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Music review: Brecon Baroque Festival

22 November 2019

Roderic Dunnett hears a Zelenka Mass and other rare repertoire


HOW many festivals have emerged in this century with a Fringe that features music by Zelenka, Quantz, Finger (who, you ask), Fux, and Telemann?

The Fringe that I describe is in fact integral in spirit to the five-day Brecon Baroque Festival, which lights up Mid-Wales each autumn, and features the 13-strong Brecon Baroque Orchestra and music of the 17th and 18th centuries, played on early instruments by performers including several of the finest players in the land.

This festival, founded in 2006 by the violinist Rachel Podger, who is one of them, this year had the courageous title “Bohemia: From Biber to Mozart” — yet another inspired idea of the founder.

The Fringe’s central concert was a recital by the virtuoso lutenist Elizabeth Kenny. Her performance, scheduled for the intimate Cantref Church, in the Brecon Beacons, had to be transferred, owing to the downpours, to the city centre.

Kenny played the theorbo (or chitarrone) and treated a rapt audience to even earlier music: Alessandro Piccinini (1566-c.1638), lutenist to the princely d’Este family in Ferrara; Italy-based Johannes Hieronymus (Giovanni Girolamo) Kapsberger (c.1580-1651), who penned some 43 sacred motets, plus Masses and litany settings; and Robert de Visée (c.1655-c.1732), chamber musician and court singer to Louis XIV, and tutor to the ten-year-old future King Louis XV. De Visée’s compositions for guitar or lute are numerous.

Cheekily, Kenny infiltrated into her programme the American composer Nico Muhly (b. 1981), who is famed for film music and his dark opera Two Boys (English National Opera, 2011). The evolutionary format of his 13-minute piece Berceuse with Seven Variations, eloquent and at times quite dark (Kenny, for whom it was composed, has recorded it on Linn Records CKD 603D), fitted aptly with the two other Chaconnes in her recital; and likewise with Biber’s G-minor Passacaglia, expressively played at the Theatr Brycheiniog by the five-part Echo ensemble, and concluding with Biber’s Partita no. 5 (1696), given by the four-strong FIGO ensemble in the Plough Chapel in Brecon.

The main festival was, as always, excellent: distinctive repertoire in a delightful location. An opening evensong, with Brecon Cathedral Choir, included fanfares, an anthem (Confitebor) — both by the Bohemian-born Heinrich Ignaz Biber (1644-1704), classed as “one of the most important violin composers in the instrument’s history”, and a figure who dominated his period — and two of his Mystery or Rosary Sonatas: no. 1, “The Annunciation”, and no. 4, “The 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple”.

The beating heart of the festival was Brecon Cathedral, where a choral work by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) — born in Bohemia, court composer in Dresden to Friedrich August, Elector of Saxony, and much esteemed by Bach — furnished the festival’s exciting opening on the Friday evening.

Robert Hollingworth, founder of the acclaimed vocal consort I Fagiolini, produced from eight polished singers of the University of York’s period-music-focused vocal ensemble The 24 (which he directs) in a rare reading of Zelenka’s Missa Dei Patris (1740). This proved to be a highlight of the festival.

Zelenka’s works langished until they were rediscovered and promoted by the Czech composer Smetana. But Zelenka easily rivals his contemporaries Bach and Telemann. This hefty Mass (the six sections of the Ordinary, the Sanctus and Benedictus combined) was part of his attempt to compose six late Masses.

Here, it was interspersed (after the unusually extended Kyrie) with his Lamentation no. 1, pro Die Mercurii Sancto, based on Jeremiah 1.1-1.6 (“How the city sits solitary”), and the concluding “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum”; by a striking Fugue by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), composer of the famous Canon; and by Biber’s deeply expressive Rosary Sonata no. 11, “The Resurrection”. On this solo work Podger lavished her enchanting skills and sensitivity.

The Missa Dei Patris, with a quartet of soloists and a period band, is big in every way. By judicious use of verbal repetition, and by harnessing material so that it permeates the movements and gives the Mass structural unity, Zelenka reveals the maturity and forward-looking character of his prototype of the later high Baroque style.

Alternating delivery by soloists and choir, he brings to the Gloria both sectional variety and an intensity, whether slow and subdued (“Domine Deus, Rex caelestis”, with semi-staccato strings), an affecting “Qui tollis peccata”, or quite sober “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris”; and a great deal of liveliness: for instance, a trundling bass line to “Gratias agimus tibi”, light-stepped orchestra for the lovely soprano solo (Rebecca Lea) “Domine Fili unigenite”, and a perky “Quoniam tu solus sanctus”, initially sung by ATB soloists, yielding to a vivid “Cum Sancto Spiritu”. Vivaldi had written his world-famous Gloria in 1708. Zelenka’s is as good, if not better.

An upper-voice duet (“Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine”) was a special feature of the Credo; so were two affecting bass-led passages, and the aptly sombre “Crucifixus”.

The Sanctus launches itself at full throttle, and descending arpeggio effects in the bass enliven the Benedictus. An entrancing mezzo-soprano solo (Ciara Hendrick) opens the Agnus Dei, and a fugue (alto, soprano, bass, tenor) rounds off. Throughout, Hollingworth supplied an unpushy beat, gently coaxing even when forte, and the result of his experienced and always constructive lead was a magnificent performance of a ridiculously neglected piece.

The recital by the polished chamber group FIGO included, greatly adding to its atmosphere, the theorbo-player Sergio Bucheli. Here we met Schmelzer; Muffat; and Gottfried Finger (c.1660-1730), a Moravian who was most acclaimed in London, from 1685. He then moved on to royal service in Berlin, and thence to the Rhineland Palatinate: Heidelberg and Mannheim.

French-born Georg Muffat (1653-1704) — his music imbibed the Parisian style of his time, principally Lully’s — tried his luck in Vienna, but then moved on to Prague; and his wide-ranging musical expression also drew on Corelli, Schmelzer, and Biber — hence the imaginative structuring of this concert.

Muffat’s 12 Concerti Grossi (recorded and now available in MP3 format on the Hungaroton label by Capella Savaria under Pál Németh) evidence the progressive sophistication of the mid- and later-17th-century Baroque.

Born in c.1620, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer is today better-known: a significant composer for, and soloist on, the violin, and court violinist in Habsburg Vienna. In terms of string technique, he had a legendary reputation. He died of the plague in Prague — hence the tentative Bohemian connection.

FIGO — violin, violin/viola, cello/viola da gamba — treated us to playing of utter confidence, marked beauty, and a great deal of zest and flair.

After a lavishly varied “Echoes of the Danube” recital, from the ensemble In Echo, embracing non-Bohemian composers, came Podger’s final concert, “Following the Danube”. What a concert! It featured music by Josef Myslivecek (1737-81), highly respected by Mozart; Jirí Benda (1722-95), employed in Frederick the Great’s Berlin, and a composer classical melodramas; plus more Zelenka and Biber. Brecon Baroque, led by Podger, was extended by the 25-strong South Powys Youth Orchestra, under Tim Cronin.

Mozart provided the climax of the festival. Don Giovanni had its première in Prague, and likewise his opera La Clemenza di Tito, its memorable Overture aptly included here. But how better to round off this Bohemian extravaganza than with his “Prague” Symphony? It made an excellent farewell.


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