“Is Baroque music about composers or performers?” mused Lindsay Kemp in an article ahead of the launch of his new festival of Baroque music at the splendid venue that is LSO St Luke’s. The inaugural concert was given by Joanna Macgregor in a programme which sought to confirm Kemp’s assertion that Baroque musical festivals don’t have to be about historically informed performances (HIP), or period instruments and people in periwigs.
Kemp, who was artistic director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music (LFBM) which morphed into the London Festival of Baroque Music when Lufthansa withdrew funding, is clearly well-versed in presenting ambitious musical ventures (he’s also senior producer at BBC Radio 3 and a writer on music), and in creating Baroque at the Edge he decided he wanted to do something that was not just another early music festival, but rather a festival of music which “anyone can come and enjoy” (surely all music festivals and concerts should be thus?). Hosting the majority of the concerts of the weekend festival at LSO St Luke’s is symbolic for Kemp too – “an 18th-century church on the outside, and a beautiful modern concert hall on the inside“. The programmes in Baroque at the Edge seek to celebrate Baroque music for what it is – wonderful music first and foremost for anyone to play without worrying about HIP and all that it encompasses – combined with music from other eras and genres. In short, a modern “no rules Baroque festival” to attract the kind of audience who wouldn’t normally go to Baroque or early music concerts, and also people from the locale in which St Luke’s is situated – trendy Shoreditch, Hoxton, Islington and the City.
It was good to see the first concert so well-attended. Joanna Macgregor’s programme offered a typically provocative and eclectic selection of music on the theme of birds (in the first half) and ground basses/the Chaconne (second half), grouping works by Couperin, Daquin, Rameau, Poglietti, Byrd, Purcell and Pachelbel with music by Janaček, Messiaen, Birtwistle, Glass, Liszt and Gubaidulina. The programme opened with a triptych of Baroque works recalling birdsong (cuckoos, nightingales), characterful works delicately enunciated, written for the court, yet tender and intimate in expression. Macgregor introduced the sets of pieces: more softly-spoken than the first three works, she would have benefited from some amplification for those of us towards the back of the hall (or even some programme notes, though one of the stated aims of the festival is “no programme notes, no lectures”). The twentieth-century works were more satisfying, in particular the bird pieces by Messiaen from his Petites esquisses d’oiseaux and Birtwistle’s melancholy Oockooing Bird (written when the composer was just 16) with some lovely musical colours and highly evocative filigree chirruppings in the upper register. These were reflected in Poglietti’s Aria bizarre del Rossignolo, an early example of descriptive instrumental music where the nightingale’s song appears throughout the work in various virtuosic passages, replete with trills and short, syncopated attacks. Here was Baroque truly at the edge – the music freed from its courtly cage to take flight in a series of vivid improvisatory episodes.
The second half focused on the ground bass, a repeated pattern in the bass over which a series of variations or improvisations are played, and closed with Sofia Gubaidulina’s monumental Chaconne, preceded by a reflective Chaconne in F minor by Pachelbel, expressively played by Macgregor. Two works by Philip Glass were intended to demonstrate the use of the ground bass device in modern music, but these pieces felt rather flat; in fact, in this half, the Baroque pieces were far more rewarding. Joanna Macgregor offered one final work on a ground bass, Handel’s magnificent dramatic Passacagalia in g minor, HWV 432, as an encore.
This was an interesting and varied selection of pieces, elegantly presented. While I enjoyed most of the music, I was not fully convinced that this programme said anything new or different about Baroque music, nor felt particularly “edgy”. But perhaps the programme did at least serve one of the key aims of the festival: to allow artists like Joanna Macgregor to take Baroque music and see where it leads them, freed from worries of ‘authenticity’ or being ‘correct’, and this programme demonstrated that composers from any era can take a theme or concept and work imaginatively with it, be it birdsong or the ground bass.
Friday 5 January 2018, LSO St Luke’s
Joanna Macgregor, piano
Rameau – Le Rappel des oiseaux
Daquin – Le Coucou
Couperin – Le Rossignol-en-amour
Janáček – The Barn Owl has not flown away! (from On an Overgrown Path)
Messiaen – Le Rouge-gorge (Petites esquisses d’oiseaux)
Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Oockooing Bird
Couperin – Les Fauvétes plaintives
Messiaen – Le Merle noir (Petites esquisses d’oiseaux)
Hossein Alizâdeh – Call of the Birds
Couperin – Les Coucous Bénévoles, sous des dominos jaunes
Poglietti – Aria bizarre del Rossignolo: Imitatione del medesimo ucello
Rameau – La Poule
Byrd – Hughe Ashton’s Ground
Philip Glass – Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi)
Philip Glass – Knee Play No. 4 (from Einstein on the Beach)
Purcell – Ground in C minor
Liszt – Prelude on Bach’s ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’
Pachelbel – Chaconne in F minor
Sofia Gubaidulina – Chaconne