Feature Review – Brecon Baroque Festival 2012

Written by: Warren Day

Music by C. P. E. Bach, J. S. Bach, Haydn, Monteverdi and Mozart

English Songs by J. C. Bach, Lawes, Linley and Purcell

Sian Winstanley (soprano)

Stephen Gordon (guitar)

Alison McGillivray (cello)

Brecon Baroque Ensemble & Festival Orchestra

Trinity Baroque

Brecon Cathedral Lay Clerks

Quintessential Sackbuts & Cornett Ensemble

Rachel Podger (violin & director)

Julian Podger (director)

Brecon Cathedral, Theatr Brycheiniog, Christ Church Chapel

Friday-Monday, October 26-29, 2012


Joyful, uplifting and delightful – these are all good words to describe the Brecon Baroque Festival, and the personality of co-founder and violinist Rachel Podger. This festival in south-east Wales takes place over the last weekend in October of each year. It starts in Brecon Cathedral, with most concerts taking place in the town’s Theatr Brycheiniog. As well as being popular with locals, some come from further afield; last year there was talk of a couple from New Zealand. The seventh Brecon Baroque Festival, entitled “Monteverdi to Mozart”, consisted of four concerts. How can you have Mozart at a festival of Baroque music? The vision was to show the progression through Baroque to early Classical.

Proceedings started with, in a sense, a delayed encore. Two years ago the 1610 Monteverdi Vespers was performed for its 400th-anniversary. This year his 1640 Selva Spirituale e Morale Vespers was performed, and on a larger scale. Led by visiting brother, Julian Podger, who directed, there were nine other members of his vivid and diverse Trinity Baroque, ten of the cathedral’s Lay Clerks adding their wonderful voices regularly throughout, and played by five string musicians from the lively and tight Brecon Baroque Ensemble and four members of (the presumably five-piece) Quintessential Sackbuts and Cornett Ensemble richly filling out the sound. The performance was started by a few members of Brecon Baroque from their initial position halfway along the Cathedral’s south aisle before joining the rest of the musicians in the chancel in front of the alter.

This work is a journey containing a wide diversity of emotional destinations, here rendered clearly, touchingly and vibrantly. This Vespers is an anthology of music in a variety of forms and groupings from which the director may select items. Julian Podger also inserted a few extra pieces by distinguished contemporaries of Monteverdi, each one appropriately matched in musical and emotional tone to that point on the journey. As the last of these additions was after the interval, this had the great effect of a subtle and mounting quickening; this slight switching of gears creating an increase in pace and focus towards the rousing, delightful and beautiful finale.

The Saturday-night concert was a festival stable; Rachel Podger leading an octet from Brecon Baroque Ensemble for music by the composer who has always meant the most to her, J. S. Bach. In this case a pair of concertos and a couple of cantatas. The members of the Ensemble have known each other for several years, bringing an effortless finesse to their dynamic, invigorating and lucid playing precisely delivering every twist and turn of this ornately written music. Podger’s persona is friendly and engaging. She gave concise and informative introductions, starting with a lively Violin Concerto in D, transposed from the Harpsichord Concerto (BWV1053, in E).

The rest of the concert featured Alexandra Bellamy on oboe, both for Concerto for Oboe and Violin (BWV1060) and two cantatas (BWV56 and BWV82). The expected bass Giles Underwood had laryngitis and couldn’t even speak. Fortunately one of the singers from Trinity Baroque knew both cantatas and stayed-on after the Vespers. Cantata 56 ends with a chorale, the congregation joining in, song-sheets handed out to the audience. Thus the usual proceedings were suspended while the singer became a playful leader and encouraging teacher, asking for the music to be played so it was known and giving feedback on how well we were doing to create an engaging and fun atmosphere.

The recruitment of a replacement musician also happened last year, resulting in a lunchtime recital with guitarist Stephen Gordon and soprano Sian Winstanley. They were invited back for a delightful English Songs concert held on the Sunday afternoon in the 800-year-old chapel on Christ College’s grounds. Unfortunately the echo-plagued acoustics of this venue aren’t ideal; I struggled to understand many words sung and spoken. Gordon started Henry Purcell’s ‘Fairest Isle’ on baroque guitar with precision and clarity. Soon Winstanley’s voice could be heard from the back of the chapel before she progressed along the central isle to join Gordon.

The programme continued the festival’s progression theme, starting in the early-17th-century and finishing in the mid-18th: six short songs by Thomas Lawes, then three each from Purcell, Thomas Linley and J. C. Bach. Gordon informatively talked through the guitar’s strings and their tuning; he then switched to a classical guitar, and for the encore played a modern guitar. A highlight was Linley’s O bid your faithful Ariel fly, due to Winstanley’s joyous delivery. Another high-spot was the beguiling encore by Villa-Lobos, an ideal vehicle for this coloratura singer. This duo works together very comfortably – a highly skilled guitarist and a very special singer giving a highly enjoyable recital, frequently fun and light-hearted, with a few sadder emotions for diversity and contrast.

It is Sian Winstanley’s deep love of singing that makes her performance so affecting. On the Monday evening her duty was to perform three arias Mozart had written for the same sister-in-law for whom he would later write The Queen of the Night role in Die Zauberflöte. Of similar vocal fireworks are Ah, se in ciel, benigne stelle (K538), Alcandro, lo confess (K294) and No, no, che non sei capace (K419). These sublime arias were delivered with pinpoint clarity and separated by C. P. E. Bach’s Cello Concerto in A minor (Wq 170), Mozart’s Violin Concerto in G (K216) and Haydn’s Symphony 49 in F minor (La Passione).

The cello concerto was a delight. Alison McGillivray had no qualms about confidently ensuring her instrument was front and centre sonically as well as exquisitely played, expressive, engaging and articulate, with great dexterity. The Mozart was another highlight. Rachel Podger has been described as Bach’s playmate; this could well be the case for Mozart given the level of mastery and focus in this performance, the accompaniment given with a variety of bows; a few musicians had the “new” classical bows with most still having the “cheaper” Baroque bows – authentic to this concert. Haydn’s ‘La Passione’ showed off the highly competent Festival Orchestra, full-sounding and made up of the professional Ensemble and around thirty hardworking amateurs, all doing a great job of overcoming the dry-sounding theatre. This vivid, gently dynamic, vigorous and soulful playing brought out the various colours of this symphony. The musicians and the audience typically socialised together in the bar afterwards.

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