Sunday 25 April 2021

A Life On-Line: debut in Bournemouth, early English at St Martin's, Bach's Pergolesi and John Eliot Gardiner on Monteverdi

Bach: Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, BWV 1083 - Academy Baroque Soloists, Eamonn Dougan - Royal Academy of Music (image from live-stream)
Bach: Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, BWV 1083 - Academy Baroque Soloists, Eamonn Dougan - Royal Academy of Music (image from live-stream)

This week featured a notable debut in Bournemouth, early English orchestral music, postcards from Handel's Amadigi, Benventuo Cellini on the radio, explorations of Monteverdi and his contemporaries, and Bach arranging Pergolesi.

In December 2020, I interviewed the conductor Richard Stamp [see my interview] whose recording of music by Richard Strauss and Aaron Copland included Copland's Clarinet Concerto with the late Ernst Ottensamer (long time principal clarinet of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra), what proved to be Ernst Ottensamer's last concerto recording. During the interview the subject of Ernst Ottensamer's two sons, Daniel and Andreas, came up, both are clarinettists and they performed as a trio with their father. Andreas Ottensamer is principal clarinet with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and has made a name for himself as a solo clarinettist. But on Wednesday 21 April 2021, Andreas Ottensamer made his UK debut as a conductor in a performance with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from the Lighthouse in Poole.

Andreas Ottensamer has worked with the orchestra before as a clarinettist (he was artist in residence for the 2017/18 season), and the original intention for this concert was to include a concerto but the combination of restrictions and the need to keep the programme shorter made them re-consider. So the programme was Mozart's Symphony No. 35 'Haffner', Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture and Symphony No. 4 Italian

Mozart's symphony began at quite a fast tempo but still with elements of grandeur and it was clear that Ottensamer had a fine ear for detail. The slow movement was graceful, yet quite considered with moments of real delicacy and Mozart's wind writing really shone here. Throughout the concert I was conscious of the fine balance between wind and strings, with the detail in the wind parts really counting, perhaps not surprising given that the ensemble was chamber orchestra-sized and with a wind player conducting. The third movement was very much a robust dance, whilst the excitement of the finale really jumped out at us.

The Hebrides was notable again for the sense of detail in the playing, Ottensamer's tempo was not too fast allowing these elements to count, and he kept tight control of the drama developing the excitement gradually. The opening of Mendelssohn's symphony really effervesced, with tight rhythms, clarity of textures and lightness of detail. The slow movement gave us an endless melody with a great sense of forward motion, followed by a flowing third movement. The finale was again full of tight, fast rhythms, all controlled excitement and a sense of colours in the orchestra. All in all, a notable debut. [Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra]

On Friday John Butt (director of the Dunedin Consort) directed the Academy of St Martin in the Fields for a concert as part of the Church of St Martin in the Fields' Fresh Horizons season. Butt's programme explored English orchestral music of the 17th century, comparing and contrasting the music by Matthew Locke (1621-1677) for an adaptation of The Tempest (1674) to music by Henry Purcell (1659-1695) from his semi-opera The Fairy Queen (1692). 

Locke was an important composer in the development of English dramatic music, yet so little of his work survives (he contributed to several early operas in the 1650s). The suite of eleven movements from The Tempest was full of wonderfully inventive things, and the ensemble played with a strong, rich sound with vibrant textures. The performances were stylish too, but with a clear sense of Butt encouraging the ensemble's own modern-instrument style rather than trying to emulate a period sound.

After the Locke came Purcell, but first Purcell heard through 20th century ears with Britten's version of Purcell's Chacony in G minor, created for just such an ensemble as ASMF. The suite from The Fairy Queen was equally stylish and full-blooded, with plenty of vivid moments. Bringing this sense of ancient and modern full circle, next came two movements from Errollyn Wallen's Concerto Grosso which used a concertino group of violin, piano and double bass and intriguingly blended jazz-combo influences with the Baroque concerto grosso form, and some amazing high-energy moments, and frankly I would have loved to have heard the whole work. Finally, we had a finely poised accound of Handel's Concerto Grosso in B flat from his Opus 3 set. [St Martin in the Fields]

