Enjoyable Baroque Concert from Dame Emma and Mallorcan Musicians

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Avison, Pergolesi, Telemann, Handel, Purcell, Worgan, Arne, Storace, Vivaldi: Dame Emma Kirkby (soprano), Ars Musicae of Mallorca (Bernat Cabot, leader), Timothy Roberts (harpsichord), Matthew Dunn (organ), St. Botolph’s without Aldgate, London, 10.7.15 (BW)

Charles Avison (1709-1770): Concerto No.5 in D minor after Scarlatti
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736): Cantata: Orfeo
Georg Philip Telemann (1681-1767): Concerto in E minor for recorder, flute and strings.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759): Antiphon: Haec est Regina Virginum
Henry Purcell (1659-1759): Chacony in G minor
John Worgan (1724-1790):  Pensive and sad Cleora sought the lonely silent grove
Sonata No.1 in G
Young Thyrsis, ye shepherds, is gone
Thomas Arne (1710-1788): Under the greenwood tree
Stephen Storace (1762-1796): The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): Concerto in A minor for two violins and strings, Op.3/8

When I was notified about the concert I have to admit that the main attraction was the prospect of hearing Dame Emma Kirkby.  The presence of Timothy Roberts as organiser and harpsichordist was an added bonus but I had not even heard of the Mallorcan ensemble Ars Musicae.  Both Emma Kirkby and Tim Roberts lived fully up to my high expectations and Ars Musicae excelled themselves to such an extent that I hope to hear them again in the near future.

The spirit of Domenico Scarlatti was never far from the music performed at St. Botolph’s.  The church’s eighteenth-century organist, John Worgan, (of whom more anon) preserved four of his sonatas which would otherwise have been lost and the opening work, one of Avison’s concertos based on Scarlatti sonatas, opened the proceedings.  Once somewhat neglected apart from the odd item in Neville Marriner’s Academy of St. Martin’s programmes, Avison has recently been recorded in very fine style by Pavlo Beznosiuk’s eponymous Avison Ensemble on the Naxos and Divine Art labels.  (Their recording of the Twelve Concerti Grossi after Scarlatti is on a two-for-one set (DDA21213))

I greatly enjoyed that recording – review – and I’m listening to it again as I write.  The concertos receive very assured performances from an ensemble who are masters of period instruments, but I’m surprised to find myself thinking both they and Roy Goodman’s Brandenburg Consort (Hyperion CDD22060) are a little too refined the morning after hearing Ars Musicae.  They are not a professional period-instrument ensemble: though some of them are full-time musicians in other areas, including rock music, they are essentially a group of music-making friends who went to personal expense to come over to London for this concert.  Their enthusiastic performance of the Avison not only reminded me what the musical world had been missing until he was rediscovered but that there are other ways of performing his concertos than the Avison Ensemble’s beautifully smooth manner.

Sunhae Im has recently recorded the Pergolesi cantata on a recital of French and Italian cantatas on the Orpheus theme (Harmonia Mundi HMC902189).  My colleague Ralph Moore doubted whether he would be returning to that recording, largely for lack of intrinsic value in the music, though he thought the Pergolesi the most interesting – review.  I think he might have been more impressed had he heard Emma Kirkby’s performance.  I liked the Sunhae Im recording but was bowled over by Kirkby.  I think I may have written somewhere that I could listen to some singers perform the telephone directory – Dame Janet Baker is one such – and recitative often runs the phone book a close second but not when Ms Kirkby is delivering it.  She has the knack, too, in the arias, of simultaneously conveying Orfeo’s grief and her own pleasure in singing the music.

If you asked me to nominate a Telemann concerto for my Desert Island it would have to be the E minor with one of the composer’s snappy Polish finales, which made a fitting conclusion to the first part.  One of my benchmarks here, from Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music sounds rather staid by comparison with Ars Musicae’s interpretation, especially in the finale.  There’s a tendency in some quarters now to take the fast movements of baroque music a little more slowly, but I think Telemann himself would have approved of this performance, with the two very capable soloists and the orchestra racing to the finishing line without ever threatening to come off the rails.  If you want something comparable for energy in this concerto, you’ll find it from Simon Standage with Collegium Musicum 90 (Chandos CHAN0661).

St. Botolph’s proved an ideal venue for this concert.  Unfortunately the organ cannot perform with a period-instrument ensemble because it’s at the wrong pitch, but we were entertained during the lengthy interval by the organist playing music by his predecessor John Worgan, whose music, languishing in the British Library, is now being edited by Timothy Roberts.  On the basis of the organ works and the three pieces included in the main programme he looks like a strong candidate for revival – another Avison perhaps?

