Friday 8 December 2017

An evening of vital music making: Reversal of Fortunes

Georg Philipp Telemann
Georg Philipp Telemann
Bach, Telemann; Academy of Ancient Music, Bojan Cicic, Rachel Brown, Rachel Beckett, Alastair Ross; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 07 2017 Star rating: 5.0
Contrasting works from the two rivals and friends, in an engaging evening of concertos

In 1722, Georg Philipp Telemann applied for the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig; he was approved and offered the job but declined because his existing employer, the City of Hamburg, gave him a raise (a very modern situation). The post of Thomaskantor eventually went to Leipzig's third choice, one J.S Bach. This story reflects the relative situations of the two composers (who were friends) during their lifetimes; it was Telemann, with his more approachable, graceful style, who was the more famous in complete contrast to nowadays when much of his large surviving output is unknown.

It was this situation which formed the basis for the Academy of Ancient Music's concert at Milton Court Concert Hall on Thursday 7 December 2017, Reversal of Fortune. Directed from the violin by Bojan Cicic, AAM was joined by Rachel Brown (flute and recorder), Rachel Beckett (recorder) and Alastair Ross (harpsichord) to perform Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 4 & 5, Telemann's Concerto for Flute and Recorder in E minor and Ouverture-suite, 'Burlesque de Don Quixote'.

Bach's Brandenburg Concertos were presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in 1721, but probably originally written far earlier. Unfortunately the gift does not seem to have elicited the sort of official recognition which Bach would have liked. The concertos themselves represent Bach's response to the Italian concerto genre as publicised by Vivaldi, and it was a very distinctive and personal response, witness the huge harpsichord solo in Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 and the sheer length of the opening movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 4.

Bach probably envisioned the pieces as large scale chamber music, rather than orchestral works, so AAM's performance of Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with just single strings was completely apposite.
The result was intimate chamber music, yet with real vitality to the music making. The advantage of the forces was that the balance was near ideal, we needed no special pleading to hear the harpsichord and all three solo instruments, Bojan Cicic on violin, Rachel Brown on flute and Alastair Ross on harpsichord, created a balanced and blended ensemble. The first movement was wonderfully fluid, yet vital with a mellow sound from Brown's flute, and Ross's harpsichord moving from discreet backing to that outrageous cadenza. After the elegant and graceful middle movement we had a perky finale full of engaging rhythms and an expressive sense of forward motion.

Telemann's Concerto for Flute and Recorder in E minor was a beautifully engaging piece, without perhaps the depth of seriousness of Bach's work. Sonorous repeated string chords at the opening punctuated rhapsodic passages for the two soloists, Rachel Brown on flute and Rachel Beckett on recorder, developed into a texture where flute and recorder undulated in dialogue over throbbing strings, all very seductive. The work was in four movements, slow, fast, slow, fast, and the second movement Allegro was busy and vigorous with showy solo moments, but Telemann's scoring was sonorous too. For the third movement we started with slow string chords and solo violin flourishes, before a dialogue between the two soloists developed over plucked strings. Finally, Telemann's folk influenced finale with its Polish and Moravian 'peasant music ...clad in an Italian coat'. Great fun and played with real verve.

After the interval we had Telemann's characterful Ouverture-suite based on the character of Don Quixote. The opening Ouverture, whilst sticking to the French slow-fast construction, included lots of highly characterful gestures which conveyed the slightly satiric nature of the music. The Don's awakening was a graceful dance, but there was a musette-like drone from the viola hinting at something earthier. His attack on the windmills was fast and furious, played with tremendous verve, and his sighs of love over Dulcinee were delighfully lumpy and uneven. Sancho Panza's swindling was rumbustious and characterful, but the movements describing the two animals, Rosinante and the mule, were more purely descriptive, and we finished with a gentle falling asleep, but still with lively rhythms and another earthy drone. A charming and witty suite which the musicians played with real character.

We finished with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, with Bojan Cicic, Rachel Brown and Rachel Beckett as the solo grouping of violin and two recorders. The opening Allegro was full of engaging playing and vital rhythms, with some graceful playing from the soloists. As with the Telemann concerto, Brown and Beckett functioned well together. The second movement contrasted the big tutti moments with the gentler dialogue between the soloists, each giving us some fine virtuoso playing The finale had an engaging vivacty to it, there was tremendous passagework from the soloists, but it all seemed great fun too.

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