Friday 30 May 2014

A festival of baroque – and an end to more than one era

Abate Steffani
Abate Steffani
The Lufthansa Festival of Baroque is a week (and a bit) long indulgence of all things 17th and 18th century and this year has been dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the Hanoverian succession to the British throne, and the 300th anniversary of the founding of the festival's home in London: St John's Smith Square.

But it's not all been Bach and Handel – there were lots of surprises and new experiences. This year has also been tinged with the sadness of goodbyes. Goodbye to Lufthansa who have supported the festival for 30 years, and goodbye to the Hilliard Ensemble who, after 40 years, are in the middle of their final year of singing together.

I caught the two concerts on Friday evening at St John's Smith Square. The first 'The admirable Abate Steffani' performed by La Risonanza directed from the harpsichord by Fabio Bonizzoni, with soprano María Hinojosa Montenegro and counter-tenor Martin Oro. Abate Steffani (1654-1728) was born in Castelfranco but was sent to nearby Padua where he was a school boy chorister. Aged 11 he sang opera in Venice and aged only 12 he moved to Munich under the protection of Elector Ferdinand Maria of Bavaria, where he eventually became director of music at court. During this time he was also ordained as a priest and began to write opera. Some twenty years later he became Kapellmeister at the court of Duke Ernest Augustus of Hanover where he wrote eight operas and several duets based on the poetry of Ortensio Mauro. As time went on Steffani became involved in diplomacy and composed less, and the rest of his life was devoted to politics and an ecclesiastical career. In 1726 he became the first honorary president of the Academy of Ancient Music in London and in return sent them a 'Stabat Mater'.

The two duets, 'Occhi, perché piangete?' and 'Inquieto mio cor', and the scherzo 'Guardati, o core” were beautifully sung. Both singers were very controlled (even on the fast runs and dotted rhythms they never lost clarity) with minimal and effective ornamentation, including using vibrato as ornamentation. These songs all followed a simple pattern of contrasts, for example the first duet consisted of part A, slow, sad, but beautiful, contrasted with part B, fast with lots of runs, then repeated with ornamentation. Recitative and aria sections were fitted into the general pattern.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) would have met Steffani in around 1710 at the court of Hanover (the same year he moved to London) and again, in Rome, shortly before Steffani's death - and the influence of Steffani on Handel was clearly audible. The two duets 'Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi' (1710) and 'A miravi io son contento' (1711) were very similar in style to Steffani's duets which were written earlier at around the turn of the century.

Handel's 'Trio sonata in G major' was published in 1739 but is an assembly of music written for opera and ballet, for example the 'Allegro' is derived from the overture to 'Athalia' completed in 1733 and 'Passacaille' from the 1920 ballet 'Radamisto'. This performance by La Risonanza was outstanding both in tone and execution, making the most of changes in key and rapidly changing dynamics to alter mood. Quite possibly this was the best interpretation of Handel I have ever heard.

The final composer in this set was Johann Christoph Pepusch (1667-1752) who moved to England in 1700, and, in 1710, was one of the founders of The Academy of Vocal Music (renamed The Academy of Ancient Music the 1726). His 'Trio sonata in C major' harked back to earlier styles, the second movement utilising stepped dynamics, while the third movement was reminiscent of Giovanni Gabrieli. The final 'Allegro' was dance-like and in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750).

The Pepusch duet 'Conqu'ing heroes fam'd in story' was possibly a programmatic mistake. I can understand why it was included, but the singer's English diction was not clear and it came across as a second rate Purcell. However the encore of a duet by Antonio Vivaldi with its pockets of minor harmony provided a lovely end to the concert.

Kati Debretzeni picture credit Joe Plommer
Kati Debretzeni
picture credit Joe Plommer
The second concert that evening, 'Morimur' performed by Kati Debretzeni on violin and the Hilliard Ensemble, was a homage to Bach. Bach chorales were tastefully interspersed between movements from the 'Partita in D minor', and finally combined into a whole using an analysis by Helga Thoene, who believes that the two are related.

Interpretation of Bach on violin is a matter of preference. My piano teacher from school days would have hated Debretzeni's style as being too romantic and using too much rubato, but I imagine my violin teacher would have loved it, for bringing Bach's music to life rather than being clinical and mechanical – either way you certainly had to admire her skill. Debretzeni's playing was effortlessly fluid and graceful, and she made sense of the four-part sections, bringing out the main theme from the morass.

The Hilliard Ensemble was a calm foil to the emotional outpourings of the violin. While the chorales are probably not that challenging for a group of their expertise, the combining of chorale and chaconne must have taken a great deal of concentration. Although the chorale-chaconne was interesting to listen to, whether or not you agree that these are meant to be together or are totally separate uses and reuses of the same material, like performance styles, is a matter of opinion.

The Lufthansa Festival of Baroque may have come to an end – but baroque lovers need not despair. The festival organisers are already planning next year's festival and are working hard to secure enough funding for the festival to continue in to the future. If you want to get involved please contact the festival organisers directly.

BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting concerts from this year's Baroque Festival. 'Funerals for a Prince and a Queen', performed by Vox Luminis & QuintEssential Sackbutt and Cornet Ensemble, will be on The Early Music Show on Sunday 1 June, 2.00pm and 'Banchetto Musicale' performed by QuintEssential Sackbutt and Cornet Ensemble on Sunday 8 June, 2.00pm.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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