Thursday, 19 May 2011

Academy of Ancient Music / Singapore Arts Festival 2011 / Review

ACADEMY OF ANCIENT MUSIC / Singapore Arts Festival 2011
Esplanade Concert Hall / Tuesday (17 May 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 May 2011 with the title "Pleasurable rare sounds".

It is no secret that Baroque music hardly gets heard in Singapore. On the rare occasion that Bach, Handel or Vivaldi is performed, it is invariably on modern instruments. The culture of period performance practice simply does not exist here, and we are poorer for it.

Thus it is always a pleasure when imported acts bring its lightness and litheness in sound textures into our concert halls. The Academy of Ancient Music (AAM), formed by Christopher Hogwood in 1973, is founded on the principles of authentic music-making. All its stringed instruments use gut strings instead of metal strings, producing a softer and mellow sound, which has far less vibrato than their modern counterparts.

Ensembles of antiquity also performed in much smaller venues, where the need for sound projection is less crucial. Having said that, the 18-member AAM directed by Richard Egarr from the harpsichord performed a varied programme that was intimate in sonority yet quite comfortably filled the vast expanse of Esplanade Concert Hall.

All the composers featured were familiar names, but the works were by no means often heard in concert. The Sinfonia from Handel’s opera Saul opened the show, an unusually extended piece in four parts alternating between fast and slow. If parts of it had a sense of déjà vu, it was because the opening theme resembled Lift Up Your Heads from Messiah.

The mainstay of the Baroque was the concerto grosso rather than the symphony, and Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in D major was a good example. The concertino group of soloists, two violinists and cello, provided the virtuoso element over and above the ripieno accompaniment, shining in its six movements.

Lead violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk was joined by oboist Frank de Bruine in J.S.Bach’s Concerto in C minor (BWV.1060), reconstructed from a concerto for two harpsichords. Over pizzicato strings, the pair in delicately interwoven roles sang as one in the Adagio, easily a highlight of the evening.

Further soloistic displays were afforded in a Vivaldi bassoon concerto with Ursula Leveaux, making the usually jocular woodwind sound like the perfect instrument of mourning. Director Egarr himself performed and ornamented two Handel organ concertos. The first in B flat major (Op.4 No.6), more often heard as a harp concerto, had such a soft and muted quality that a hearing aid in the audience was triggered off, providing an inadvertent whistling solo line to the music.

Purcell’s lovely Chaconne was a brief showcase of the art of variations, and the concert closed with Bach’s First Orchestral Suite. Despite being regularly recorded, it is seldom heard compared with its two successors. After the opening French overture, it is a succession of fast dances, all of which were performed with great zest and vitality. Two and a half hours passed ever so pleasurably, and the AAM waved goodbye with Handel’s bustling Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.

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