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Blackheath Sundays and Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

Iestyn Davies, Steven Devine & friends Blackheath Halls, 22 May 2005
London Baroque & Concerto Palatino St John's Smith Square 20 & 21 May 2005

Three concerts of baroque music in one weekend make for pointed comparisons. Blackheath Halls was about to close for summer building works, and celebrated the end of a successful season with a brilliant concert of German & English music given by an accomplished early music group headed by Steven Devine and introducing to Blackheath Iestyn Davies, the young counter-tenor who was second prizewinner (and deservedly the Audience Prize winner) at last year's London Handel Singing Competition. The first half was (mainly) German and the second (mainly) English.

Songs by Schutz, J C & J S Bach were interspersed with pieces by Bohm and Piccini, ringing the changes of timbre available to four expert musicians. Iestyn Davies quickly established himself with the audience, having a good, youthful appearance, a relaxed confidence of stage manner and a mellifluous voice produced with deceptive ease. A coming star in the counter-tenor firmanent, no doubt.

Devine and Richard Sweeney (archlute, not theorbo, he told us rather gnomically) each gave rivetting solos and showed an obvious sympathy and familiarity with each other's playing, their continuo accompaniments with harpsichord (Colin Booth's from Trinity) and small one-stop chamber organ (a larger one had proved too hard to get up the stairs!) displaying rhythmic simultaneity and a blend of tones that held attention.

This was an accomplished and near-perfectly devised recital (save for the disappearance of viola da gamba player Caroline Ritchey at the interval) which enthralled the near-full audience - their numbers increased maybe by the offer of a sherry-tasting in the interval as well as coffee and croissants beforehand!. Enjoyment was greatly enhanced by the acoustics of the intimate Recital Room, which are ideal for early music. Too few Trinity CM students there; too early after Cup Final night?

The Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music (mostly at St John's, Smith Square) is a prestigious fixture in London's early music calendar, but our first two concerts there this year were disappointing; a link with the Blackheath recital reviewed above was the participation of Richard Sweeney and his archlute (or was it his theorbo?) in Concerto Palatino's programme of European music in the shadow of Giovanni Gabrieli.

The sound of cornettos, trombones and two singers was generally opaque, Kirsten Solnek's contralto absorbed in the whole, Sweeney's plucking just audible but not the actual notes. This polychoral music really needed spatial separation, as at Venice, to make a more vivid effect.

And for no obvious reason London Baroque's concert in this festival the previous night centred on all three of Couperin's Lecons de Tenebre? On this occasion Agnes Mellon's soprano came across in the large expanses of St John's better than did Emma Kirkby's more rarified tones, but it was gloom rather than uplift. Sad to relate, these were two dullish evenings.

London Baroque has a new CD of 17 C French music including Lully, as heard at St John's, and Couperins L & D etc. I found it made a not dissimilar impression even though the repertoire of French 17th-Century Trio Sonatas is more varied; dutiful and fully competent, but lacking flair and excitement [BIS CD 1465]. Listen for yourself?

Europa Galante St. John’s, Smith Square 28 May
Fabio Biondi
violin & director Nicolau de Figueiredo harpsichord

Telemann Burlesque de Quixotte
Bach Harpsichord concerto in D, BWV1054
Corelli Concerto grosso op.6 no.4 in D
Francesco Geminiani Concerto grosso in G minor op3/2
Francesco Barsanti Overture
Mauro d’Alai Violin concerto in C minor

A truly festive concert to end this year's Lufthansa Festival, and the most satisfactory of the four we attended. It was a good varied programme illustrating the theme of The Grand Tour to and from Italy in the 18 C.

Europa Galante
, directed with verve by Fabio Bondi 'at the violin' is a highly-organised touring group of Italian early musicians, with a notable discography on Virgin Classics.

Most unusual and interesting, though only partially successful, was Bach's transcription of his E major violin concerto. Although the accompanying group was reduced to string quintet and theorbo, the harpsichord was overwhelmed by supporting music so that lots of the elaborately florid harpsichord part was lost to the audience; it should have been moved forward and with the lid opened to improve projection. All these problems are eliminated in recordings, but it is salutary to hear the realities - as with Mozart fortepiano concertos at St John's.

Their performances maximise contrast, virtuosity and excitement, with trade-mark brilliance. Fast and loud generates vigorous applause; it would have been more tasteful if their third encore had been a slow, quiet and soothing one (Beecham always gave quiet lollipops as encores after arousing concert endings) but maybe they'd have sold fewer CDs to the departing listeners?


© Peter Grahame Woolf