Bach Orchestral Suites: OAE at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ****

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Margaret Faultless (director/violin), Lisa Beznosiuk (flute)

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 14th May 2019

Okey dokey pig in a pokey. There has been a grumpy tone in the last few posts that the workshy Tourist, courtesy of an imagined pep talk from Pauline, is resolved to shake off. So let’s park up the portable pulpit and climb back aboard the cheery charabanc of cultural criticism.

Mind you what can I tell you about the Four Orchestral Suites. I’ve come a fair way on my journey with Bach, who is the composer whose music I have begun to appreciate more than any other in recent years, (only a fascination with Ligeti has come close), but I still have a long way to go. If I am honest I will leave others to lead me through the vocal music and I doubt I will ever truly enjoy the sound of an organ of which he wrote profusely. There’s also still a lot of work to be done outside the obvious starting pieces in the works for keyboard but I reckon I have finally got my head around the chamber music and orchestral works. By which I mean I roughly know in what format and for what instruments he wrote. Not much I know but at least now I can properly start listening.

Any newbie to Bach is going to come across the Four Orchestral Suites pretty early on. And recognise plenty of the tunes. And what tunes. They are based on dance forms. Which makes then easy on the ear. But this being Bach there is so much more. The old boy termed them Ouvertures, referring to the form which preceded the dance movements in each of the suites. The French overture was all the rage in the Germany of Bach’s day. It was made. up of a stately majestic opening section in relatively slow dotted-note rhythm in duple meter, followed by a fast fugal section, then concluded with a short recapitulation of the opening music. Even if you know nothing about the Baroque, French, German, Italian or otherwise, but you have you seen any film which has toffs in preposterously big wigs behaving badly you will recognise the grooves. (Though not The Favourite. Like everything else about that film every piece on the soundtrack was chosen by someone who knows their stuff).

JS Bach wasn’t as prolific as some when it came to the suite, Telemann for example. But that would be because he was a glum pious bugger and was tied down by the religious day job. Or was it? The general consensus now is that he didn’t originally conceive these four works as a set and that they came together not when he worked in Cothen, (though he had the opportunity here), but after he landed his dream job, in 1723, as Music Director in Leipzig and Cantor at St Thomas’s School. This is when he was at his busiest but also when he sought to develop his music outside the confines of the church. From 1729 JSB became the director of the concert society, the Collegium Musicum Leipzig, which every Friday met at the same coffeehouse for a jam session. And it was for this group that he wrote the Orchestral Suites, albeit recycling some of his favourite riffs from previous work.

The Collegium though was all about exploring contemporary musical trends, which explains the form of the suites, but it was a serious, scholarly outfit, which is why JSB was able to serve up something much more than a clever pastiche of the genre. Which is why their immediate attractions, this is Bach at his most “galant”, then give way to something deeper and more satisfying.

The OAE, led on this evening, as is its raison d’être, by one of its own, co-leader Margaret Faultless, (whose inspirational contribution to HIP sort of matches her surname), kicked off with No 3 which probably dates from 1731. Here we get three oboes, a couple of trumpets and drums alongside strings and continuo, which explains the march-y, fanfare-y feel of the ouverture, which precedes that Air (on a G string). Now it always takes 10 minutes or so for my brain and ears to catch up with period ensembles and this was no different so it was only after the air that I was in the swing. As it happens the OAE’s violist Max Mandel stepped out after the Suite to ask if we liked the tempo that they had taken it at. I was one of the tiny minority who wanted it faster. Thus proving that, for me, and even in the slow movements, it can never be too fast or too loud in the Baroque and Classical. Well maybe not blast-beat chaotic but you get the drift.

