Monday 22 May 2017

Doubly valedictory: EUBO, Maria Keohane & Lars Ulrik Mortensen in Bach and Handel

EUBO at St John's Smith Square in 2015
EUBO at St John's Smith Square in 2015
Handel, Bach; Maria Keohane, European Union Baroque Orchestra, Lars Ulrik Mortensen; London Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 19 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Vividly engaged and engaging Handel really lifted this performance

There was something doubly valedictory about this performance by the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO) at the London Festival of Baroque Music at St John's Smith Square on Friday 19 May 2017. Not only was it the final performance of the orchestra with this particular line up, before the current players return home and a new group assembles, but it was the last performance before EUBO moves its base of operations from the UK to Belgium (as an EU funded organisation the group needs to be based in an EU country). The ensemble was directed from the harpsichord by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, with Bojan Cicic as concertmaster, in a programme of Bach and Handel with soprano Maria Keohane; Handel's Concerto grosso in D minor Op.6 no.10, cantata Tu fedel? Tu costante? HWV171a, Passacaille in G minor (from the Trio Sonata Op.5 No.4) and 'Ombre pallide' from Alcina, and Bach's Harpsichord concerto in a major BWV 1055 and cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten BWV 202 (Wedding Cantata).

We started with Handel's concerto grosso; the stylised Ouverture, with bows really digging in, led to an Allegro which danced with a swing. The slow movement was graceful, followed by a pair of beautifully characterised Allegros, and a final Allegro moderato which had moments of robust enjoyment. You could imagine a grander performance, but not one better characterised. Lars Ulrik Mortensen encouraged his young players to really bring out the individual characteristics of the different sections of the music, and it helped that they were clearly enjoying themselves too.

The version of Handel's cantata we heard was not the familiar one, it starts the same but then wanders off; it comes from a manuscript owned by Ton Koopman who realised it differed from the familiar version written in 1707 and this version may even date from before Handel's trip to Italy.
The cantata used a soprano (Maria Keohane) and a solo oboe (Neven Lesage). Opening with a recitative, we experienced the way Maria Keohane really sold the recitative and acted with both voice and body, this really was music as drama. The first aria showed us that Keohane has a superb technique, but allied to dramatic intelligence so that her duetting with Lesage's oboe was delightful, yet there was a lovely sense of emotional engagement. Throughout the cantata, Keohane's engagement with the words meant that the recitatives were all vivid with a sense of dramatic continuity. The second aria was a lively number with an appealing sense of sarcasm in Keohane's delivery ('If Licoris, Phyllis and I each share a part of your heart, how can you say, traitor, that your heart belongs entirely to me'). The next aria was a plangent siciliano with a lovely solo oboe, and finally 'Si crudel, ti lasciero' really went with a swing.

It is sometimes easy to present Handel's Italian cantatas as elegant musical exercises, but here Keohane, Mortensen and the players gave us a real feeling of the personal drama of the work.

Handel's graceful Passacaille led directly into the excerpt from Alcina with Maria Keohane wandering around the auditorium during the Passacaille and then launching into the recitative 'Ah Ruggiero crudel' (Ah, cruel Ruggiero). Again we had a strongly emoted recitative, made all the more powerful for being accompanied by the string orchestra. The opening ritornello of the aria was very quiet but spine-tinglingly exciting and Keohane's delivery had a sense of freedom which we associate with recitative. We got a real sense of the character's emotional turmoil.

After the interval we heard Bach's Harpsichord concerto in A major, BWV 1055, this is a work which Bach created out of existing material (possibly a concerto for oboe or oboe d'amore). We are not quite sure when Bach performed these works, opinions are divided. Almost certainly he would have used chamber forces, perhaps just one instrument per part in the solo passages, but nowadays we tend to perform them in a larger scale orchestral context. This meant that Lars Ulrik Mortensen's harpsichord just did not dominate the proceedings as it should have; in the  lovely slow movement each note of the string accompaniment overpowered the solo instrument even though the players were trying hard to be quiet. There were lovely moments in the performance, some crisply bouncing ritornellos, and the gorgeous harpsichord figuration in the slow movement, but I kept longing for a bigger, Wanda Landowska-style turbo-charged harpsichord, and you felt that there was a lot of detail in Mortensen's playing which just was not coming over.

Finally came Bach's Wedding Cantata, written for an unknown occasion, with a rather dim text celebrating Spring and flora. There is much delightful music here, but the lack of dramatic argument meant that Maria Keohane's recitatives were simply correct rather than arresting. The performance was delightful, but lacked the dramaturgical coherence of the Handel cantata. The opening aria had wonderful long rippling oboe lines, with the soprano simply joining in and it was only in the middle section that the voice takes the lead. The middle three arias were all accompanied with variants of continuo groups. In the first, as the soprano sang of Phoebus she duetted delightfully with Lars Ulrik Mortensen's harpsichord, the two demonstrating a real complicit partnership. In the next aria there was a lovely obbligato violin from Bojan Cicic, the music was gorgeous here but perhaps a tad over-serious for the inane words ('When the Spring breezes flutter and waft through the brightly coloured fields, Cupid too likes to slip out to seek his treasure'). The final continuo aria paired Keohane with oboe, cellos, basses and bassoon, the oboe having delightful running passagework and the bassoon a really pawky bass, and charming matching vocals from Keohane. And finally we had everyone in a toe-tapping gavotte. The audience reaction to this wonderfully engaging concert was stirring, and we had a final treat, one more Handel aria to send us on our way.

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