Purcell and Handel touch the parts other composers don’t reach

Guest post by Karine Hetherington.

I came to Baroque music late in life and I wonder why. One reason I believe is that for a long time concert houses or musicians, for one reason or another, didn’t feature it or play it. Music programmes drew on composers from the Classical and Romantic eras, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert being the most often played. At the Wigmore Hall in London, it was all about virtuoso piano performances, emotional intensity and famous trios or quartets – or so it seemed.

Early music, on the other hand, was thought to be dry, simplistic and unsuited to modern audiences. Most worryingly, it came across as elitist, only to be enjoyed by the clergy, closed circles of academics and music students.

Nowadays, nothing could be further from the truth as early music is not only being played in churches up and down the country, but in every concert venue worth its salt as well. The early music movement is gathering momentum and newer, younger audiences are being drawn in by musicians of their own age and orchestras, who, like the City of London Sinfonia, have done much to make the genre more accessible. The ‘Come and listen to Couperin on a beanbag,’ strategy has worked wonders for audiences of all ages.

But it’s not all about gimmicks. Singers from the current generation of young performers are keen to sing Purcell and Handel.“He knew how to write for singers,” confirms alto, Laura Lamph, about Purcell. “There is the occasional coloratura, which obviously needs extra preparation”. Tenor Ed Woodhouse echoes this enthusiasm but also talks about the challenges for a tenor. “Many composers of early music have a penchant for writing stratospheric first tenor parts, and these can be extremely difficult to sing”.

The notion of the challenge is undoubtedly the draw for the young singer. But it is not only about flourishes and singing stratospheric high or low notes. A performance can fall flat if the singers don’t inhabit their role. Neither is it about one singer’s performance. Each singer is part of the ensemble of artists and each, whilst trying to deliver a personal best, has to make the other singer look good too. Ed Woodhouse sums it up: “Singers have to be musically sympathetic of each other”. It is easy to see how this coming together to benefit the whole can be attractive for artists. There is no room for a diva mentality singing Purcell’s odes.

As for the emotional side, soprano Cally Youdell points out that “Handel and Purcell are some of the most skilled at portraying intense darkness and despair, as well as effervescent joy”. It is true that Dido singing ‘When I am lain in earth’ in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is probably one of the most beautiful, heart-breaking laments ever written. It is no accident the lament was taken up by top vocal artists in the rock and pop world too.

Ashley Stafford, who directs groups of talented young performers and sings himself, states that vocal artists are eager to perform Purcell for many different reasons. For one thing Purcell is multi-layered. The texts are “celebratory, sacred, devotional” on one level, but it is the music, its “inventive rhythms, ear-tingling harmonies, orchestral and vocal textures” which grab your attention and prise open the emotions. Purcell can be humorous and light-hearted too, and it is “his depth of awareness of the frailty of our existence in a universe of unknowns” which makes him resonate in our souls.

 

And this is the point, Purcell offers us in his gloriously inventive music a little extra space in these contrary times, to view the world as it really is, good or bad. In our despair his music is a balm, whereas his celebratory ecstatic passages are a reminder that there is great light at the end of the tunnel.

In Guilty Night by Purcell

Go and see the Kensington Olympia Baroque Ensemble perform ‘Celebration and Solemnity’ : The Music of Henry Purcell at Olympia, Hammersmith Road, W14 8UX on 9th November, 7.30pm. Further details and tickets


Karine Hetherington is a teacher and writer of novels, who also blogs on art and music, and is a reviewer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s sister site ArtMuseLondon.com. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine promotes singers and musicians performing in the fast-growing Kensington and Olympia Music and Arts Festival.

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.

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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.

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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

Programme:

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


Baroque At the Edge

Meet the Artist – Joanna Macgregor

Guest post by Benjamin Tassie

On June 3rd IKLECTIK’s performance space, bar and garden will exist between two worlds: that of the baroque dance parties of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the musical world of 21st-century London. The sound of the baroque flute and bass viol, the music of Byrd or Bach, will mix with music from across the centuries for Baroque Remix, the first full-scale incarnation of this new classical club night. Baroque DJs will ‘live remix’ baroque music, sampling Lauryn Hill or 2Pac alongside Pergolesi or Purcell. Combining the best of baroque, hip hop, R&B, and contemporary classical music, Baroque remix will reimagine baroque music with drum loops or through the synth-bach arrangements of Wendy Carlos (‘A Clockwork Orange’ soundtrack).

The evening will feature live sets from period instrumentalists Carla Rees (baroque flute) and Liam Byrne (viola da gamba) playing a mixture of old music and new, showcasing the diversity of these historic instruments. World class performances will present baroque music alongside pop arrangements and works by contemporary classical composers, in a series of small sets throughout the night that reframe these instruments for today’s new-music scene.

Previously performed at nights for the V&A (part of a museum late, opening the new Europe 1600-1815 galleries) and Royal Palaces (for ‘Queen James’, part of #PalacePride at Banqueting House), Baroque Remix on June 3rd will be the first full-scale club night, with IKLECTIK’s bar and garden the perfect informal setting for a night of unique and innovative music making.

Venue Details

IKLECTIK

Old Paradise Yard, SE1 7LG

www.iklectikartlab.com

Nearest Tube: Lambeth North / Westminster

Date and Time

03.06.2017 – 8-11pm

Tickets £10

Book tickets

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