Trevor Pinnock’s 70th Birthday Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Handel, Mahler: Trevor Pinnock (harpsichord/director/conductor), Katy Bircher (flute), Rachel Podger (violin), Bojan Čičić (violin), Jane Rogers (viola), Jonathan Manson (cello), Peter McCarthy (violone), Lauryna Bendžiūnaite (soprano), Royal Academy of Music Alumni Ensemble. Wigmore Hall, 16.12.2016. (CC)

Bach – Orchestral Suite No. 3 in B minor, BWV 1067; Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV 1050

Handel – Violin Sonata in A, Op. 1/3 (HWV 361)

Mahler – Symphony No. 4 in G (arr. Erwin Stein)

In a short introductory essay to this, Trevor Pinnock’s 70th birthday concert, Pinnock begins with the exclamation “Carrot tops!” and explain: “When I was little, those sprouting feathery green carrot tope sand such a happy song.” Music was, and is, Pinnock’s life blood and his “inner music” is the source of his work.  From his early days as chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, then on to the Galliard Harpsichord Trio (with Stephen Preston and Anthony Pleeth) and thence to the English Concert with which is he most associated, music has been his all. The repertoire of the first part of this concert was carefully chosen from pieces associated with the English Concert in its early days, before Pinnock’s own Royal Academy of Music Alumni Ensemble gave Erwin Stein’s chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a “piece reflecting all aspects of life”. And has Pinnock puts it, “there could be no more suitable place for our celebration than … Wigmore Hall”, a venue Pinnock first played in some 50 years ago.

Bach’s sunny Orchestral Suite No. 3 featured the excellent baroque flute of Katy Bircher, sometimes a tad quiet. The limpidity of both the “Rondeau” and the “Sarabande” were little short of miraculous, though. The transparency of the part writing in this one to a part performance enables Bach’s mastery to shine through; but it was the sense of joy that was most memorable, fro the stately “Polonaise” through to the famous final “Badinerie”.

Separating the two Bach items was a Handel Violin Sonata performed by Pinnock and Rachel Podger, with cello continuo courtesy of Jonathan Manson. A beautiful, radiant performance of a piece that, while in four movements, is really bipartite (the two movements forming slow-fast pairs). Podger’s decorations of line were perfectly delivered, while the first Allegro was delightful. Here, two minims seem to act as the launching pad for the ensuing flurries of activity. The difficult violin part was superbly executed by Podger. The third panel, an Adagio, is brief (less than a minute) but makes its point jollity of the finale here had added depth thanks to harmonic sensitivity of the players.

The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto of Bach of course holds one of the supreme harpsichord cadenzas. Pinnock’s phenomenally fluent fingerwork in the earlier stages of the movement prepared us in some ways for the sheer virtuosity of that cadenza itself. But the performance was not just about that show of agility; there were some marvellous moments, not least a passage where Bach keeps the melodic interest to a minimum so we hear the harmonic changes, and here the latent energy of the music’s surface reached its zenith. Pinnock’s instrument was a fine sounding 1982 David Jacques Way (Stonington, Connecticut) after Henri Hemsch (Paris, 1760s) and was impeccably prepared by Simon Neal. The dialogue between Podger and Bircher for the central Affetuoso was miraculous indeed, affording full contrast to the sprightliness, so cleanly executed, of the finale.

Pinnock conducts Mahler might not seem to roll off the tongue, but one does have to bear in mind that Pinnock has recorded Bruckner’s Second Symphony in a chamber version by Anthony Payne for Lin, so this is not unprecedented. The Stein version of Mahler’s Fourth is inextricably linked to Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performance and is scored for twelve players (flute, oboe, clarinet, piano, harmonium, percussion, two violins, viola, cello and double-bass). The twelve players surprisingly do not include a French horn in their number, and that instrument’s many solos have to be redistributed, most often to clarinet.

The playing throughout was stunning. A special mention to Eloisa Fleur Thom’s superb violin solo (by definition, she’s going to have a lot of them), Alexander Rolton’s expressive cello and Jordan Black’s superb clarinet, often found with its belli n the air, pointing straight at the audience. Pinnock’s expert ear brought a great sense of tight ensemble to the spectral second movement while his superb sense of pacing meant we entered into the world of the slow third movement without losing a sense of momentum. Alas, the huge climax could not carry its full weight, but the music nevertheless swelled appropriately. The chamber scoring worked best, perhaps, for the finale, where the excellent young Lithuanian soprano Lauryna Bendžiūnaite sang of the angels with a glorious clarity and purity. The transparency of the scoring seemed to point out Mahler’s masterly painting of the Wunderhorn text.

A wonderful celebration – and, in the second half, full of unexpected delight. Looking forward to the celebration of Pinnock’s 75th already …

Colin Clarke

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