This year’s London Festival of Baroque Music (LFBM) explores many aspects of travel and discovery in music of the 17th and 18th centuries. The title “Crossing the Border” seems topical in a time when we are trying to define our borders ourselves. The festival, ever since it started as the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music back in 1984, has been particularly known for presenting both established and emerging early music ensembles from mainland Europe to the London audience and, 35 years on, perhaps the theme is a reflection of the festival’s own journey too. This year the festival welcomes three early music groups from the Continent.

Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski
Jordi Savall
© David Ignaszewski

Lyon-based ensemble Le Concert de l’Hostel Dieu, led by harpsichordist Franck-Emmanuel Comte, makes an appearance in a late night concert on 11 May with La Donna Barocca, a programme of music solely by 17th-century women composers. With Canadian soprano Heather Newhouse, a regular collaborator with the group, they will perform cantatas by Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini, who are undergoing a bit of a revival recently, as well as music by the lesser known Venetian-born composer Antonia Bembo, who flourished at the French court of Louis XIV.

The inimitable Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI with harpist Andrew Lawrence-King present L’Europa Musicale: From the Renaissance to Baroque on 12 May in which the group takes the audience on an exploration of popular dance forms in Europe. From the Spanish-origin Romanesca and Canario and the English Pavan, to the later, more sophisticated Baroque dance forms such as the Allemande and Passacaille, they will highlight not only their individual styles but also how these dances influenced each other across the borders. One of the ensemble’s features is its lively spontaneity, so expect a foot-tapping affair.

If you want to experience Baroque dance for yourself, then join the Bach Players and the Mercurius Company’s morning workshop on 11 May where dancer Ricardo Barros will be teaching how to dance a gavotte and Menuet Anglois with live accompaniment (no experience necessary). On the same evening, the two groups will join forces in Dance of the Nations, a concert that “embodies the European idea in dance and music”. The programme takes its cue from the orchestral suite Les Nations by Georg Philipp Telemann, which vividly depicts the characters of various European countries, crossing several borders from Russia and Turkey to Switzerland and Portugal. In addition, they will play and dance to music by Vivaldi, Rebel and François Couperin.

La Serenissima © Eric Richmond
La Serenissima
© Eric Richmond

There is plenty of Telemann and Vivaldi in this year’s programme, including in the opening concert of the festival by Vivaldi specialists Adrian Chandler and La Serenissima (10 May). Intriguingly titled The Godfather, this concert focuses on the close ties between three influential German composers, Pisendel, Telemann and J.S. Bach; Pisendel was godfather to one of Telemann’s children and Telemann was godfather to C.P.E. Bach. The programme features a feast of concerti for multiple instruments including oboes, bassoons, trumpets, timpani, strings and continuo which highlight the musical links between these composers, as well as works by contemporaries, Fasch, Vivaldi and Brescianello.

In 18th-century England, young sons of the aristocracy were sent on a “Grand Tour” to broaden their knowledge by seeing the sights and experiencing the arts and culture on the Continent. The two concerts titled The Grand Tour (16 and 17 May) explore the various musical styles that the 18th-century traveller would have experienced in the many cities on their journey from the north to the south. In particular, French chamber group Ensemble Masque’s programme charts the journey of a typical traveller from England to Italy via France and Germany, through the music of Rameau, Couperin, J.S. Bach, Telemann and Vivaldi.

Although most of the LFBM concerts are held at St John’s Smith Square, current home of the festival, the grand choral concert at Westminster Abbey has been an annual fixture of the festival since its Lufthansa Festival days. This year, James O’Donnell conducts the Choir of Westminster Abbey and St James’ Baroque in a celebratory programme of Handel’s four Coronation Anthems (including the ever popular Zadok the Priest), first performed in this very venue in 1727. J.S.Bach’s glorious Magnificat complements the programme in the second half (14 May).

Ex Cathedra © Janet Skidmore
Ex Cathedra
© Janet Skidmore

For people interested in dramatic repertoire of the Baroque period, two attractive theatrical pieces are on offer in this year’s line-up – although neither is an actual opera. Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra, led by Jeffrey Skidmore, bring their project on Purcell’s The Indian Queen to London for the first time (17 May). They preface Purcell’s semi-opera about an imagined war between a Mexican queen and an Inca king with a selection of genuine Central and South American music of the Baroque era. Skidmore, who is known for his research and performance in this area, unearthed these pieces during visits to Mexico and Bolivia, which will add an interesting dimension to Purcell’s imagined world of the Aztecs.

Meanwhile, Breaking the Rules (15 May) is a “part concert/part one-man play” written and devised by the multi-talented Clare Norburn in collaboration with the vocal ensemble Marian Consort. Originally performed in the 2016/17 season, it is a psychodrama of the extraordinary life and music of Carlo Gesualdo in the form of flashbacks on the final night of his life. Norburn’s similarly staged work Burying the Dead on Purcell’s life and music performed earlier this year at another London venue was highly acclaimed, so expect an imaginative and gripping retelling of Gesualdo’s story by actor Gerald Kyd and the Marian Consort directed by Rory McCleery.

The Marian Consort © Nick Rutter
The Marian Consort
© Nick Rutter

Throughout the festival, there are also shorter lunchtime and afternoon concerts, as well as outreach programmes including a choral workshop and pre-concert talks with the artists on most evenings. Furthermore, this year the festival inaugurates the LFBM Young Artists’ Competition with the aim of discovering early music performers of the next generation. The final of the competition will be held on 13 May.

The festival concludes on 18 May with a performance of Handel’s Messiah by David Bates and La Nuova Musica with a fine quartet of soloists, Keri Fuge, Clint van der Linde, Ben Johnson and James Platt, who will also sing alongside the choir, based on the performance practice of church music in 17th-century Germany. In recent years, Bates and the group have established a reputation as one of the foremost interpreters of Handel’s operas and oratorios, and their performance of this masterpiece by one of the most travelled and cosmopolitan of Baroque composers will surely provide a fitting end to the festival.

This article was sponsored by St John's Smith Square.