Anyway I was warmed up by the two hop-along Gavottes, and the following rousing Bourree and swinging Gigue where the trumpets link back to the ouverture. By contrast Suite No 1 which followed is scored for two oboes and a bassoon, so with no trumpets and drums is a much less public and triumphant affair. The woodwind double the strings in the first theme but then operate as a solo trio weaving between the strings and continuo in the manner of a Handelian concerto grosso. The Courante which follows, in 3/2 metre, starts off bouncily enough but then turns into one of those shifting, swirling things of wonder, but it’s gone in a flash. The Gavotte, Menuet, Bourree and Passepied which follow are arranged in pairs with the second a variation on the first, sometimes just for wind sometimes just for strings, sometimes both, as in the second Gavotte where the strings imitate trumpet fanfares. This is JSB at his genius best. Something so simple becomes, er cliche alert, just sublime. The unrepeated dance, a Forlance, some sort of Slavic jig, is another little, pastoral gem.

No 2 came much later maybe 1739, (the numbers are not chronological), in fact it was probably JSB’s last orchestral work. It certainly sounds sterner, in the opening dotted march and then in the ensuing fugue, and when they come together we are in JSB’s world of pure musical invention where the old boy just never missteps in solving his mathematical and aesthetic puzzle. The dances include a Rondeau, another pair of Bourees, a Polonaise and finally a Menuet and Badinerie ,(which you will recognise – yep the Nokia ringtone favourite). These movements are where the OAE’s flautist Lisa Beznosiuk was able to strut her stuff, and strut she certainly did, (here’s the first page of the original flute part above). Yet for me the sweet, sweet Sarabande might just be the best movement of the suite. This is JSB in love. If you think the old boy’s music is too “intellectual”, which is b*llocks anyway, then listen to this and think again.

No 4, like Nos 1 and 2, similarly started off sans trumpets but, so uplifting is its opening Ouverture, that he quickly added 3 of them as well as drums. He also pinched the tune for his Christmas cantata in 1725. It is obviously Bach and obviously Baroque but there are times in this if I close my eyes when I could be listening to Mozart or early Beethoven. The dance movements, again with paired Bourees and Menuets sandwiching a Gavotte, highlight winds, trumpets and strings alternately, before a final Rejouissance which lives up to its name.

The OAE, for the most part standing, was on top form. The continuo of Stephen Devine (harpsichord), Luise Buchberger (cello) and Cecelia Bruggemeyer (bass) pushed and pulled throughout. I’d set these three along side my favourite ever rhythm sections any day of the week. * I would also call out the oboes of Katherine Spreckelsen and Alexandra Bellamy. A good night. An opinion shared by the entire MSBD sibling crowd whom it was my pleasure to accompany.

  • Since you are asking. Tony Thompson/Bernard Edwards, Benny Benjamin/James Jamerson, Al Jackson Jr/Donald Dunn, Paul Chambers/Jimmy Cobb, Sly & Robbie, Ashton and Carlton Barrett, Dennis Davies/George Murray, Brown Mark/Bobby Z, Les Pattinson/Pete de Freitas, Steve and Paul Hanley, Dave Allen/Hugo Burnham, Peter Hook/Stephen Morris, Tina Weymouth/Chris Frantz, Graham Lewis/Robert Gotobed, Bill Ward/Geezer Butler, John Paul Jones/John Bonham, Neil Peart/Geddy Lee.

Nicola Benedetti and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop, Nicola Benedetti

Royal Festival Hall, 4th February 2018

  • Beethoven Symphony No 4 in B flat
  • Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major

“Stardom” in the classical music world is a curious thing. To get there ideally you need to be a child prodigy. Then take a prize at your chosen music school. Get taken under the wing of a teacher and mentor, (more than one ideally), who are maestros from prior generations. Win a competition prize, or finish as a creditable runner-up, and secure a few prestigious gigs. A recording of a Romantic staple which tests the previous best recommendations. Set yourself up with your own festival in the middle of nowhere. Teach the kids and the underprivileged and travel. A lot. And, if you are a woman expect a load of airbrushed photos of you exuding grace, or if a bloke, brooding, ideally with a shock of unkempt hair. Make the cut, and there aren’t that many places available, and you are set up, literally, for life.

