Sunday, 11 April 2021

A Life On-Line: Bach from Leamington Spa, Australia, Perth and Oxford, plus Coleridge-Taylor from London

Bach: Christ lag in Todesbanden - Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks (photo taken from live stream)
Bach: Christ lag in Todesbanden - Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks (photo taken from live stream)

Bach was very much a theme of the week, with an early Easter cantata, some bracing Australian arrangements and an exploration of the Mass in B minor which mixed live and on-line in an innovative way, and not to forget Bach's older cousin Johann Christoph. But there were other explorations from Johann Schop to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to a young contemporary composer from the North East.

Our week began with a continuation of the Easter mood, with Armonico Consort's film of Bach's Easter cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4.

With just four singers and a small period instrument ensemble directed by Christopher Monks, the performance brought out all the intensity of this remarkable early work by Bach (it probably dates from 1707) whilst clearly enjoying its combination of emotion and bravura. Filmed in the Royal Pump Room at Royal Leamington Spa, this was a wonderfully engaged performance. The film is available as part of Armonico Consort's On Demand season which includes films of music from Victoria's Requiem, and Byrd's Mass for Four Voices to Purcell's Dido and Aeneas [Armonico Consort]

Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra's on-line series, ACO StudioCasts, continues with their latest film Bach and the Beyond with a programme which takes a bracingly different view of Bach's music. Filmed in dramatic style by Matisse Ruby, the programme begins with three of Richard Tognetti's Bach arrangements, the 'Ricercar' from Bach's The Musical Offering which featured flautist Emmanuel Pahud, and two movements from the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin with Tognetti playing the solo part but with the harmony expanded to encompass the players of the ACO. Tognetti's arrangements are quite interventionist, these are thoughts about Bach rather than re-creations, giving us the great man's music from a contemporary point of view. This sequence finished with  'Erbarme dich' from the St Matthew Passion with the solo line beautifully played on the cello by Timo-Veikko Valve. The sequence continued with a group of Tognetti's own pieces, originally written for ACO's 2021 film The Reef [YouTube]. Here the music moved from the classical to post-classical and something approaching rock, incorporating the contemporary vocals of Satu Vänskä. We ended with Tognetti's Deviance, an intriguing re-working of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. [ACO StudioCasts]

With the need to find space for socially distanced orchestras, it is lovely to see the larger orchestras exploring a more varied repertoire on-line. Wednesday's concert on Marquee TV from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Ben Gernon at the Queen Elizabeth Hall featured three works by composers with London connections, Haydn, Coleridge-Taylor and Mendelssohn. First came Haydn's Symphony No. 30 (Alleluia), written in 1765 during his first years in the service of Prince Esterhazy, it is an engaging work in which the affection shines out as does the imagination. Gernon directed a lithe account of the piece which stylishly brought out these qualities, you felt that the players genuine enjoyment in this music and there was a great sense of style too. We are still discovering the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, despite his early death he was quite prolific and there seem to be plenty of pieces which have not been fully explored. 

Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade for Orchestra was commissioned for the 1898 Three Choirs Festival, when the composer conducted the premiere. In fact, the commission had been offered to Elgar but he said he was too busy and suggested Coleridge-Taylor and a wonderfully gracious letter,  "I am sorry I am too busy to do so. I wish, wish, wish you would ask Coleridge-Taylor to do it. He still wants recognition, and he is far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men."  It is a relatively short work, but a terrific one, full of strong emotions and great orchestral colours, and also some terrific tunes. This is open hearted romanticism indeed. 

The concert finished with Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 1 which he completed in 1824 when he was 15. When he finished it, he referred to it as no. 13, implying a continuity with the sequence of 12 string symphonies, but this is altogether something different. The symphony was first performed privately in 1824, and then publicly in Leipzig in 1827, and received its London premiered in 1829 when the young (all of 20 now) conducted it and dedicated it to the Philharmonic Society. For this performance he replaced the third movement with an orchestration of the Scherzo from the Octet, though he later went back on this and we heard the original version. There is a confidence and a seriousness to the work, it is full of wonderful invention and again the performers brought out their sheer enjoyment in the music as well as the sense of collegiate music making. [Marquee TV]

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's programme from Perth Concert Hall featured more Bach, but this time the great composer's cousin Johann Christoph. The orchestra (nine players performing conductorless) was joined by baritone Marcus Farnsworth for a terrific programme which went to places that chamber orchestra programmes sometimes neglect to go to. So we had a short, but terrific, Pavan from Johann Schop, Telemann's highly characterful cantata So grausam mächtig ist der Teufel, which warns of the devil's charms, a lovely selection of dances by Georg Muffat, a Biber serenata which combined dances with a night-watchman's song evoking a Salzburg evening, a toccata by Frohberger and finally Johann Christoph Bach's truly wonderful Lamento 'Ach, daß ich Wassers g’nug hätte, in a vividly engaging performance from Farnsworth and the instrumentalists. [Scottish Chamber Orchestra]

Tenor Daniel Norman's Postive Note films has joined forces again with the Oxford Bach Soloists to explore Bach's Mass in B minor in a series of weekly performances. This week featured the Kyrie, performed by singers and instrumentalists from Oxford Bach Soloists, conducted by Tom Hammond-Davies with soloists Sophie Bevan and Mary Bevan. And for one chorus in the Kyrie they were joined, remotely, by members of The Schola Cantorum of Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School. The result was a performance which seemed to transcend any limitations that the medium placed on it, and the religious and social contexts were explored in a series of interviews which concluded the film. [Postive Note]

Completely different, but well worth catching, is a live performance from the young composer from the North East, Benjamin Fitzgerald. We've covered his work before, and here he was performing a live concert (no audience) at Gosforth Civic Theatre, with Cameron a live electronic and sound artist from Belfast. An hour of evocative and thoughtful music, just Fitzgerald, a piano and some electronics. [YouTube]



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