Thursday 4 October 2012

English Concert at Wigmore Hall - Bach and Handel

For their concert at Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 3 October, the English Concert under Harry Bicket, teamed a pair of Bach orchestral works with vocal music by Handel, providing a showcase for the talents of soprano Carolyn Sampson, violinist Nadja Zwiener and oboist Katharina Spreckelsen.

The ensemble managed to fit 20 players onto the platform at the Wigmore Hall, including Harry Bicket directing from the harpsichord, and all the pieces were played by this ensemble thus giving us a good rich orchestral sound in the Wigmore Hall acoustic.

They opened with Bach’s Orchestra Suite No.1 in C,  scored for oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo. The earliest surviving parts for this date from Bach’s period in Leipzig when he was directing the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, a secular music society which he sometimes directed in addition to his post at the St Thomaskirche. It is thought, however, that the music’s origins lie in Bach’s earlier period as court composer at Cöthen. However the fact that the Leipzig Collegium Musicum had been revived by Telemann in 1701 and that Bach included one of Teleman’s favourite dances, a Forlane, in the suite suggests to some commentators that Bach assembled the music in Leizipg. Be that as it may, the music itself is superb and you don’t need to worry about its origins, especially when presented with a performance as fine as the English Concert’s.

Bickett’s tempi were quite sprightly so that the opening movement was lively and flowing rather than grand, which suited the ensemble’s size and location. Throughout the suite we were treated to a wonderfully rich and expressive oboe sound from the ensemble’s two oboes. In the first movement, Bach lets the bassoon off the leash which the ensemble’s bassoonist relished in a display of dazzling passage-work. This was an infectiously enjoyable performance of the Ouverture, followed by a Courante which was elegant, but with a strong, rhythmic bass line. The lively Gavotte had a superbly contrasted trio section with the wind players brought to the fore.  The Forlane was a very busy, very up front movement, strongly contrasted with the following Menuet movements. The lively Bouree had another lovely wind trio, and the suite finished with a courtly but not slow Passepied.

Handel’s motet Silete Venti is another work whose origins are a little obscure. In style it seems to relate to Handel’s Roman cantatas, but recent scholarship suggests that the manuscript dates from the 1720’s when Handel was in London. Though the text is Latin and technically sacred, it is still very much Handel in cantata mode; after a Sinfonia, the orchestra is interrupted by the soloist’s dramatic command for the winds to be silent. What follows is then a standard alternation of aria and recit with a concluding alleluia.

Bicket and his forces gave us a wonderfully grand opening to the Sinfonia which contrasted nicely with the brilliant scurrying of the faster section, very commandingly interrupted by Carolyn Sampson. Her voice has developed focus and brilliance, there is fullness of tone but great beauty and a fine sense of line, also the top is still admirably free creating a unity of sound.

She was stylish in the first aria, Dulci amore, with a lovely sense of line; in fact this music is closer in style to opera than motet, a clear indication that Handel was thinking in cantata/opera terms. Then, after a very grand accompagnato, the players launched into the perky accompaniment to the second aria, Date serta, over which Sampson floated a beautiful line. At Bicket's lively speed the fast passage-work was impressively taken, both accurate and expressive. Sampson is a charismatic performer with great charm and personality; she thankfully does not pull the music about but lets it flow freely, almost disguising her extreme technical expertise. The concluding Alleluia was lively and joyous with lots of bubbly runs from Sampson.

At this point I have to mention a quibble, which continued into the second half. The relative balance between strings and continuo. Quite simply, for much of the time I could not really hear the harpsichord and was only fitfully aware of the theorbo. Perhaps this was a quirk of the acoustic. But I understand from reading Winton Dean's books, that Handel like a texture where the middle was filled by a nice strong continuo part and I just did not hear that.

Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe as another work from Cöthen that he dusted off for the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, only this time he replaced the two solo instruments with harpsichords. The original has been lost and has had to be reconstructed. The ensemble opened the first movement in a lively fashion with great bounce. The two soloists (Nadja Zwiener, violin, and Katharina Spreckelsen, oboe) developed a nice dialogue  with Spreckelsen's smooth lines contrasting with Zwiener's busy passagework. The violin part her is very much a motor rhythm which goes on and on, Zwiener's command was impressive with the cascades of notes under her finger tips.

I am old enough to remember early performances of this work on period instruments, when the sort of control and line displayed by Spreckelsen was just a pipe dream. She commanded a deep rich sound from her oboe, allied to a fine sense of line, nary a bulge or burble in sight. These virtues continued into the lovely second movement, where the soloists interchanged ideas over the discreet but characterful accompaniment. The whole concluding with the infectious joie de vivre of the final movement, with both soloists showing how brilliantly and evenly they could toss off Bach's passage-work.

By the end of the piece I did have one slight worry. Whilst Zwiener was technically superb, I felt that her playing did rather lack character, her playing could have been showier; she was more efficient than brilliant, which was a shame.

The concert concluded with a return from Carolyn Sampson to sing three arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare. These three arias she sang from memory, which vastly enhanced the performance. She opened with Tu la mia stella sei from Act 1, in which she was lightly pleading and slightly teasing, with a lovely smile to her voice and a delightful delivery of the middle section. This was followed by  Se pieta from Act 2, complete with the preceding accompanied recitative which was highly dramatically delivered by both singer and ensemble. The players supplied a beautifully rich accompaniment in the aria, with some lovely bassoon playing in the ritornello when Handel lets the player act independently of the bass line.

Sampson delivered the aria finely, with phrases well shaped and molded, but with a good sense of line and a feeling for the vocal colouring. She was not frightened of thinning her voice down at times. All in all a beautiful and moving performance.

She finished with the joyful Act 3 aria, Da tempeste. Here the instrumentalists relished the brio of Bicket's speed, giving us some incisive playing which was well matched by Sampson's runs, brilliant but also teasingly delightful. This was Handel singing of the highest order and made me long to hear Sampson singing the role in full. In fact, I did rather wonder why she wasn't singing it at the London Coliseum at the moment.

Of course there was an encore,  Angels ever bright and fair from Theodora, sung simply and tenderly.

The English Concert are a talented band and under Bicket's direction they gave us some highly characterful playing, this wasn't simply chocolate box baroque. And the Wigmore Hall, despite the limitations in stage space, is a lovely space in which to hear this type of repertoire. More please.

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