Featuring: Early Opera Company & Christian Curnyn with Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead; Jean Rondeau; Florilegium & Ashley Solomon with Elin Manahan Thomas; Jasmin Toccata; Vox Luminis and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; The Choir of Westminster Abbey & St James's Baroque; Les Passions de l'Ame & Meret Lüthi; I Fagiolini & Robert Hollingworth; European Union Baroque Orchestra & Lars Ulrik Mortensen; Holst Singers & the Academy of Ancient Music
Plus: 3 ‘Future Baroque’ young artist lunchtime concerts; talks; ‘Sing Baroque’ Monteverdi and Handel choral workshop
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is 'Baroque at the Edge'. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
Artistic Director Lindsay Kemp said: “This year’s two anniversary composers come from opposite ends of the Baroque era, which got me thinking about ways in which musical styles and tastes change over time. At times such as the transition from Renaissance to Baroque around 1600, and from Baroque to Classical around 1750, change can come quickly and different styles end up jostling with each other. These corners of music history, and the whole idea of blurred edges and crossed boundaries, is what has given us our Festival theme this year.”
This year there are 13 concerts over 9 days, with highlights including Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 from the stellar partnership of Belgian vocal ensemble Vox Luminis and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra; the Pergolesi Stabat mater with Early Opera Company under Christian Curnyn with soloists Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead; Telemann’s cantata Ino with Florilegium and Elin Manahan Thomas; Monteverdi's Orfeo with I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth; Handel’s Jephtha with the Holst Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music under Stephen Layton; string-ensemble music by Biber, Schmelzer and Fux from Swiss ensemble Les Passions de l’Ame (with Turkish percussion!); and a harpsichord recital (entitled ‘Le Vertigo’) by Jean Rondeau.
Monteverdi’s iconic Vespers of 1610 is a classic example of a work at the edge, juxtaposing the newest musical techniques of the early Baroque with the older methods of the Renaissance. Ultimately this makes it not just a work of stylistic reconciliation but also one of unparalleled expressive richness. On Sunday 14 May at 7.30pm, this glorious music will be performed by two top-class ensembles, both of whom have made strong impressions at the Festival in the past: Belgian vocal ensemble Vox Luminis and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, coming together for the first time for this project.
Like the Vespers, Monteverdi’s first opera Orfeo has one foot in the world of Baroque vocal expression and the other in Renaissance traditions, in this case those of court entertainment and madrigal. But it is also music history’s first great opera, a work of power, depth and beauty that never ceases to enthral. Written for Monteverdi's own regular vocal ensemble, it will be performed on Thursday 18 May at 7.45pm at St John's Smith Square by Monteverdi masters I Fagiolini in their 30th anniversary year, with the brilliant Matthew Long as the virtuosic demi-God of singing, and a full cast of singers with a strong background in Monteverdi's secular and sacred music. Directed by Robert Hollingworth, it is given in an imaginative semi-staging by Thomas Guthrie that was first performed by I Fagiolini in Venice in 2015.
Opening this year's festival on Friday 12 May at 7.30pm at St John's Smith Square is the Early Opera Company, under the musical direction of Christian Curnyn, with Pergolesi’s exquisite and profoundly moving Stabat mater, with soprano Lucy Crowe and countertenor Tim Mead as soloists. Pergolesi was one of the 18th century’s most influential and admired composers, and did much to power the stylistic transition from the Baroque to the Classical style in music. Curnyn and his superb ensemble also include more music from the late Baroque cutting edge with fire-cracker modernistic orchestral pieces by WF and CPE Bach.
On Saturday 13 May at 4pm at St Peter's Eaton Square, rising virtuoso Jean Rondeau (‘One of the most natural performers one is likely to hear on a classical music stage these days … a master of his instrument.’ Washington Post) explores the flamboyant, poetic and compelling fantasy world of the French harpsichord repertoire, with character pieces, preludes and dances music by two of its most brilliant exponents, Jean-Philippe Rameau and Pancrace Royer.
