Prom 73: Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr – Handel’s Coronation Anthems, Muffat, and Bach’s Air & Purcell’s Dido’s Lament arranged by Stokowski

Zadok the Priest
My heart is inditing
Armonico tributo – Sonata in G
Let thy hand be strengthened
Bach, arr. Leopold Stokowski
Orchestral Suite No.3 in D, BWV1068 – Air
Purcell, arr. Stokowski
Dido and Aeneas – When I am laid in earth [Dido’s Lament]
The king shall rejoice

Academy of Ancient Music
Richard Egarr

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 8 September, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)First, the curiosity. What does it mean for a ‘period’-performance ensemble to programme two Baroque pieces in arrangements by Leopold Stokowski designed precisely to exploit their latent musical possibilities through the medium of 20th-century musical resources? Was some subtle dialectical engagement with different performing traditions at play, or was it just some modish post-modern joke aimed at subverting or belittling a past frame of musical mind? Whatever the motivation, the result in the Bach and Purcell was not displeasing with the muffled, ghostly sound of the Academy of Ancient Music’s strings, but it was rather one-dimensional compared with the richer character that Stokowski had in mind, and despite the bizarre attempt by the AAM to ape the Romantic style with the use of vibrato and portamento.

The brisk accounts of Handel’s four Coronation Anthems during this late-night Prom suggested an attempt to ironise the regal ceremonial to which these compositions give voice so eloquently. The greater prominence of the throbbing oboes over the swift but subdued arpeggios of the violins at the opening of Zadok the Priest, the diminuendo before the sudden choral outburst, and the unduly emphasised upper note on the trill of “ever” in the melody for “May the King live for ever” all made the Anthem seem a caricature of itself rather than evoking the majestic.

Richard EgarrPhotograph: Marco BorggreveOn occasion the choral lies in the other Anthems developed a jauntiness which tended to make them sound a little craggy, but otherwise the polyphonic textures accrued a momentum of their own, to attain something of a dignified aspect, such as in the relatively broad “Alleluia” of ‘Let thy hand be strengthened’ and the last two sections of ‘The King shall rejoice’. The playing of the AAM provided spirited support if not always stirring, though happily the trumpets’ contribution was accurate and resplendent.

Richard Egarr directed a reading of more consistent composure in the G-major Sonata from Georg Muffat’s Armonico tributo (c.1682). It is a Concerto grosso in all but name, predating Corelli’s perfection of a form which integrates Italianate textures and musical style, though Muffat’s example adopts a French sensitivity too in availing itself of an ‘Allemande’. There was a nervous edge to the widely spaced and well-filled-in chordal interjections from Egarr on the harpsichord that punctuate the central ‘Fuga’, but otherwise the AAM exuded an attractively smooth timbre in engaging music which deserves further exploration. A curious programme, then, but it provoked thought and reflection.

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