Monday 12 November 2012

BREMF - Celebrating Coronations

St George's Church, Brighton
The final event of this year's Brighton Early Music Festival saw the BREMF Singers, director John Hancorn, and the International Baroque Players, leader Kati Debretzeni, joining together at St George's Church, Brighton on 11 November in a programme of music for Coronations, with pieces by Handel, Purcell, Charpentier, Zelenka and Boyce.

The concert opened with an impressive account of Handel's coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest with both chorus and orchestra impressing with their crisp account of Handel's passagework, and the instrumentalists nicely graded control in the long opening build-up. With an instrumental ensemble with just 11 strings compared to a choir of 37 singers, the balance in the bigger sections rather favoured the choir too much; but generally the instrumentalists crisply incisive playing told nicely. They followed Zadok with another of Handel's Coronation anthems, the rather more intimate  Let thy hand be strengthened though here the choir's soft grained tone took time to settle down.

The instrumentalists then played Handel's Concerto Grosso in A Major, Opus 6 No. 11. The International Baroque Players are a conductor-less group, playing standing up and the young players bring a crisply vivid attack to their playing, giving brilliant, involving performances with some lovely incisive rhythms The A Major Concerto Grosso is based on Handel's Organ Concerto in A, with organ replaced by solo violin, so that the violin gets the lion's share of the solo moments. Leader Kati Debretzeni impressed with her sense of line and her lovely tone, but you felt that the performance was a real communal work from all the players. And they seemed to be having a good time too!

The first half concluded with Purcell's My heart is inditing, written for the Coronation on James II in 1685. It is a large scale anthem with extensive use of strings, including a striking, rather bouncy opening ritornello which re-occurs at various points. The anthem is a multi-sectional piece, with passages for full forces alternating with solo voices and semi-chorus accompanied by just a continuo. The individuals in the BREMF Singers gave some highly creditable performances in these solo and semi-chorus passages. Though I have to admit that the piece did rather seem to out-stay its welcome as Purcell seemed to be spinning the material rather - or is that heresy!

We were called back to the second half by a brilliant fanfare for two trumpets by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. There then followed an amazing showpiece by the Bohemian composers Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679 - 1745). Zelenka was commissioned to write a piece for the coronation of Charles VI (as Holy Roman Emperor) in 1723. His Concerto a 8 in G major, though not used at the coronation was written the same year. It is an amazing piece, using eight soloists in the concerto grosso form, with oboe, bassoon plus strings. Though Zelenka gives most of the soloists a moment in the spotlight, it was very much the oboe and bassoon who were the featured instruments. The opening Allegro could almost have been an oboe concerto, with the solo part played brilliantly by Leo Duarte with a lovely dark rich tone. He was aptly complemented by Hayley Pullen's chocolate tones on the bassoon, getting a spotlight particularly in the opening of the middle Largo movement, which Zelenka wrote far more as a concerto grosso. The concluding Allegro again gave each instrument its moment. Zelenka's style was recognisably baroque, but certainly a rather different dialect to Handel and Vivaldi, and with some moments which illuminated the possibilities that were being opened up in the development of music. The performance from International Baroque was dazzlingly brilliant, helped by the fact that again the players seemed to enjoy themselves enormously despite the difficulty of the music.

Next came another of Purcell's pieces for the Coronation of James II, this time an unaccompanied setting of I was glad. The choir sang with a nice, light tone but their essentially soft-grained approach seemed to lack the crispness which I thought the music called for. The performance improved after what was a rather shaky start; their diction was impeccable throughout.

Finally we had William Boyce's The King shall rejoice, another grand piece (the trumpets and drums rejoined the ensemble) written for the Coronation of George III. A tripartite work, with a grandly celebratory opening, a rather slower and more intimate central section and a grandly fugal conclusion. Though the work was written  in 1761, two years after Handel's death, you could hear not only echoes of Handel but of Purcell as well. The writing must surely have seemed a little old-fashioned at the time, or perhaps that was the intention. Still, with the benefit of hindsight we can enjoy such pieces without worrying, and both choir and orchestra gave a fine performance.

There was an encore, to celebrate the closing of the festival. The opening and closing movements of Purcell's Come ye sons of art away, with the bass and soprano duet sung by the conductor John Hancorn and Deborah Roberts, co-founder and co-artistic director of the festival. A delightful conclusion to a fine festival.

Next year's BREMF will be starting on 25 October 2013 and will take as its theme, Passion. Put the date in your diary now!

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