In Part Two, two short pastoral pieces by Worgan, written for Vauxhall Gardens, framed his keyboard Sonata No.1, the latter very effectively arranged with accompaniment from first and second violins, viola, cello and bass by harpsichordist Timothy Roberts.  Arranging sonatas in this way was part of the spirit of the age – it’s what composers like Avison were doing to Scarlatti and Corelli.

It was a wonderful idea to have Emma Kirkby sing the Worgan and Arne from the high pulpit – we know from paintings that the performers at Vauxhall were elevated in this way – and even to have the flautist in Arne’s Shakespeare setting answer from the opposite gallery.

In the Worgan pastorals, Arne’s setting of music from As You Like It,  and Stephen Storace’s little masterpiece setting of Gray’s Elegy, Emma Kirkby showed that she is still capable of bringing the music of this period colourfully to light.  It was her performance of the young Handel’s short Latin motet, however, that stood out for me, one of the many fine sacred and secular works which he composed for Cardinal Ottoboni in Rome and one which he later raided for the Water Music.  There’s a very fine recording by Anne Sofie von Otter with Musica Antiqua Köln (DG Archiv 4398662, with Handel’s other Marian cantatas and arias) but I’d give Kirkby and the Mallorcans the edge.

Vivaldi’s best-known concerto from Op.3, L’Estro Armonico, made an excellent last item in the concert proper.  There are plenty of benchmarks for this in my unconscious, including Fabio Biondi with Europa Galante (Virgin/Erato budget-price 6484082, complete Op.3 and Op.8, 4 CDs – review) and, if you don’t mind modern instruments played with a sense of baroque style, Neville Marriner’s Academy of St. Martin’s (budget-price Decca 4448212, 2 CDs).  Once again, however, as with the Telemann which brought the first part to a rousing conclusion, Ars Musicae proved that they are as capable of any that I have heard in conveying the sheer vitality of this work – again it was the finale, taken at a very fast pace but never sounding breakneck, which made the greatest impression.

In the slow movement, larghetto e spirito, and a little earlier, in the Purcell Chacony, a performance dedicated to the memory of those who died just around the corner at Aldgate station ten years ago, in Madrid the year before and to all the victims of terrorism and their families, Ars Musicae showed us that they can do the more contemplative side of baroque music, too.

The encores included Emma Kirkby in a rather florid Geminiani setting of a Scottish air, beautifully rendered, though with a less than convincing Scottish accent, and we ended with with a very fine performance of the Chaconne from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.’

If I end where I began with Emma Kirkby as the star of the evening, I was nevertheless very impressed with Ars Musicae throughout.  I didn’t have to make any allowances for the fact that they are not a professional period-instrument group: even if they had been I would still have rated them very highly.  If I have to make one small observation it is that at times the contrabass was just a little too prominent, but that may be because so many recent recordings of baroque music downplay the continuo too much. Harpsichordist Timothy Roberts, who also organised the concert, and leader Bernat Cabot did an excellent job between them of leading the proceedings – they are clearly very used to working together – and I very much enjoyed the evening.  More, please.

Meanwhile if you would like to hear Emma Kirkby and Timothy Roberts together, they recorded Benda’s Cephalus and Aurora (CDA66649) and a collection of late eighteenth-century songs and duets (O tuneful voice, CDA66497) for Hyperion, both together with Rufus Müller.  Both of these discs have inexplicably dropped out of the main catalogue but click on the catalogue numbers for a link to the Hyperion site to download inexpensively in mp3 or lossless, with pdf booklet, or to order the CD from the Archive Service.  Otherwise there is such a plethora of highly recommendable recordings featuring Dame Emma that I don’t have room for even a fraction of them.

My next planned live review is of the Tallis Scholars at St. John’s, Smith Square, in September.  I’m sure that I shall enjoy that as much as the last time that I reviewed them in Canterbury – and I’m currently enjoying previewing the 2-CD compilation which Gimell will be releasing shortly in celebration of that event.  I’m not sure, however, that even they will give me greater enjoyment than I had at St. Botolph’s.

Brian Wilson

2 thoughts on “Enjoyable Baroque Concert from Dame Emma and Mallorcan Musicians”

  1. Mea culpa. The second encore was not the Pachelbel canon but the Chaconne from Purcell’s Fairy Queen.

  2. Dear Mr. Wilson,
    I am a musician of Ars Musicae (I was the last first violin)
    Many thanks for your comments. For us it was a fantastic and amazing experience that I am sure that I will remember all our live !!!.
    I would specially thanks to Tim Roberts for the musical moments that we have shared and for trust in our music and our musical project.



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