Friday, 20 May 2016

Last but not least - Rachel Podger and EUBO at the London Festival of Baroque Music

Rachel Podger and the European Union Baroque Orchestra performing in May 2016
Rachel Podger and the European Union Baroque Orchestra performing in May 2016
Lully, Albinoni, Vivaldi, Handel, Wassenaer, Hellendaal; European Union Baroque Orchestra, Rachel Podger; London Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 19 2016
Star rating: 5.0

Communicative and joyful performances of a programme of baroque concertos, both well-known and lesser known

There was very much a feeling of endings, and new beginnings, at last night's (19 May 2016) London Festival of Baroque Music concert at St John's Smith Square. Under the title Final Word, the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO) directed from the violin by Rachel Podger gave the last concert in the festival, and it was the orchestra's last concert in this form. EUBO dissolves and re-creates itself anew each year, and this was the final occasion when this particular group of players was performing together. But of course, we look forward to hearing EUBO's new line-up next year, and to the festival's 2017 incarnation.

Rachel Podger directed EUBO in a programme of baroque overtures and concertos, with Jean-Baptiste Lully's overture and dances from his opera Phaeton, Tomaso Albinoni's Concerto a 5 in C major, Op.10 No.3, Antonio Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in E major, Op.3 No.12 RV265 (from L'estro armonico), George Frideric Handel's Concerto Grosso in B flat major, Op.3 No.1 HWV312, Unico Wilhelm  van Wassenaer's Concerto armonico No. 3 in A major, Pieter Hellendaal's Grand Concerto in G minor, Op.3 No.1 and Handel's Concerto grosso in C major, HWV 312 'Alexander's Feast'.

There was another theme running through the programme, more subtle perhaps and you had to read Simon Heighes excellent article in the programme book to really be aware of it. 2016 is probably the 350th anniversary of  the births of John Walsh senior and Estienne Roger, two of the major publishers of the age. Walsh published Handel (at first without permission and then with Handel's cooperation), whilst Roger published Vivaldi. Walsh dominated the English marked and Roger the European, and between then they published much of the music performed in the evening's programme. A tribute to two important but relatively shadowy figures.

Rachel Podger is a highly expressive player who has quite a dramatic use of her body language when playing and this style seemed to have inspired the whole group of players (some 18 in all covering eight different nationalities). Playing standing up (except for the cellos), the young people seemed to take Podger's physicality to heart and made the performance an expressively visual feast as well as aural. What was really noticeable about the music was that the ensemble had developed a real personality. This wasn't just a technically assured and highly creditable account of some tricky pieces. The players formed a real ensemble with a communal sense of vivid expressiveness, sense of vitality and constant feel of enjoyment. Whatever the mood of the music, whether happy, or sad, you felt they were all united in their wish to tell you that this was wonderful stuff.


They opened with the overture and dances from Phaeton the tragédie lyrique by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1667), starting with the elegant and sprightly overture we then had a series of short airs, by turns graceful, martial and grand, all highly danceable with sprung rhythms, and concluding with a graceful chaconne.

Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751) is best known for a handful of pieces, though his output is quite wide. Musically, despite living in Venice, he seems to have remained quite isolated perhaps because his relative prosperity (he belonged to a family of playing card makers) meant he regarded himself as a dilettante. We heard the fifth of his opus 10 concertos which were published in 1735/36. A very charming piece in three movements, the opening Allegro was toe-tapping and you could feel the players dancing. There was a bravura cello part in the middle section, though the principal violin part never really broke free of the orchestra. The Adagio was ravishing, played by just the concertino group and the work concluded with a perky, triple time Allegro with a lovely multi-layered string texture.

Estienne Roger published L'estro armonico Op 3 by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1751) in 1711. The set comprises concertos for varying numbers of violins; the twelfth concerto uses a single solo instrument. The opening Allegro was brisk and toe-tapping, but Vivaldi thins the texture to show off the stupendous solo part, played with ease and grace by Rachel Podger. The central Largo combined lovely long-breathed phrases for the tutti violins with an elegant solo part, and the work concluded with a vividly exciting Allegro with all concerned conveying a real sense of fun.

Handel's Concerti Grossi Op.3 were initially published by John Walsh in 1734 without Handel's knowledge or involvement, though the composer would go on to develop an important working relationship with the publisher. The opening Allegro was full of character with some brilliant oboe playing complementing  Rachel Podger's stylish violin solos. The Largo was notable for the pastoral recorders and an expressive solo oboe, combining into something rather sensuous. The final Allegro was vibrantly characterful, particularly the burbling bassoon which was let off the leash by Handel.

Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692-1766) is not a well-known name, but his music is perhaps better known than its composer. Published anonymously, his works have been attributed to Pergolesi and it was only in 1980 that it was discovered that the aristocratic Wassenaer (who didn't want his name on the publication) properly received credit. His Concerto armonico No. 3 in a major for 4 violins, strings and basso continuo was played by just four violins, viola, cello, bass and harpsichord. After the elegant, sustained Grave sostenuto, the Da cappella used a striking polyphonic treatment of a tune known in England as 'Non nobis domine'. After a brief cadenza-like moment the Largo included a lovely cello solo contrasting with the vibrant string texture, with Wassenaer really making use of his four violin lines. Finally a bouncing Vivace finale again full of cascading violins.

Pieter Hellendaal (1721-1799) was a Dutch composer whose music seems to have very French influences. Hi Grand Concerto in G minor, Op.3 No.1 was published in 1758. The opening Ouverture was very French with a grand opening full of rhythmic life, followed by a crisply busy fugue. The Largo combined sustained strings over a walking bass, with some intimate solo moments, whilst the Presto was full of vivid attack. The concluding Minuet, though elegant, seemed a trifle down-beat for a final movement.

Handel's Concerto Grosso in C major, HWV318 'Alexander's Feast' was originally written for performance as part of Handel's oratorio Alexander's Feast in 1736. The opening Allegro was appealingly rhythmic with some nicely insouciant phrasing. The Largo showed off he graceful solo players, and there was a nice interplay between soli and tutti. We had some brilliant streams of notes from the soli in the crisply appealing Allegro, whilst the concluding Andante, non presto was a perkily characterful minuet.

A very full St John's Smith Square clearly enjoyed the evening, and the players communicative delight in the music was palpable, Rachel Podger had clear developed a fine rapport with the young performers. I look forward to EUBO's next incarnation, but also look forward to seeing some of this evening's players in other situations.

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