Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Academy of Ancient Music @ Wigmore Hall, London

10 January 2008

The Academy of Ancient Music, directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr, took the Wigmore audience on a tour (de force) of seventeenth and eighteenth century music last week. Subtitled “Marini to Mozart”, the evening’s programme was as challenging geographically as it was chronologically, beginning with rural Italian pieces, sweeping in French influences, and finishing up with urbane sophistication in Austria.

It did much to dispel the popular, rather lazy assumptions about baroque music as staid and predictable, with a showcase of the weird and the wonderful, and some wild performances that were worthy of the epithet “baroque and roll’.

We began with Sonatas No.15 & 16 “per stromenti d’arco” by the Italian Dario Castello (1594-1663), strange little pieces composed of multiple short movements that ranged from delicate introspection to powerful, head-banging repetition. Biagio Marini’s (1594-1663) Passacaglia from Op. 22 followed; described as “popular” or “pop” by Egarr, who introduced each piece from the stage, this “street music” revolved around a solemn theme that could reappear ad infinitum through slight variations.

But far more riotous was Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s (1644-1704) Battalia, his onomatopoeic depiction of a battle, where quieter movements suggesting mental preparation were interspersed with scenes of conflict which involved foot-stamping, violent strumming, thwacking of bows, and Egarr giving his harpsichord a good slap.

From the bellicose to the more bombastic. Corelli’s Concerto grosso in C minor Op.6 No.3 was delivered with all appropriate grandeur, with delicate ornamentation from Pavlo Beznosluk, as first violin, and some florid little touches from Egarr at the harpsichord. Corelli’s influence was audible in the next piece, Sonata III in A Major “Armonico tributo”, by a pupil of his, Georg Muffat, an Austrian who went on to work with Lully at the French court. And then to Vivaldi: not your common or garden Vivaldi but two short pieces, Sinfonia in B minor “Al Santo Sepolcro” RV169 and Sonata in E flat major “Al Santo Sepolcro” RV130 written for services at the Ospedale della Piet. Unusually composed of just two movements, the first in each creeping and quite eerie, the second more light-footed, these showed Vivaldi in a contrasting and refreshing light to his secular works.

After the obscurity of what preceded it, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik K525 a piece immortalised by Classic FM charts and the mobile ring tone seemed a rather anomalous addition to the programme. Yet for those numbed by its ubiquity this turned out a treat. Listening to AAM’s sensitive and accomplished performance, aided by period instruments, was like hearing it anew: the rich textures of the strings, the instrumental contrast, and the sheer volume of the performance gave it a vitality that is all to often sapped by the commercial market.

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