The element of surprise in this seemingly standard Late Night Prom of Handel, Muffat, Bach and Purcell by the period-instrument orchestra Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) was Leopold Stokowski. Music Director Richard Egarr, who I gather is a Stokowski fan, had decided to include his 20th-century arrangements of Bach’s Air and Purcell’s Dido’s Lament in the programme, presumably as a personal homage to the conductor. As the concert itself was centred around Handel’s four Coronation Anthems, the two Stokowski items only formed a short interlude between the anthems Let thy hand be strengthened and The King shall rejoice, but they certainly sounded alien compared with the rest of the programme.

Richard Egarr © Marco Borggreve
Richard Egarr
© Marco Borggreve

Overall, it was a breezily performed concert: although there is a lot of pomp in Handel’s Coronation Anthems, there was no pomp in the evening’s proceedings. Tempi were mostly swift, there were no breaks between pieces except for the applause and quick bows (and the occasional tuning), and Egarr with his no-nonsense approach didn’t walk off the stage at all. It started later than the usual Late Night Prom at 22:15 but finished punctually at the expected time of 23:30 which was certainly earlier than most Late Night Proms. For me, it provided a perfect wind-down after the grandeur of the earlier performance by Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden.

The concert didn’t recreate the order of the anthems at the Coronation ceremony in 1727 but opened with the most famous of them, Zadok the Priest, followed by My heart is inditing. In Zadok, Egarr and the AAM began the introduction softly and swiftly but steadily built up the anticipation with emphasis on Handel’s inventive harmonic progression. The choral entry perhaps wasn’t as grand or majestic compared to many larger-scale performances but the 30-strong Choir of the AAM sang with sincerity and a clear sonority, and they articulated the text amazingly clearly in the difficult acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall, punctuating the words crisply. On the other hand, the orchestra (fielding larger forces than usual) seemed to be playing with more legato and longer bowing to project into the hall.

After the elegantly rendered My heart is inditing, the strings of the orchestra played Muffat’s Sonata no. 5 from Armonico tributo. In a second, the music took us back 50 years and specifically to Italy; Muffat, a cosmopolitan German, had composed this piece after his sojourn in Rome where he heard the music of Corelli and modelled these pieces on his Concerti grossi. In this and the other instrumental numbers, Egarr directed from the harpsichord (whereas in the Coronation Anthems he stood and conducted), joining the continuo section that included two theorbos. There was some beautiful solo playing from the principals in the concertino sections and the work concluded with a delightful, foot-tapping Passacaglia that was as long as the other four movements put together.

In Let thy hands be strengthened, Egarr and the performers brought out solemnity and intimacy especially in the minor-key “Let justice and judgement”, and a good balance was achieved between the orchestra and the chorus. Then the string players swapped their Baroque bows to modern bows and played the Stokowski arrangements – yes, with lots of Airrato! In the arrangement of the famous “Air” from Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 2, where the melody was divided between the violins and cellos, there were so many rubatos and slides that it verged on a parody of early 20th-century Baroque playing (I don’t know whether it was all indicated in the score or whether Egarr based it on Stokowski’s recordings). Somehow Dido’s Lament fared better, probably because more liberty is allowed in an arrangement of a vocal piece, and was played with plenty of sentiment by the strings of the AAM, including a solo for the cellist. If Egarr wanted to make a point about Stokowski’s contribution to early music in the early 20th century, it felt out of place in the context of this programme.

Fortunately, we were back in familiar territory again in the The King shall rejoice which closed the concert. This work in particular seemed to anticipate Handel’s later choral masterpieces such as Messiah. Egarr’s direction of the chorus was incisive and encouraging, and they sang out with clarity. In the final Alleluia, with an impressive fugue, he brought out a wonderful dialogue and harmony between the orchestra and chorus.