Thursday 24 November 2022

Celebrating St Cecilia's Day in style: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra at Wigmore Hall

Kristian Bezuidenhout
Kristian Bezuidenhout
Purcell: Welcome to all the Pleasures, Who can from joy refrain, Handel: As pants the hart; Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Kristian Bezuidenhout; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 22 November 2022 (★★★★★)

The Freiburg Baroque Ensemble celebrates St Cecilia's Day with a vividly performed, joyful programme including two Purcell odes and one of Handel's Chandos Anthems

For St Cecilia's Day (22 November 2022), the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, directed by Kristian Bezuidenhout, at Wigmore Hall presented a programme of music by Purcell and Handel, centred on Purcell's Ode to St Cecilia, Welcome to all the Pleasures, plus Purcell's Who can from joy refrain (Birthday Ode for the Duke of Gloucester) and Handel's Chandos anthem No. 6 'As pants the hart'. An instrumental ensemble, leader by Peter Barczi, was joined by a vocal ensemble of sopranos Grace Davidson and Rachel Redmond, alto Alexander Chance, tenors Samuel Boden and Hugo Hymas (with Hymas doing tenor duty in the first half and Boden doing tenor duty in the second half) and bass David Shipley.

The platform was very full; Bezuidenhout directed from harpsichord and organ surrounded by 12 strings, with the singers behind. We began with Purcell's Welcome to all the pleasures the first of his Odes to St Cecilia, written in 1683. Setting a forgettable verse by Christopher Fishburn, Purcell divides the piece into a series of small ensembles with each verse followed by a striking ritornello. The ensemble's style seemed very particular, highly wrought and perhaps rather interventionist but full of vivid character, matched by the characterful contributions of the singers (Grace Davidson, Alexander Chance, Hugo Hymas and David Shipton). Chance brought a light touch and mellifluous tone to 'Here the deities approve', contrasting with the perky rhythms of the ensemble 'While the Joys Celestial'. David Shipton's characterfully resonant tones contributed strongly to the opening of 'Then lift up your voices', whilst Hugo Hymas was relaxed and finely phrased in 'Beauty thou scene of love', all ending with a vividly lively dance.

We followed this with a quartet of movements from Purcell's theatre music, the overture from The Gordian Knot Unty'd, the hornpipe from King Arthur, the rondeau from The Indian Queen and the slow air from The Virtuous Wife, creating a rather effective and highly satisfying suite, moving the vivid overture to the graceful rondeau and the slow air.

Next came Purcell's Hosanna, a setting of an anonymous sacred poem about the heavenly bridegroom and his bride. Largely a solo for bass David Shipton, in strong, stylish and characterful form, unfolding the line over a ground bass and then joined in duet by Alexander Chance at the very end. A small but striking piece. Purcell's Chacony in G minor brought this group to a close.

The first half ended with Handel's sixth Chandos Anthem, As pants the Hart, with Rachel Redmond, Grace Davidson, Hugo Hymas and David Shipton. A vivid overture with lovely oboe playing led quite an intimately phrased opening chorus. Rachel Redmond was stylishly in 'Tears are my daily food', an elegant dance with lovely oboe and bassoon solos. Hugo Hymas was elegantly expressive in 'Now, when I think thereupon' with its striking textures, and Hymas and Redmond's duet complemented with further fine oboe playing. Throughout the vocal ensembles were vividly done.

The structure of the programme was somewhat strange, with a rather over-long first half and a much shorter second. This began with Kristian Bezuidenhout's arrangement of Handel's Trio Sonata in G Op. 5 No. 4 HWV 399. For the trio sonata, Handel reused movements from other works, including the overture from Athalia and the passacaille from Radamisto and Bezuidenhout's version returned the piece to the orchestral incarnation, thus creating a sort of orchestral suite. A strong overture led to a sequence that was full of crisply vivid music, ending with the grand passacaille which went with a lovely swing. I have to confess that here, and elsewhere in the programme, I found the harpsichord somewhat underpowered, and it did not seem to contribute sufficiently to the texture considering the strongly characterful playing from the strings.

We ended with Purcell's Who can from joy refrain, his 1695 birthday ode for the six-year-old Duke of Gloucester, Queen Anne's son. Purcell's instrumental ensemble here includes a trumpet to wonderfully grand effect in the Overture. The work was full of wonderful and imaginative music, Alexander Chance elegant and engaging in his elaborate solo, a lively duet for Samuel Boden and David Shipton, two solos for Boden, a lovely one over a ground bass and a second one that was effectively a duet with the trumpet (Jaroslav Roucek). David Shipton had a fabulous solo with a terrific 'thund'ring sword', whilst Grace Davidson's graceful solo featured a lovely wind trio. The whole concluded with a wonderfully energetic final chorus which went with a great swing. 

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