Chipping Campden Spans Four Centuries of Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mendelssohn, Kurtág, Schubert: Elias Quartet with Amy Norrington, St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 11.5.2012

Purcell: Mhairi Lawson (soprano),  Academy of Ancient Music / William Carter (conductor), St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 14.5.2012

Kurtág’ is not a composer one would readily associate with Chipping Campden, but the forward- looking Elias Quartet clearly felt that the Festival, now in its 11th year, was ripe for the challenge of his Officium Breve in Memoriam Andreae Svervánszky. To their credit nobody in the (fairly) mature audience walked out or pulled a face; instead everybody applauded the musicians warmly for the intensity and musicianship they demonstrated in the playing of this Webern inspired series of miniatures which fuse twelve tone music with distinctly Hungarian harmonic, melodic and rhythmic motifs. Sarah Bitlloch’s informative introduction to the work undoubtedly paved the way to a proper appreciation of it.

The String Quartet in E flat Major, Op.12 by the 20 year old Felix Mendelssohn was more familiar repertoire, and its slow opening seemed to float into the church and take one unawares before proceeding to the serene allegro.  The canzonetta shimmered with life, while the slow movement, a song without words interrupted by short passionate outbursts, was played with great charm and expression.

The String Quintet in C major, D956 composed just before Schubert’s death is a cornerstone of Western chamber music. The fact that it was being performed in a place of worship imbued it with an aura of spirituality, with the composer’s profoundest reflections coming to the surface. The Elias were joined by cellist Amy Norrington for a performance which was characterised by thoughtfulness and clarity. The wistful melody of the first movement, played impeccably and with a certain reticence, drew one in to the core of the work; the mood of anguish and despair in the central section of the second movement was almost too much to bear. The slow and subdued funeral march which forms the trio of the scherzo added to the general sense of desolation, and though there was plenty merriment  in the final movement it could not brush away the sorrow that lay beneath. It was impossible to fault the ensemble’s absorbing performance of this monumental work.

There was rather less anguish in the Academy of Ancient Music’s concert a few days later – except perhaps for the organisers when the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas had to withdraw on the grounds of ill health. Fortunately they managed to find a substitute, the Scottish soprano Mhairi Lawson,  who being an accomplished Early Music exponent was more than equal to the task.

The programme was devoted not to Purcell’s sacred or court music, but to the music he wrote for the theatre in the later years of his life in order to supplement his income. By no means all of the music was familiar, such as the Suite from Distressed Innocence, a play which while popular at the time is unlikely to be revived. Directing the AAM from the Baroque guitar was Florida-born William Carter who explained the conventions of the late 17th century theatre where if patrons did not like the play they would go up to the box office and demand their money back. Incidental music from The Married Beau provided a lively contrast with hornpipes and jigs played with relish by the instrumentalists.

Mhairi Lawson made a favourable impact with her first aria, Dear Pretty Youth from The Tempest with harpsichord accompaniment. Mr Carter then took up his theorbo, an instrument taller than he was, to accompany her in a lovely account of  Fairest Isle and Sweeter than Roses. We were given a large helping of music from the masque The Fairy Queen,  in which the aria Sleep with its quiet violin accompaniment sounded exquisite, and was followed by the more forthright Sweet Passion – Why does it Torment?

Extracts from the composer’s only true opera, Dido and Aeneas, gave Ms Lawson ample opportunity to demonstrate her dramatic range and clear, expressive voice. Her singing of Dido’s Lament was restrained, but no less moving because of it, and the audience was sufficiently moved to pause before breaking into applause.  Lest anyone be prompted to thoughts of suicidal thoughts, a lively encore of Nymphs and Shepherds, Come Away quickly restored the emotional equilibrium and sent everyone on their way in lighthearted mood.

Roger Jones