Baroque Concert in Swansea Comes Close to Perfection

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Swansea International Festival –  Telemann, J S Bach, CPE Bach: Florilegium, with Ashley Solomon (recorder and flute), Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), George Hall, Swansea, 8.10.2015

Telemann:  Ouverture, for recorder and strings
J S Bach: ‘Ich habe genug’, BWV 82
C P E Bach:  Symphony in A major Wq. 182 no. 4
J S Bach:  ‘Non sa che sia dolore’, BWV 209

It was wholly appropriate that as part of their 25th anniversary celebrations the baroque chamber group Florilegium should team up with Elin Manahan Thomas in her home town; the recordings featuring these partners come as close to perfection in this repertoire as we’re likely to get. The centrepiece here was Bach’s own arrangement of the cantata BWV 82, Ich habe genug, for soprano and flute, rather than in its normal baritone-and-oboe form. Though the great aria ‘Schlummert ein’ was taken at a fair lick, there was no loss of feeling and depth, and the reduced forces, flute, violins and continuo, brought an unusually airy quality to the music. I have heard Elin sing this before, and since then her voice has darkened a little without losing any top register; she seems to me to be coming into her prime. I do rather miss the oboe, though, and the way its piercing plaintiveness sets the character of the work in a way the flute can’t quite match.

Ashley Solomon, Florilegium’s founder and wind exponent, had already shown us his extraordinary virtuosity in an Ouverture for recorder and strings by Telemann in which each movement seemed trickier than the last and the inventiveness endless, if not always compelling. The best moments – perhaps this may be generally the case with this composer – were those where the connection with rustic improvisatory life and its rhythms was most prominent. It was interesting to set this alongside the symphony by C P E Bach that opened the second half. This music seems somehow aware that it belongs close to the end of the tradition of German provincial court entertainment that Telemann exemplified, but without confidence as to what was to come next, looking backwards and forwards with a characteristic C P E Bach restlessness that is sometimes thrilling and sometimes rather wearisome – although, as one would expect, played in the most persuasive manner possible.

The evening closed with a rarity, J S Bach’s secular cantata BWV 209, ‘Non sa che sia dolore’, his only venture into Italian, giving us a glimpse of what an Italianate opera by him might have sounded like. Some concessions were made, in the shorter-breathed measures, but the musical texture was denser than one imagines contemporary impresarios would have favoured, and the voice always part of the ensemble rather than deferentially supported by it. The difference was obvious when Elin sang Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ as a ravishing, perfectly blended encore.

Neil Reeve

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