Review: Academy of Ancient Music

JOE CONWAY : ‘James’s diction was consistently clear, even in Where’er You Walk, with its notorious continuation Cool gales shall fan the glade! (Try saying that after a few May Ball drinks!)’

Handel Pavlo Besnoziuk Purcell Richard Egarr west road William Carter


17th June 7.30pm at West Road Concert Hall. £27/£20/£14/£5

Like the last AAM concert I attended, this event really got underway with a pre-concert chat at 6.30. It ended three hours later with a barely perceptible offstage French horn solo wafting up from the depths of West Road Concert Hall. Or, to put it more succinctly, it began with musicology and ended with magic . . .

The introductory talk was given by Richard Egarr, harpsichordist and director of this prestigious early music band. He made the point that the music of people like Purcell and Handel heard in the first half of the programme, exerted a considerable influence on composers like Finzi and Britten heard in the second half. Despite a gap of three hundred years between them.

Other threads in Richard's discourse concerned the difference in concert pitch then and now – basically it's been on the up-and-up for more than three centuries! He also touched on the parallel between Handel and his favourite tenor John Beard, and Britten's fruitful relationship with Peter Pears. In fact at the end of Richard's talk I felt like blowing the dust off my musicology folders and doing some serious research! Fortunately there wasn't time for this, as the event soon turned from theory to practice.

In Handel's Sonata a 5 the solo violinist was Pavlo Besnoziuk. Taking evident delight in this exhilarating score, Pavlo added some scintillating ornamentation to his first movement solos and made the most of opportunities in the finale, including an embryonic cadenza. Richard Egarr at the harpsichord and William Carter with his outsize lute – or was it a young theorbo? – provided an accompaniment that was full of animation and attack.

The two continuo players were then joined by tenor James Gilchrist for three songs by Purcell. Lord What Is Man? was unhurried and unforced and set the tone for what was to come. A little later James performed four Handel arias including the quite lovely Waft Her Angels.

Although he's a genuine tenor James also inflects his voice with a baritone timbre at times, and occasionally there's even a hint of the alto. He performed all the songs from memory, and his diction was consistently clear. Even in Where'er You Walk, with its notorious continuation Cool gales shall fan the glade! (Try saying that after a few May Ball drinks!)

Yet another issue raised in Richard Egarr's talk concerned an authentic approach to string-playing for the works on the programme. In the first half all the instruments and bows were Baroque with gut strings, and what a sumptuous sound the large band made in the Handel accompaniments!

After the interval though there was a major change of gear. In less than half an hour three centuries had elapsed and the instruments were relatively modern, with a mixture of gut and metal strings reflecting early 20th century practice. Richard's harpsichord had disappeared and he was reincarnated as a conductor – and a very alert and decisive one too. In Gerald Finzi's charming Romance there was less scooping – sliding up and down the string – than I'd expected but the strings, now nineteen strong, produced a gloriously rich sound for this bitter-sweet piece.

The last remaining performer in this concert was the distinguished French horn-player Michael Thompson. He kicked off Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings with a solo of resplendent richness. Okay, for those of you who think that a critic's job is pointing out flaws, there was a momentary fluffed note and some very slightly dodgy intonation. But so what? As far as I'm concerned this radiant performance of a wonderful work was beyond criticism. It contains at least three of Britten's very best songs – Nocturne, Dirge, and Hymn – and that's saying something! James Gilchrist sang with conviction and commitment, and Michael Thompson added many a sweet touch before he brought the piece and the concert to its unearthly conclusion.