Baroque Glories 23 May 2013

Baroque imageWarm Italian sunshine greeted the audience on a cool Exeter evening at the Philharmonic’s concert last Thursday,

in the form of a programme of ‘Baroque Glories’ (no exaggeration), dedicated to music by Pergolesi, Vivaldi and Handel, in his immediate post-Italian period. One of the masterpieces of the Italian Baroque, Vivaldi’s famous Gloria, was preceded by two lesser-known works, the Magnificat attributed to Pergolesi, and one of Handel’s numerous Chandos Anthems, O Praise the Lord.  The concert was completed by a performance of the well-known Adagio attributed to Albinoni, which preceded the Vivaldi at the start of the second half.

Even though its attribution to Pergolesi is questionable, the Magnificat which opened the programme is a fine work, fully worthy of regular performance.  The bright opening chorus set the tone for what would be an evening of outstanding choral singing, and the soloists’ contributions here were also notable, in particular the fine singing of soprano Nicola Wydenbach, and baritone Martin Shaw.  The composer’s setting of the well-known text in places shows great imagination, and considerable invididuality.  There was a fine duet for tenor and bass, ‘Suscepit Israel’, and an impressive penultimate chorus, ‘Sicut erat in principio’, leading, by way of an effective change of harmony, to a triumphant final ‘Amen’.

Fine though this work is, there was no doubt that the Chandos Anthem which followed is the work of a great composer.  The choral forces available at the home of the Duke of Chandos in 1718 were doubtless nothing like the size of the Philharmonic, but the extra power provided by over a hundred voices underlined the majesty of much of the choral writing.  Even with such an early work, written almost a quarter of a century before Messiah, one was reminded of Sir Thomas Beecham’s dictum about Handel: “no more noble sounds ever issued from the human throat.”  Parts of the anthem shared something of the difficulty for the singers of Handel’s earlier Dixit Dominus, performed a few seasons ago by the Choir, but these were negotiated with comparative ease, in particular by the hard-worked tenors.  Handel’s treatment of his text shows even at this early stage of his career in England a comfortable familiarity with the language and its expressive potential.  The programme note rightly drew attention, amongst several musical felicities, to the chorus ‘With cheerful notes let all the earth to heaven…’, where Handel clearly anticipates the disappearing heavenly host at the end of Messiah’s ‘Glory to God’ in depicting man’s praises rising to heaven.

The Adagio which began the second half of the concert, attributed to Albinoni but quite unlike that master’s music in general, was performed by the excellent small chamber ensemble assembled to accompany the Choir for the concert.  It was played at an ideal tempo, and most expressively, though the very intensity of the performance underlined the essentially Romantic nature of Giazotto’s composition, making what ostensibly seemed an ideal piece to accompany the choral works in the programme a somewhat less than convincing interlude in an otherwise completely Baroque programme.

The Choir had sung splendidly thoughout the first half of the concert, with no suggestion that the two less familiar works performed had been new to the singers, one assumes, only a few months before.  The Vivaldi Gloria, a work no doubt familiar to many in the Choir, was given a thrilling performance, with every great chorus making its due impact.  The fame accorded this work is fully merited, so imaginative, beautiful and dramatic is Vivaldi’s treatment of the familiar text.  After the joyous opening ‘Gloria’, how thought-provoking of the composer to set the succeeding ‘Et in terra pax’ to music of the most sombre eloquence, perfectly realised in Andrew’s  performance.  The duet ‘Laudamus te’ brought out the best in the two female soloists, Mary Burman here joining Nicola Wydenbach and matching her bright tone most effectively.  Another memorable moment was the dark-hued aria ‘Domine Deus’, accompanied with extraordinary eloquence by the solo ‘cello.  As with the Handel, one doubts whether Vivaldi would ever have heard his most famous choral work given with the choral forces present at The Mint, but the great weight of sound produced by the Choir – enhanced by the highly resonant acoustic – served only to enhance the grandeur of much of Vivaldi’s writing.  The return of the opening music on the words ‘Quonian tu solus sanctus’, leading to the majestic culminating fugue on ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, underlined the fact that this is a chorus worthy of comparison with Handel at his finest.

At the conclusion of each work in the concert, but particularly of course at its end, the intensity of the applause was eloquent testimony to the evening of outstanding music-making which everyone in the audience had enjoyed.

Nicola Wydenbach soprano
Mary Burman mezzo soprano
Edward Woodhouse tenor
Martin Shaw baritone
David Davis organ
Chamber Orchestra

Conductor Andrew Millington

The Mint Methodist Church, Exeter

 Paul Teal

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