Monday 10 November 2014

London: Court, Theatre and Cathedral

St George's Church, Brighton
London: Court, Theatre and Cathedral, music by Handel and Purcell; Hebbert, Alexander, Morgan, Ponsford, Pritchard, Humphreys, Grint, The BREMF Singers, The BREMF Players, John Hacorn; the Brighton Early Music Festival at St George's Church, Brighton Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 09 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Celebrating Handel and Purcell with a pair of large scale choral works

With its theme of Cities, Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) 2014 has taken us to Paris, Rome, Santiago de Compostela and many points East. The festival came to a close rather closer to home, in 17th and 18th century London. On Sunday 9 November 2014 at St George's Church, Kemp Town, Brighton, London: Court, Theatre and Cathedral celebrated the music of Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel. John Hancorn conducted by the BREMF Singers and the BREMF Players, leader Alison Bury, with soloists Augusta Hebbert and Molly Alexander, sopranos, Tim Morgan and Simon Ponsford counter-tenors, Nick Pritchard tenor and George Humphreys and Edward Grint basses in a programme of Purcell's Ode to St Cecilia and Suite from Abdelazar or the Moor's Revenge, and Handel's Utrecht Te Deum and Eternal Source of Light Divine from the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne. 

Purcell's Ode to St Cecilia was written for a group of Gentlemen Lovers of Musick who met at the Stationers Hall each year on 22 November to celebrate St Cecilia's Day. It was one of a number of such odes that Purcell would write for them and was premiered in 1692. It is a very grand work, written on a large scale with an orchestra including recorders, oboes, trumpets and drums, and it needs six soloists. The work's flexibility and profligacy with the solos, there are no arias as such just short solo sections within the whole texture, suggests that the original soloists were members of the choir. It is recorded that Purcell himself sang the solo Tis Nature's Voice.

This leaves a problem for modern revivals, some of the solos in the work are quite significant, others far less so. Professional choirs usually solve the problem by mixing a group of brought in soloists with members of the choir standing out for solos. BREMF, using an amateur chorus and with an enviable committment to working with young performers, used an impressive line up of seven soloists (the Handel Te Deum required two sopranos, so both sopranos shared to soprano solos in the Purcell). The result gave us a varied and stylish series of soloistic interjections.

All seven sang with a lovely sense of style, and a feeling of neat crispness to Purcell's ornamental vocal writing which matched the rhythmically enlivened approach of John Hancorn and the instrumental players. Hancorn's speeds were moderate to fast, but never rushed, and the result had a lovely involving feel with a sense of the dance rhythms underlying many of the movements and some really toe-tapping moments.

All the solo, duet and trio moments were notable. After a hesitant start, counter-tenor Simon Ponsford gave a highly characterful account of the solo Tis Nature's Voice, whilst George Humphreys was both richly resonant and very elegant in the lovely bass solo Wondrous Machine. The tenor soloist never gets a solo, instead Nick Pritchard demonstrated his mellifluous and flexible high tenor in a series of duets. Perhaps the work's most famous duet was the one for two basses Let these among them selves contest, finely sung by Edward Grint and George Humphreys.

The thirty singer of the BREMF Singers acquitted themselves with commitment, vigour and not a little style. The BREMF Singers is an auditioned amateur group which the festival founded in 2004, and which now plays a strong part in the festival programmes.

The second half opened with a suite from Purcell's incidental music to the play Abdelazar or the Moor's Revenge, written in 1695 for the revival of a tragedy by Mrs Aphra Behn (a play described by Christopher Hogwood as particularly gory). Purcell wrote a lot of theatre music, ranging from Overtures and airs to be played between the acts, to songs and of course whole scenes in the large scale semi-operas. One movement of the suite has great familiarity, Britten used the Rondeau as the basis for his Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

The BREMF Players, performing without a conductor, gave us a vibrant and highly characterful performance. Crisp playing, precise rhythms and a lovely firm but sympathetic tone combining to make a highly infectious and involving suite.

We then moved on to Handel for one of his earliest large scale works for the Royal Court in England, the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne. This was presented to the Queen in 1713, though uncertainty lies over its first performance and whether the Queen heard it, but Handel did receive a pension from her the following year. The opening movement, Eternal Source of Light Divine, is perhaps one of Handel's loveliest melodies and the movement rises far above the rest of the work so it was this movement alone that we heard, with a glorious duet from counter-tenor Tim Morgan and the trumpeter from the BREMF Players.

The evening fnished with Handel's Utrecht Te Deum, written in 1713 for performance in St Paul's Cathedral to celebrate the Treaty of Utrecht. Though Handelian in every note, it is also Handel's most Purcellian work. It is his only large scale piece to use a Purcell-like interweaving of solos, solo-ensembles and chorus; all his later works no matter how flexible their structure, would use complete arias. Like the Purcell ode, the original soloists in the Te Deum must have been members of the choir as Handel uses them to interject. Often he uses the soloists in pairs, two sopranos, counter-tenor and tenor, tenor and bass, the duet leading on to solo quartet (more like a semi-chorus) before the full choir comes in. BREMF's soloists, Augusta Hebbert, Molly Alexander, Tim Morgan, Nick Pritchard and George Humphreys were all young singers whose experience often mixes solo work with consort singing and membership of vocal ensembles. This collegiality showed in the way each kept their own characterstic voice yet through listening and blending, created an intelligent ensemble. There were many lovely moments, I was particularly taken with the counter-tenor Tim Morgan and tenor Nick Prichard's duets, with the two blending their tones in a fluid manner. And there was a lovely solo quartet moment which featured a fine flute solo.

Again, the BREMF Singers were on strong form, providing sympathetic choral colour and power at the right moments, with the BREMF Players combining some lovely solo moments with stylish ensemble.

This was a strong finish to the festival, and at the end a packed St George's Church heard festival co-director Clare Norburn announce that next year's festival Women! would feature women composers from Hildegard of Bingen to  Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre.

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