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Concert reviews

Purcell, Blow & Locke

Vocalconsort Berlin; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Georg Kallweit
concert: March 19, 2010, Utrecht, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn

John BLOW (1649-1708): Let my prayer come up, anthem; My God, my God, look upon me, anthem; Praise the Lord, anthem; Matthew LOCKE (c1622-1677): Consort in F [from: Consorts of Fowre Parts, 1660]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Evening Hymn (Z 193); Funeral Sentences [March, Canzona (Z 860); Man that is born of a woman (Z 27); In the midst of life (Z 17); Thou know'st, Lord, the secrets of our hearts (Z 58)]; O sing unto the Lord, anthem (Z 44); Overture a 5 (Z 772); Overture Bonduca, or The British Heroine (Z 574); Rejoice in the Lord, anthem (Z 49); The Gordion Knot Unty’d (Z 597)

[soli] Cécile Kempenaers, soprano; Roksolana Chraniuk, contralto; Thomas Volle, tenor; Matthias Lutze, bass

Last year the commemoration of Henry Purcell's birth passed by almost unnoticed, at least as far as the public concerts in the Netherlands are concerned. It was only during the Festival Early Music Utrecht that I have attended some concerts in which music by Purcell was performed. Although some of his works belong to the standard repertoire - in particular his opera Dido and Aeneas - a large part of his oeuvre is not very well known outside Britain. And that is a big shame, as he hardly ever has written anything which is less than outstanding.

That was proven again during a concert by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, directed from the first violin by Georg Kallweit, with the cooperation of the Vocalconsort Berlin. One isn't expecting English music from a German ensemble, and past experiences have given me the impression that for German musicians it isn't that easy to grasp the style of Purcell - or of any English music, for that matter. I remember a concert by the Freiburger Barockorchester which was not entirely convincing, especially because of the German-style articulation. In vocal music the English pronunciation is another problem. The latter isn't that easy to assess in a live concert, in particular when there is some distance between the platform and the audience.

The programme was attractive as it contained some famous pieces by Purcell, but also lesser-known music by two of his contemporaries, John Blow and Matthew Locke. The programme was intelligently put together, with a good variation between vocal and instrumental items.

The concert opened with the Overture a 5 (Z 772) whose slow section was played with great intensity. The peculiar harmonic progressions came clearly to the fore due to the transparency of the ensemble.
For this occasion the Akademie für Alte Musik consisted only of strings, which meant that the march and canzona from the Funeral Sentences were played by strings instead of cornetts and trombones. As a result the performance was a bit down-to-earth, and failed to make real impact, although the two pieces were well played. The three anthems were given good performances by the Vocalconsort Berlin, consisting of 12 singers. The emotional content was well explored, but the sound of the ensemble was not as transparent as one would wish. A bit odd was Georg Kallweit playing colla parte with the top voice in some passages. I can't find any justitication for that.

Next was the overture from the incidental music for Bonduca, or The British Heroine, again nicely played by the orchestra. It was here that I particularly noticed the difference with the concert of the Freiburger Barockorchester I referred to before. The articulation was more appropriate to English music, and there were no strong dynamic accents as had been needed in German music.

The first part ended with the anthem O sing unto the Lord. Here the four soloists, all members of the Vocalconsort Berlin, were singing. All have fine voices but there was a lack of balance between them. In particular Roksolana Chraniuk was overpowered by her colleagues, and she was hardly audible. Cécile Kempenaers used a bit too much vibrato. Thomas Volle and Matthias Lutze sang well, but were a little too loud.

The second part started with another suite of incidental music, from The Gordion Knot Unty'd. It is an indication of the relative unfamiliarity of much of Purcell's music that a part of the audience applauded after the overture, assuming the suite was over. After that we got a series of well-played dances. In the second air the timing was especially noteworthy, whereas the closing minuet was too fast and its rhythm was hardly noticeable.

Next were the three anthems by John Blow, pieces with a high content of expression which was well explored by the Vocalconsort. It was a nice gesture to include them into the programme, as Blow is even lesser known than Purcell. These anthems prove that there is no reason to ignore him.

Four players then performed the Consort in F from Matthew Locke's Consort of Fowre Parts of 1660. The members of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin didn't play four viols, but violin, viola, viola da gamba and violone. It was a nice performance, although probably not really suitable for a large concert hall as Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn.

The last item on the programme was one of Purcell's most famous hymns, Rejoice in the Lord. It was not one of the highlights of the concert, I'm afraid. Again the balance between the three solo voices - alto, tenor and bass - was less than ideal: the alto part was hardly noticeable. There were some exaggerated dynamic accents, in particular by the tenor on "again" (I say rejoice). The word "rejoice" should have been singled out as this is the key in this particular passage of the text.

There was an encore: Purcell's famous Evening Hymn (Z 193), which is originally scored for solo voice and bc. Here it was performed in an arrangement, with the three sopranos from the Vocalconsort Berlin singing unisono, strings and bc. In my view this was a mistake. With three singers there is no room for some rhythmic freedom, which is what this piece is asking for. In this performance the amount of expression was seriously damaged, and the strings had nothing useful to add.

To sum it up: the performances were generally better than what I had expected, and there was much to enjoy. But there were also some serious flaws both in the performances and in the scorings.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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