Tuesday 11 April 2023

A joyous Easter celebration from Florilegium at Wigmore Hall

Zelenka: Concerto a 8 concertanti in G - Florilegium in rehearsal at Wigmore Hall
Zelenka: Concerto a 8 concertanti in G - Florilegium in rehearsal at Wigmore Hall (Photo Florilegium)

Zelenka: Concerto a 8 concertanti in G,  Bach: Trio sonata in G; Telemann: Concerto in E minor for flute, recorder and strings, Bach: Easter Oratorio; Rowan Pierce, Helen Charlston, Andrew Tortise, Michael Craddock, Florilegium; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 8 April 2023

Bach's glorious Easter Oratorio alongside three striking contemporary instrumental works highlighting unusual instrumentation and engaging musicianship

Bach's Easter Oratorio is far less well-known than his other Easter-related works. Starting out as a secular cantata, it gradually metamorphosed into a relatively short, strikingly imaginative work exploring the reactions of the two Marys and apostles to the empty tomb. But, with a final version that removed the characters' names, Bach's Easter Oratorio simply became a moving meditation on the themes of Easter Sunday. A remarkably apt piece of programming for the evening of Saturday 8 April 2023, when churches around the country would be having the first mass of Easter.

But what to programme with the work? At their concert at the Wigmore Hall, Florilegium, artistic director Ashley Solomon, focused on the Easter Oratorio's dates. Written originally in 1725, its final version dates from 1735. So, we had a selection of instrumental works from Bach, Telemann and Zelenka from the same period, with an emphasis on unusual instrumentation.

We began with Jan Dismas Zelenka's Concerto a 8 concertanti in G. Written in Prague in 1723, it is from a group of large-scale concerted works that might have been written for the coronation festivities of Emperor Charles VI. Written for two violins, oboe, bassoon, double bass, cello and harpsichord, it began almost like an oboe concerto before other instruments got their turn. What was delightful was the way Zelenka used unusual rhythms, enlivening the perky dialogues between the various instruments. The slow movement unfolded over a walking bass, the oboe in dialogue with the bassoon at first, then more complex but always engaging. Finally a delightfully perky and characterful finale.

Next, we moved to Bach's Trio Sonata in G BWV1038 from 1732-35, which may or may not be by Bach. It has new upper parts over the pre-existing harpsichord part from one of Bach's violin sonatas. Current thinking is that it is by Bach himself though scholars have thought it a student compositional exercise in the past. Here we heard flute and violin over harpsichord and cello, with Ashley Solomon playing a lovely period flute from the Spohr Collection, brought over from Germany especially for the concert. A real treat indeed. the main feature of the work was elegance, with the two upper lines weaving around each other in an imaginative and lovely way, though in the third movement, the cello had some memorable moments too and the work ended with a wonderfully busy finale.

For the final work in the first half, we turned to Telemann, whose Concerto in E minor featured a flute alongside a recorder, to magical effect, here accompanied by just five strings and harpsichord. After the grand gesture at the opening, the first movement had rather seductive moments, the sound world of the two instruments being rather magical. The second movement was highly rhythmic with some dazzling moments, the two soloists chasing each other around, and the lovely third movement even included a solo moment for the violin, but then came the finale where Telemann created a Polish-style dance that was by turns exotic and dazzling.

Bach's Easter Oratorio is structured quite traditionally, alternating arias and recitatives, except that Bach introduced all sorts of imaginative touches. It began rather grandly with a celebratory sinfonia with three trumpets, yet it felt like a dance with a nice bounce to it, followed by an elegant adagio with a poignant flute solo. But then the opening material returned, only this time with the four singers, forming a chorus. It was wonderfully engaging with a terrific tenor/baritone duet in the middle.

The recitatives were rather distinctive, dialogue rather than allocated to a single singer and some including recitative duet in a striking fashion. Soprano Rowan Pierce was elegant in her solo aria, with a lovely solo flute from Ashley Solomon. Tenor Andrew Tortise sang with a lovely sense of line, gently shaping the melody over the fabulous murmuring of recorders and violins in his aria. Alto Helen Charlston sang with lovely focused tone, quite serious yet with stylish passagework over a remarkably perky accompaniment. Bass Michael Craddock did not get a solo aria, but he was impressive in his final dramatic arioso, and the whole ended with a gloriously celebratory chorus, again performed with a lovely bounce.

All concerned performed with a lovely sense of engagement, and the opening and closing ensembles really gave a sense of the performers' sheer enjoyment of this music.


Ashley Solomon: flute, recorder, artistic director, Bojan Cicic & Gabriella Jones: violin, James O'Toole: viola, Jennifer Morsches: cello, Carina Cosgrave: double bass; Rebecca Miles: recorder, Alexandra Bellamy & Sarah Humphrys oboe, Sally Holman: bassoon, David Blackadder, Richard Thomas & Tamsin Cowell: trumpet, Steven Devine: organ, harpsichord, Elsa Bradley: timpani, Rowan Pierce: soprano, Helen Charlston: alto, Andrew Tortise: tenor, Michael Craddock: baritone

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Elsewhere on this blog

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