Review: Academy of Ancient Music

JOE CONWAY: ‘Volatile, unpredictable and delightfully wayward, each of the sonatas included a flurry of different moods and emotions enclosed within a single movement.’

Aleksandra Anisimowicz Lamento D'Arianna Paula Chateauneuf Pavlo Beznosiuk Richard Egarr Rodolfo Richter

26th April 7.30pm at West Road Concert Hall. £27/£20/£14/£5

There were two preliminary happenings before this concert got underway, both of them very typical of the best traditions of the early music movement.
Richard Egarr, director of the Academy of Ancient Music, kicked off the evening at 6.30 with an informal and informative pre-concert chat. Dashing to the harpsichord to demonstrate various musical points, and spilling sheet music all over the place in his infectious enthusiasm, Richard gave us the lowdown on the origins of Baroque music in early 17th century Venice. His talk epitomised the educational approach of so many early musicians, and helped prepare the audience for what was essentially an evening of musical time-travel.
Then from 7pm the chitarrone player Paula Chateauneuf was to be seen onstage busily tuning her extraordinary instrument. It towered at least a foot above her head and, with a dozen or more strings, it needed all the tuning it could get! Some people might argue that the place for preparation of this sort is offstage. My own view is the opposite. To me this kind of openness and attention to detail says everything about the players' commitment to high standards and their love of their instruments. Which is another endearing part of the early music tradition.
When the concert went up in earnest at 7.30 we were finally whisked away to the Venice of Claudio Monteverdi and Dario Castello, the two composers featured on the programme. In recent decades 'Monty' has become a favourite name with classical music lovers but before this concert I thought Castello was just a district of Venice! Yet the composer's six sonatas 'In Stil Moderno' proved totally ravishing even on a first hearing. One of their strengths was that no two of them were scored for the same forces. Most of the sonatas featured two baroque violins, played with stunning expertise and evident affection by Pavlo Beznosiuk and Rodolfo Richter. Many of them also included either a dulcian – a kind of early bassoon – played with fiendish dexterity by William Lyons, or a baby cello placed vertically on top of a piano stool and played sympathetically by Joseph Crouch. Meanwhile Paula on her outsize lute and Richard on harpsichord and organ provided colourful accompaniments.

Volatile, unpredictable and delightfully wayward, each of the sonatas included a flurry of different moods and emotions enclosed within a single movement. They made an excellent foil to seven sacred and profane vocal pieces by Claudio Monteverdi.

For these the Academy of Ancient Music was joined by the stunning soprano Aleksandra Anisimowicz. With a voice of incisive beauty and a strong stage presence she contributed obvious but indefinable star quality. (I would have said the X Factor, but this is a serious review, isn't it?) Whether she was singing bell-like alleluias in Exulta Filia Sion or making angry outbursts in Lamento D'Arianna, Aleksandra was simply riveting. Performing for at least half of the concert she demonstrated a voice that was wide-ranging and flexible, neat and nimble, and enhanced by appropriate ornamentation and sparing vibrato. Her presence transformed the texture of the concert from intimate music-making among friends to something much more like a public operatic performance.

And yet, I must confess that as I left West Road, I did have one reservation. There was no question that the programming was easy to grasp – with its alternations between the short instrumental and vocal items. But didn't it become a bit too much of a good thing eventually? Maybe a more extended piece after the interval might have helped to avoid predictability and might have provided the climactic moment that this concert aspired to but didn't quite reach.