On the evening of Saturday 13 May at 7.00pm at St John's Smith Square, leading British ensemble Florilegium focus on one of 2017’s great anniversary composers, Georg Philipp Telemann. Their concert puts Telemann the man of the High Baroque up against Telemann the progressive with two works from his final decade, including a powerful late masterpiece, the extraordinary and dramatic cantata Ino. This work is rarely heard in concert so this is an exceptional opportunity to experience it sung by Elin Manahan Thomas. Before it Florilegium perform one of the enduring favourites of the Baroque concerto repertoire – Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.
The London Festival of Baroque Music's annual visit to Westminster Abbey on Tuesday 16 May at 7pm honours Bach’s late masterpiece, his Mass in B Minor, compiled and adapted in his final years from earlier works and seemingly devised as a summation of his life’s work as a composer of sacred music. From joy to grief, celebration to supplication and triumph to penitence this is one the great monuments of Western music. It will be performed by The Choir of Westminster Abbey and St James's Baroque under James O'Donnell.
Swiss string ensemble Les Passions de l’Ame give their UK full concert debut on Wednesday 17 May at 7.30pm at St John's Smith Square, under their violinist director Meret Lüthi. Their programme is entitled ‘Edge of Europe’, and presents string music from 17th-century Austria, at that time Christian Europe’s interface with the Ottoman Empire. The music, by Schmelzer, Biber, Fux and Walther is imaginative and often quirky, enhanced in Les Passions de l’Ame’s performance by the colourful addition of Turkish percussion.
There’s another meeting of cultures in the 9.30pm ‘Late o’Clock Baroque’ concert on Saturday 13 May at St John’s Smith Square, when harpsichordist Jean Rondeau makes his second appearance of the Festival, this time in the company of lutenist Thomas Dunford and classical Persian percussionist Keyvan Chemirani. All three musicians are superb improvisers, and in a project they have entitled ‘Jasmin Toccata’ they meld Persian percussion and Baroque instruments in imaginative transformations of European masters such as Scarlatti and Purcell and major composers from the Persian tradition. The result (in their words) is ‘a vivid toccata that echoes the sensuality of Jasmin’.
The Festival’s focus on young artists continues this year with three more Future Baroque lunchtime concerts at St John’s Smith Square featuring some of the best new talent on the Baroque music scene. This year there are concerts by two instrumental groups: Ensemble Molière in a programme of music by Telemann and his French friends Blavet, Guignon and Forqueray (Friday 12 May at 1.05pm); and Ensemble Hesperi, who will be introducing us to music from 18th-century Scotland (Wednesday 17 May at 1.05pm). The third and final concert is a solo harpsichord recital by Nathaniel Mander, who will perform works by English composers from Byrd to JC Bach (Friday 19 May at 1.05pm).
On Friday 19 May at 7.30pm at St John's Smith Square the youthful talents of the European Union Baroque Orchestra return, with their regular Music Director Lars Ulrik Mortensen. Their programme of concertos, cantatas and arias by Bach and Handel explores the fringes of love, betrothal and betrayal, helped out by Swedish soprano Maria Keohane, also making a happy return to the Festival.
The Festival ends on Saturday 20 May at 7.00pm at St John’s Smith Square with a performance of Handel’s last, and in many people’s opinion best, dramatic oratorio Jephtha. Stephen Layton conducts the Holst Singers, the Academy of Ancient Music and a fine cast of young singers led by Nick Pritchard as the Israelite warrior who lives to regret a rash vow to God.
In addition to these concerts, the Festival also features 'Sing Baroque', a special amateur choral workshop with conductor Robert Howarth on Sunday 14 May at 10.30am. Suitable for aspiring Baroque singers of all levels of ability and experience, the workshop will explore selected choruses from two of this year’s Festival pieces, Monteverdi's Vespers and Handel’s Jephtha.
To quote Lindsay Kemp again: “As ever it has been enormous fun to create a Festival around an unusual theme, one that allows us to programme rarely heard but deserving music alongside familiar works that reveal themselves in new and particular contexts. It shows just how deep, complex and varied Baroque music can be!”