Academy of Ancient Music

Missa bruxellensis
Armonico tributo – Sonata V in G
Magnificat in D, BWV243

Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Joanne Lunn (soprano)
Michael Chance (counter-tenor)
Tim Mead (counter-tenor)
Rufus Müller (tenor)
Robert Murray (tenor)
Michael George (bass)
Stephen Richardson (bass)

Academy of Ancient Music Chorus

Academy of Ancient Music
Paul Goodwin

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 10 August, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There was a near-capacity audience for this Prom that included Biber’s extravagant Missa bruxellensis. The Bohemian composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) was renowned as a virtuoso violinist. During his long service with the Archbishop of Salzburg he also produced some fine sacred pieces, generally written for performance in the generous acoustic of Salzburg Cathedral. The Missa bruxellensis is one such and so-titled because the manuscript is housed in the Royal Library in Brussels. The scoring is lavish: two choirs (each with its own continuo section and group of soloists), two brass groups (trumpets and timpani comprising one, sackbuts and cornettos the other), and the centrally placed orchestra also has its own continuo. The layout made the most of the antiphonal possibilities of Salzburg Cathedral and transcribed well to the Royal Albert Hall.

The Mass opens with an exuberant ‘Kyrie’, which also introduces the main structural principals of the piece: antiphonal exchanges between various sections, contrasts between solo, concertante and tutti passages, and the replication of motifs at various pitches to vary the tension. The ‘Gloria’ offers further contrasts of verse setting and gave the excellent soloists a chance to shine, as did the ‘Credo’, which closes with a gloriously ornamented Amen. The fugal opening of the ‘Sanctus’, reinforcing the numerical symbolism of the Trinity, also served to build excitement, suspended momentarily by a magical duet between Emma Kirkby and Joanne Lunn. The ‘Agnus Dei’ rose from a subdued opening to a rich close, the ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ leaping into life in melismatic profusion.

This was a fine performance (although the tuning of the valve-less trumpets took some getting used to), with the soloists making significant contributions (the “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis” of the Credo being a high point). Both choir and orchestra, under the clear and confident direction of Paul Goodwin, underpinned the solo work with foliated columns of sound, making for a colourful and mind-opening listening experience.

Georg Muffat (1653-1704), a friend of Biber, studied with Lully before introducing the French style into Germany, and also encountered Corelli’s music (and Corelli himself) in Italy. The Armonico tributo set of sonatas is really a Corellian set of concerti grossi. Sonata V was performed here in a finely-wrought interpretation that made wonderful use of the different colours available from a continuo section comprising organ, harpsichord and three theorbos, one of which was exchanged for a baroque guitar in the final, exquisite ‘Passagaglia’ (sic).

Bach’s Magnificat was the closing item – and what a close! The soloists were again superb: a delicately poised “Quia Respexit” by Kirkby and Alexandra Bellamy (oboe d’amore), a rich, focussed “Quia Fecit” by Michael George, and a sharply characterised “Esurientes Implevit” were joys to behold. The chorus was astonishingly responsive, and accurate in intonation, articulation and balance, and added considerably to the tremendous power of Goodwin’s conception. The flowing ‘Gloria’, with a knockout trumpet entry in the last verse, only left us wanting more. These renditions can only enhance further the already considerable reputation of the Academy of Ancient Music.

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