London: a truly European city, a magnet for talented musicians, where foreign and local composers and performers thrived in an open and forward looking free market of public concerts and theatres. 18th-century London was undoubtedly an exciting place of opportunity for musicians and audiences alike, and what better group to explore the richness of this world than the European Union Baroque Orchestra, performing in the Bolzano Music festival in Italy.
EUBO is a training group for post-conservatoire students from across the continent, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, with support from other leading baroque specialists – this evening they were led by violinist Bojan Čičić. Mortensen’s energetic and characterful direction from the harpsichord inspired a rich, colourful sound, with gracefully arching phrases: there was nothing flashy, just elegant, tasteful playing, particularly in the lightly scored passages, and a surprisingly strong bass sound when required.
Italian musicians were particularly welcomed in London; Italian opera sung by Italian superstar singers was the height of fashion, and other musicians found that the city offered better opportunities than could be found in careers as court or church musicians back home. Two of these were oboist Giuseppe Sammartini and violinist Francesco Geminiani; the latter had the additional advantage of having been a student of Corelli whose concerti grossi were loved by London audiences. Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso in G minor showed the composer’s skill as a violinist, with Čičić bringing out lots of character in the elaborate solos. The concerto grosso format seemed to work particularly well for EUBO, giving scope for lots of nice interplay between the solo and ripieno groups – big smiles and eye-contact across the orchestra made them a joy to watch.
Although an oboist, Sammartini’s most famous work is probably his Recorder Concerto in F major, a delightfully sunny work that shows the emergence of the new galant style that led the transition from Baroque to classical. Soloist Jan van Hoecke gave a relaxed and unfussy performance: he studied with Dan Laurin, but thankfully doesn’t appear to share his teacher’s taste for excessively pyrotechnical ornamentation. Mortensen and the orchestra gave the last movement a gorgeously weighted one-in-a-bar swing, that contrasted nicely with van Hoecke’s delicate execution in the filigree trill passages and ended in a really fiery Italian mood. The Siciliano slow movement was one of the highlights of the evening: van Hoecke dropped his cool and infused this movement with real passion, culminating in his final improvised cadenza, and the orchestra caught his mood beautifully.
The British composers of the 18th century have long been overshadowed by the foreigners, but recently seem to be enjoying a revival: I had certainly never heard of William Babell before tonight’s concert, but his Recorder Concerto in D major was a delightful little piece that nicely combined English and Italian styles, particularly in the final Allegro. The only problem with this, and the Sammartini, was that the orchestra were a little too large against the recorder: van Hoecke was often drowned in the tutti passages and occasionally fought too hard to make himself heard. A band of half the size would have provided a better balance.
Towering over all the musicians in London was the man who, for me stands as the embodiment of the pan-European spirit: George Frideric Handel, the German who honed his craft in Italy and settled in London. EUBO’s well-designed programme examined different aspects of Handel’s output: a concerto grosso; ballet music from one of his Italian operas; and finally, his royal music. The Concerto Grosso in F major was a stylish opener to the concert. The musical line flowed on through the pauses in the opening Andante larghetto with gently affectionate solo lines. The second movement Allegro was Handel at his best, and played as he should be with committed energy and passion, whilst the dream dances from Alcina were beautifully coloured.
I can’t remember when I last heard a performance of Handel’s Water Music: it’s one of those pieces that is a victim of its immense popularity, so it was a treat to hear the third suite this evening in a fresh, lively performance. Jan van Hoecke’s alto recorder shone through in the stately Sarabande, whilst in the Minuets his descant and Mortensen’s harpsichord vied with each other as to which could add the most glitter. The stars of the Water Music though were the reeds – oboists Neven Lesage and Miriam Jorde Hompanera and bassoonist Marit Darlang zipping nimbly through their trio passages in the Rigaudon, and I wish we’d heard more of them during the evening. The Gigues switched effortlessly between an airy lightness and a heavy, joyful gallop, with a reprise from the Concerto Grosso to end the evening.
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