Early music ensembles have become an established feature in the late night prom slot. In the calm and relaxed late night setting, the warm, articulate sound of period instruments can create a wonderful intimacy within the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall.

Dylan Thomas Sony
Dylan Thomas Sony

Thursday night saw the Proms debut of the Early Opera Company directed by its founder Christian Curnyn, with a well-devised programme marking the tercentenaries of W. F. Bach, Thomas Arne and G. B. Pergolesi.

The highlight of the programme was undoubtedly Pergolesi’s celebrated setting of Stabat mater, featuring two rising stars Elizabeth Watts (soprano) and Anna Stephany (mezzo-soprano). Scored for two soloists and strings only, the simplicity and the emotional depth of Pergolesi’s music anticipate Mozart.

Elizabeth Watts has a bright voice with a ringing top range, and if her approach was at times operatic, she sang with compassion. Mezzo Anna Stephany’s darker tone blended well with Watts in the duets, and although her lower register lacked power, her poise and control in the aria ‘Fac ut porten’ (No. 10) was deeply moving. The ensemble played eloquently, sensitive to the nuances and colours of each movement.

Earlier, the concert opened with a rarely-performed work by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the eldest son of J.S. Bach. His two-movement Sinfonia in D minor began with an emotional Adagio led by two lamenting flutes (Curnyn has pointed out the possible influence of this movement to Mozart’s Requiem), followed seamlessly by a rigorous fugue in the style of his father. The contrast was striking and reflected Wilhelm Friedemann’s exploration of both the new and old styles.

Arne’s Symphony No. 4 in C minor (published in 1767), on the other hand, was composed in the early classical mould of J.C. Bach and Haydn. The first movement is typical of the popular Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) style. Also notable is the soloistic and colourful use of the wind section (two flutes, two oboes, two horns and a bassoon) in the middle and last movements, and lively playing from the orchestra brought out its charm.

Too often, this generation of composers between the baroque (Bach/Handel) and classical (Haydn/Mozart) periods is confined to the music history books, and this prom gave us an opportunity to enjoy the variety of this repertoire. Full praise to Christian Curnyn and his group for pulling off this imaginative programme with such conviction and panache.