Brilliant Baroque in Chipping Campden

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Corelli, Albinoni, Handel, Pergolesi: Anthony Robson (oboe), Gillian Keith (soprano), Owen Willetts (counter-tenor), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Devine (conductor, harpsichord, organ), St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 5.5.2013 (RJ)

Corelli: Concerto Grosso in F, Op 6 No 2
Albinoni: Oboe Concerto in B flat, Op 7, No 3
Oboe Concerto in C, Op 7 No 5
Handel: Organ Concerto in F, HWV 292
Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi
Love’s Labours Past (from Jephtha)
Pergolesi: Stabat Mater

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sound a jolly crowd. They’re always sending me invitations to taverns in London where they are doing a gig. Unfortunately, to attend such functions would entail a long walk home for me at the end of the evening, so I regretfully pass over these invitations to our London reviewing team.

Don’t get me wrong. Away from the capital the OAE are models of sobriety, though they showed plenty of spirit in Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in F, Op 6 No 2, with which they opened the Chipping Campden Music Festival. This is a concerto da chiesa (a church concerto as opposed to the concerto da camera) and hence eminently suitable for performance in the fine acoustic of St James’ Church. The concertino group of soloists (Alison Bury and Roy Mowatt – violins, Robin Michael – cello), supported by the ripieno ensemble directed from the harpsichord by Steve Devine, made it sound as fresh as it must have done to listeners in the early 1700s. With its varied first movement, fugal allegro and dance-like finale nobody could possibly brand this a mere museum piece.

I learned from the informative programme notes that concertos were restricted to string instruments until Albinoni wrote his oboe concertos. The contrast between the sound of a wind instrument and the accompanying strings must have sounded revolutionary to audiences of the time. The OAE’s oboist, Anthony Robson, recreated the excitement they must have felt in performances of two of them: the Oboe Concerto in B flat, Op 7, No 3 and the Oboe Concerto in C, Op 7 No 5. The expressive slow movements were a joy to listen to, and the lively outer movements were played with panache and good humour by Mr Robson.

Handel’s wonderful organ concertos are such an established part of the repertoire that it is a shock to learn that they might never have seen the light of day had not the composer been hard up. In 1735 Handel was facing keen competition from a rival opera company which had as its star performer the famous castrato, Farinelli, so he decided to retaliate by showing off his virtuosity as a keyboard player in pieces for organ and orchestra played in the intervals of his oratorios. Steven Devine replaced his harpsichord with a chamber organ for the Organ Concerto in F, HWV 292, coaxing some delicate sounds out of the instrument in the Andante and demonstrating that he could be just as virtuosic as Handel in the spectacularly fast finale.

Handel was also represented by two duets: Tanti strali al sen mi scocchi, written when he was in his early twenties, and Love’s Labours Past from his final oratorio, Jephtha. Canadian soprano Gillian Keith and counter tenor Owen Willets were the soloists, and while Ms Keith, a last minute substitute, coped valiantly, Owen Willets was magnificent with an expressive, clear voice which never felt underpowered. There was no denying the greater power of the later work in which Jephtha’s daughter Iphis bids her lover farewell as he leaves for a battle and they both look forward confidently to his return.

The concert culminated in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater written in the final year of the composer’s life. (He died at the tender age of 26.) This sequence of solos and duets first pictures the Virgin Mary at the Cross and later develops into a series of intercessions. The measured opening duet ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’ was followed by ‘Cuius animam gementem’, a dramatic outburst from the soprano and then the poignant duet ‘O quam tristis et afflicta’. By this stage the audience were transfixed by the glorious singing of the soloists and empathetic playing of the orchestra under Mr Devine’s direction. As the solemnity of the final verse ‘Quando corpus morietur’ gave way an outburst of joyful Amens one marvelled at the power of music to express the sublime.

This was all an opening Festival concert should be, stirring up enthusiasm for fine music and creating a sense of anticipation of delights to come. When those ambassadors of early music, the OAE, are around Baroque can never be boring.

The Festival runs until Saturday 18th May with lunchtime concerts by young up-and-coming musicians such as Alexandra Dariescu and Ashley Fripp and evening concerts by household names like Mark Padmore, Steven Osborne, Paul Lewis, Elisabeth Leonskaja, The Takács and I Fagiolini. (

Roger Jones