated in the C18 and has never gone out of fashion.
That’s because, musically and lyrically, he doesn’t hang around. The 12 verses make a virtue of brevity. None is more than 5 minutes long and the whole comes in at 40 minutes. There is loads of contrast, audible human touches and plainly programmatic twists where text and music are perfectly matched, and the fusion, for that is what it is, of Baroque and early Classical, means it is easy, and very affecting, on the ear. Others have had a stab at setting the Stabat Mater, Vivald and Haydn, come to mind, but this tops the lot.
Obviously the AAM, especially the strings, nailed the score, and gave plenty of space for the two excellent soloists to capture the drama and pathos of the setting. Whether individual aria or in duet both singers seemed to really care about the music and text. Forget the religious mumbo-jumbo, this is the moving story of a Mum’s grief. Best bit. The Fac ut portem Christi mortem from Tim Mead alone. Very moving.
I was less convinced by the Handel. That’s just me and Handel though. It is always a pleasant experience listening to GFH but it never really involves me. Even 4 hours of his operas. I hope to get lifted up and swept along but always end up earthbound. Even, whisper it, in a Messiah. He’s a flash Harry make no mistake, and all those voices, here, there and everywhere, is proper WOW, but it all feels a bit devoid of emotion. A man can only have so much bouncing bass and celebratory trumpet action. Anyway I was happy enough to go with the pleasant enough flow in these two cantatas.
The programme kicked off with Corelli’s Op 6 No 1 Concerto Grosso. You cannot go wrong with that. The 12 Concerto Grossi are like a Corelli greatest hits collection. There will always be some stunning concertante work, the two violins and the darker cello, beefed up by the ripieno players, the rest of the band. This concerto has some brutally fast semiquavers stuff for the solo cello and his violin mates and some lovely lyrical, slower dances to kick off the first couple of movements. There is plenty of room to blag which Bojan Cicic, (he really is a top violinist), Rebecca Livermore and Joseph Crouch took full advantage of. The whole band though seems to delight in playing together. That is why, even if I am not absolutely sure of all the musical ingredients, I will try to see all their London concerts.
I recommend you try to do the same, especially if you are new to the Baroque. And I also heartily recommend you dip into recordings of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Corelli’s Concertos if you haven’t already. You won’t regret it.
London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle, Magdalena Kozena
Barbican Hall, 11th January 2017
Schubert – Symphony No 8 Unfinished
Mahler – Ruckert Lieder
Handel – Three Arias
Rameau – Les Boreades Suite
Now I admit I hummed and harred about this particular gig. I am as excited as the next person about the return of Sir SR to London to lead the mighty LSO, but also recognise that, as his musical taste and mine are not entirely congruent, I had better carpe diem where I can. When he does serve up a favourite, chances are it is going to be the dog’s proverbials, to wit the simply stunning triptych of Stravinsky ballets, a highlight of last year (Stravinsky from Rattle and the LSO at the Barbican review *****).
So eventually I took the plunge here, intrigued by the Baroque on offer, recognising that I need to do more work on Schubert and wanting to see whether Sir SR is as nice to his wife, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena, on stage as he is to the LSO and everyone else. The Mahler Ruckert Lieder and the three showy Handel Arias, one from Agrippina and two from Ariodante, certainly meant the missus had to put a shift in, two frocks and an hour in total either side of the interval. The Rameau has been a staple party piece for the Berlin Philharmonic for years, and it seemed interesting to see what the LSO would make of it.
As it turned out this programme also piqued the interest of Mrs TFP, who is rightly suspicious of my Renaissance/Baroque and Contemporary leanings, but who was happy to come along for the ride here. The Germanic quotient was also sufficiently high for her.
So what did I learn. Well …. aaah … I still don’t think I am ever going to embrace Schubert. I assume Sir Simon and the LSO gave this a respectable work-out but it is still just doodling for me, without the rhythmic discipline of Beethoven and with too many strands. Even the finished bits sound unfinished to me. I am really sorry as I know there are a lot of Schubert groupies out there.
Now the Mahler took a bit of time to get going but songs 3,4 and 5 (in Rattle’s sequence) let loose all of that Mahlerian drama and suspense, with the growly stuff at the bottom, the sniff of folk tunes and the aching strings all deployed to great effect. Mrs TFP combed the text scrupulously for mistranslation and therefore snaffled up the stories. I didn’t understand a word of what Ms Kozena was saying and, given it is the usual Romantic, Love/Fate/Man/Artist tripe, (with one about a lime tree apparently), I didn’t really care, but at times the noise was ravishing. Unsurprisingly I guess soloist and band were well matched thanks to Sir SR, though I wonder if Ms Kozena may have topped these renditions in previous performances. No matter. This was concentrated Mahler which for me is a good thing.
On the subject of concentrated musical pleasure, I cannot believe I am the only one who prefers to take his Handel operas from the set lunch, and not the full tasting, menu. The music induces a nice warm glow, for sure, but they can go on a bit. So I thought a triple helping of well chosen arias would hit the spot. These three are undoubtedly showy, particularly the final Dopo notte, but it didn’t feel as if orchestra and soloist were entirely comfortable in parts, and, I was reminded that old George Fred, once his lady singers got up a head of steam, was apt to encourage them further with interminable repeats. Even so it left me grinning from ear to ear.
As did the Rameau suite. So this is apparently one of those all singing, all dancing (literally) extravaganzas that the French Baroque invented. It was Rameau’s last opera tragedie and boy did he chuck the kitchen sink at it judging by this suite. An everyday tale of windy Gods, the orchestral colour is dazzling, with state of the art technology to boot. I absolutely adored it, as did Sir SR and the LSO. Very funky.
