Blackheath Sundays and Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music
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?
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?
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.
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