Our week began with the terrific reinvention of Jonathan Dove's Flight by Seattle Opera filmed at The Museum of Flight [see my review], and throughout the week we have been enjoying English Touring Opera's postcards from Handel's Amadigi. The company had been planning to tour a production of Amadigi but this has been postponed to the Autumn, so instead Jonathan Kenny conducted the Old Street Band in a series of key arias with a fine selection of soloists, Jenny Stafford, Harriet Eyley, Francesca Chiejina, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and James Laing. Each film gave us a chance to eavesdrop on rehearsal, hear the singer's thoughts about the aria and then experience some vividly top-notch Handel singing. If the production is anything like as arresting as these performances, then it will be terrific. The films were made at Stone Nest, a new venture in the West End based in a former church that those of us with long memories might remember as Limelight nightclub! [English Touring Opera]

I have been doing a lot of decorating this week and so have ended up listening to a lot of spoken word whilst I painted. I really enjoyed Professor Jerry Brotton's ten-part series Blood and Bronze for The Essay on BBC Radio 3 which explored the Renaissance through the eyes and ears of Benvenuto Cellini. Completely eye opening and a must listen for anyone fascinated by this period [BBC Radio 3] It also meant that I had time to catch up with John Eliot Gardiner's terrific podcast Monteverdi and his Constellation. In eight 45 minute episodes, Gardiner explores Monteverdi's life and music from L'Orfeo in the first episode to L'Incoronazione di Poppea in the last, and sets it in context. But this context is important. In 1604, Monteverdi met Peter Paul Rubens and Galileo in Mantua (where the two were angling for jobs with the Duke of Mantua). What did they talk about? Gardiner's fascinating premise was to put Monteverdi into the context of the revolutions happening in the arts and sciences created by Monteverdi's contemporaries, Shakespeare, Carravagio, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Galileo, Keppler. In each episode, Gardiner examines a thread in these links, puts some of Monteverdi's music under the microscope and adds biographical background. If you have the time, then it is essential listening. The podcasts are available on the usual platforms, but I used the Monteverdi Choir & Orchestra's website.

Something to look forward to is the start of Stile Antico's new Spotlights Series (which begins tonight). Each film will look in detail at a particular, favourite piece of music, setting it in context via discussions with distinguished academics. The first film features Dr Clare Jackson (University of Cambridge) talking about the world of Prince Henry, heir to King James I, whose untimely death in 1612 was the spur for Robert Ramsey’s How are the Mighty Fallen, which is performed alongside music by Weelkes, Tomkins, Ward, and Gibbons. One of the delights of the current restrictions has been the imagination groups are showing in deciding to not just perform music, but to delve into it and encourage their audiences to learn more about the background. To come will be spotlights on music by Palestrina, Alonso Lobo, and John Taverner. [Stile Antico]

Last Sunday the Royal Academy of Music continued its fine Bach cantata series with a live-streamed performance from the Duke's Hall with Eamonn Dougan conducting the Academy Bach Soloists in two works which highlighted Bach the arranger. The concluding work in the programme was a poised account of the cantata Ich habe genug, BWV 82a, in the version for soprano and flute, but for me the real draw of the programme was quite a rare performance of Bach's Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, BWV 1083 for soprano, mezzo-soprano and orchestra, the music being Bach's adaptation of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. It was fascinating to hear it in its new guise, which dates from the 1740s and features Bach using a rather richer orchestration than Pergolesi and a new German text from Psalm 51. Given the manuscript date of 1746/47, it looks as if the performance in Leipzig took place before Pergolesi's work was published in 1748. The soloists at the academy were Isabelle Atkinson and Isla MacEwan – soprano, Lauren Macleod – mezzo-soprano, Daniel Swani – flute. Highly recommended. [YouTube]

One last quick mention, if you haven't already to go and investigate OperaUpClose's latest on-line season, Songs of Solace and Spring which combine spoken word with opera and song with a focus on Shakespeare and the programmes are very much put together by the artists themselves, performing music about which they are passionate. The series is available until 13 May. [OperaUpClose]

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