The Academy of Ancient Music has been critically acclaimed in pursuing Baroque composers’ original stylistic intent, and this gave tonight’s concert the prospect of a faithful look into the period of 1650-1750. Here are a few of my highlights from this varied Robeco Summer Concert in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.
The Academy of Ancient Music’s strings, woodwinds, harpsichord and theorbo (a lute-like instrument) took up little room on the Concertgebouw grand stage. Director, conductor and harpsichordist Richard Egarr sat in the center, overseeing his ensemble. It was a joy to see the multitasking skills of Egarr, conducting with a passionate enthusiasm and playing the harpsichord. The ensemble lived up to the power of Egarr’s gestures during Handel’s Concerto grosso, Op. 3 no. 2, as its rhythmically swirling waves of majestic festivity and light-footed melancholy were brought to life. The AAM ensemble found a natural symbiosis between the instrument groups, allowing melodies and bass lines to entangle and disentangle like dancers. Handel played this piece in the breaks of his opera performances, which perhaps gave people the opportunity to dance along.
Vivaldi’s motet in C minor In furore iustissimae irae added some drama to the night. Distress was in the air from the beginning, where Vivaldi’s patterns of powerfully descending strings call out. The AAM ensemble conveyed this with full power. Soprano Lisa Larsson fought back, thrillingly expressing a sense of panic, seemingly holding the instruments back.
After the break Henry Purcell’s music made its appearance. Purcell passed away sixteen years before his self-proclaimed successor Handel would arrive in London. Purcell wrote the opera King Arthur in around 1690. The suite played tonight gave all of the ensemble’s instruments an opportunity to shine. The mood was lyrical, pompous and victorious, and at times gave room for some fragile reflection. The appearance of the trumpet came as a welcome change of texture. As a whole I didn’t always find the suite exhilarating to me, but it had a very natural and enthusiastic flow to it.
Subdued Baroque pieces strongly appeal to me. Through slower rhythms, fewer notes and a more contemplative mood the essence of the Baroque remains. The details of ornamentation can be enlarged, as Lisa Larsson showed in Purcell’s “Music for a While” from Oedipus. She captured the spirit of Purcell’s subtle waves of precious and moody melodies. Also flowing well within the piece was the basso continuo accompaniment: harpsichord and theorbo playing the bass and chords. It amazed me how much these instruments added to the atmosphere of the piece despite their soft volume (who needs a piano?). Still, I did have my doubts about two plucked string instruments blending together, as their textures clashed somewhat.
Lars Von Trier’s film Antichrist opening with Handel’s sorrowful aria “Lascia ch’io pianga,” performed by Tuva Semmingsen and Barokksolistene, was one of the reasons for me to dive into Baroque music. I cannot listen to a version of “Lascia ch’io pianga” without comparing it to the Antichrist version because it had such a great emotional effect on me – but the Academy of Ancient Music and Larsson came close tonight. Larsson embraced the piece with great feeling, allowing her to successfully add her own touch, but the ensemble seemed just a little bit rushed. Quite an odd choice to me, as a sad piece might be better off played too slowly than too quickly.
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