Obviously though you need talent and a level of dedication far beyond other jobs/professions/vocations. And even if you get to the top of the tree you are still only going to be appreciated by a minority of the population. Ah, but the pleasure you bring them cannot be measured.

Just occasionally though classical musicians break out into the wider consciousness by virtue of their genius, position and/or symbolism. In this concert I would contend we had two such musicians.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Marin Alsop’s rise to the top of the conducting profession. Recently appointed as Artistic Director for the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, alongside her leadership of the Baltimore and Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestras, she is probably best known to the general public from her two recent stints at the Last Night of the Proms. Here at the South Bank, where she is an Artist in Residence, she was given the award from the Association of British Orchestras, the trade body if you will. Let us hope she continues to inspire women to follow her. (I am looking forward to hearing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO perform the Rite of Spring and Daphnis and Chole later in the year at the Barbican for example). There is a long way to go. Vienna’s other orchestra, the Philharmonic, didn’t permit women until 20 years ago (though they had a secret woman harpist, bloody hypocrites) and the unacceptable behaviour of certain male conductors is now being revealed. Ms Alsop is proving a powerful and eloquent champion and should be roundly supported for her work and her stance.

Nicola Benedetti has also proved capable of transcending the usual confines of classical music. Her recordings to date have not fought shy of delivering the popular “compilations” that shifts units. There was a packed house for this concert, and I would venture the majority were here just to see Ms Benedetti. This country is blessed with a rich classical music culture, (though maybe not quite as rich as Central and Eastern Europe), and there are plenty of talented musicians and marvellous composers. But world class soloists are a little thinner on the ground. So it is no wonder that Ms Benedetti, who is still just 30 years old, is so treasured, what with her MBE and Queen’s Medal for Music. Note I am unashamedly claiming her for Britain: she is unequivocally proud to be Scottish.

This was the first time I had heard her play. In a piece I now know well and, obviously, adore. With a band which comprises musicians who are at the top of their period music game. On a period fiddle whose sound I understand. This was Ms Benedetti’s first time with the OAE. (She will be joining the Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican at the end of May in a programme of Vivaldi and Telemann. BUD and KCK have been signed up). Though not the first time she has played with gut strings. Ballsy then to take on Beethoven, the Daddy of the modern violin concerto, in a period performance.

So I couldn’t tell you what live sound she makes on steel strings, but, on the basis of this, it is probably something special. Here was a sweet, earthy and perfect tone but with a huge dynamic range. Very impressive. Especially in the slow movement Larghetto. And a real treat in the cadenza she has written specially in conjunction with Petr Limonov, what with its jamming with the timpani manned by Adrian Bending, (who also gets his big cameo in the opening and second movements of the Fourth Symphony remember), and its harmonic fantasy culminating in some showy pizzicato. Obviously you wouldn’t turn your back on an old-fashioned, knock ’em out between the eyes rendition, (my favoured recording is the Perlman/Barenboim/BPO which really pumps it up in the last movement), but this was still very satisfying. This is, after all, Beethoven’s least gruff, un-buttoned up orchestral masterpiece, set in its Happy D home key.

I wasn’t quite so persuaded by Marin Alsop’s treatment of the Fourth Symphony. Now I know it is a funny creature, murky and tentative in places, with those stop/starts, and it gets a bad rap compared to the Third and Fifth. But there is still lots to enjoy and explore. The OAE’s brass was in fine fettle but the woodwind was occasionally not quite what I expected and the strings felt a little too polite in the adagio vivace of the first movement, after that mysterious opening, and in the final allegro, which needs that massive contrast into the stalls. Tempi were a little on the slow side for me but then again I get off on John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Revolutionnaire Et Romantique’s Beethoven cycle, especially in this symphony. Here Ms Alsop, as in the Violin Concerto, was most convincing in the slower movement.