So another entertaining evening in the hands of Sir Simon, but also a reminder not to push the boat out too far in terms of repertoire I enjoy.
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.
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.
The more opera I see, the less I want to see. Yet this does not mean I don’t enjoy opera: on the contrary, when it works, it can match the best that theatre can offer in terms of transcendent entertainment. The problem is that there are so few composers, (and even fewer librettists), who do it for me. This opportunity set narrows even further with disappointing productions. I mean to continue to try to unravel this paradox though even if it risks being, frankly, a bit bored for parts of an evening.
So we come to the English Touring Opera’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Guilio Cesare in Egitto, Julius Caesar in Egypt to you and me, at the lovely Hackney Empire. It isn’t on my back door but I have an affection for this lovely theatre, which always feels airy to me and where the views and tickets are good value.
This was my first Handel of the billions he wrote. I realised that taking on one of the old boy’s very longest operas (over four hours uncut), even split into two parts, and in one afternoon/evening, was asking for trouble. But I figured, from what I know of his music and having listened to a production as part of my homework, that the tunes were sufficiently digestible to allow me to slip a bit on the concentration front.
And so it proved. Since I don’t know the piece I can’t really tell you anything about the musical structure, but the tunes, smoothly delivered by the Old Street Band, under the baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny, are very easy on the ear. Maybe a bit too easy. The ensemble, a mix of modern and appropriate period, burbled along at the brisk pace that underpins much of Handel’s score, and the balance between soloists and musicians was spot on from where I was sitting. The chorus, in smart casual, occupied the slips, creating a nice surprise on their entry.
I also enjoyed the singing and acting to a large degree. The counter-tenors, Christopher Ainslie playing an up-right/tight Giulio Cesare, and Benjamin Williamson as the craven Tolomeo, were captivating. Remember these parts would have been castrati in original productions, along with Nierno, here sung by Thomas Scott-Cowell. Fortunately authentic performance doesn’t extend that far. Soprano Sonaya Mafi as mendacious Cleopatra, was probably the best of the bunch vocally, with Kitty Whately as her son Sesto, a little less forceful, though she captured the character’s ineffectual simpering very well. Ever the disappointment to his Mummy. There was a perhaps a little bit too much of contralto Catherine Carby’s Cornelia. Not the fault of the singer; it was just there were only so many ways she could convey her grief at the loss of brutally beheaded hubby, Pompey. The cast was rounded out by the two basses, Frederick Long as Caesar’s faithful sidekick Curio and Benjamin Bevan as Achilla, Tolomeo’s brother in arms who turns against him.
I was very struck by the elegant set and costume design of Cordelia Chisholm and by the lighting design of Mark Howland. ETO Director James Conway wisely chose to locate the production at the time of its premiere in 1724, with sumptuous Regency threads and gilt and blue hues predominating. The Romans stand in for the upright Hanoverian Protestants and the Egyptians the Catholic troublemakers. There were a handful of effective visual coups, including Cleopatra’s dissonant entrance posed as a Virgin Mary bent on seduction (!). There are some excellent essays in the programme (which also covered ETO’s other current production Rameau’s Dardanus), on the differences between Italian and French opera at the time and on the contemporary performance of Handel’s opera. James Conway also persuasively explains his interpretation of the motivations behind the characters, the sub-text relating to the Protestant succession and the pesky Jacobites, his decision to stretch the full text out over two parts and to up the seria quotient and expunge any buffa.
And this for me was where the production went slightly awry. Old Handel was never at the cutting edge of musical fashion so the structure of the opera is still firmly Baroque with some admittedly fine, showy arias, interspersed with quite a lot of dry recitative. Every character, bar the two retainers, gets a few turns. This tends inevitably towards a “park and bark” delivery. The narrative is pretty straightforward with little in the way of pace change or surprises. Caesar has pursued Pompey to Egypt. Tolomeo has had Pompey’s head chopped off. Cornelia, his now widow and her son Sesto, swear vengeance, repeatedly. Cleopatra wants to oust brother Tolomeo and enlists Cornelia, Sesto and Caesar into her cunning plan. Caesar falls for Cleopatra, and, much to her surprise she reciprocates. Tolomeo attempts to have Caesar killed but he escapes. Dirty Tolomeo is eventually skewered by Sesto. Caesar returns with turncoat Achilla and conquers Egypt installing Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne.
To make the two parts, titled The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, work independently, Mr Conway gives us a near hour of overlap at the start of the second part. As I say, given the fairly even pace of proceedings, musically and dramatically, this was a little frustrating, especially as the scenes which follow the overlap are about as dramatic as the whole affair gets. It also means we end up with a surfeit of Cornelia and Cleopatra, but not when they are most interesting (from the plot, and for Cleopatra musical, points of view) in the final scenes. And we are hours in before we get to Caesar and Tolomeo’s most exciting turns. My fault. I should have found out more about the structure ahead of the production.
So a nice to be there rather than a must see. and probably enough to persuade me not to add Handel to the small list of opera composers I have to seek out: Monteverdi if the director takes some risks, Mozart, if the production can make sense of the misogyny and any daftness, Fidelio obviously, Janacek, Berg, Stravinsky, Britten and some modern/contemporary stuff.
However, if the Baroque twirls of Handel get your juices flowing, and you are appraised of the production length, then this is definitely worth a shot. At the time of writing this I see that the good people of Portsmouth, Norwich, Buxton, Durham, Saffron Walden, Bath, Exeter, Keswick and Great Malvern, are all due a visit from these exemplary troupe.