S&H Concert Review

Bach, Geminiani, Handel, Purcell & Wassenaer Academy of Ancient Music/Andrew Manze. St John's Smith Square, London. 29 November 00 (PGW)

This evening launched AAM's auspicious new residency at St John's, with its favourable acoustics for their work and recordings. Andrew Manze, one of the greatest baroque violinists anywhere today, spoke before and during the concert, giving fascinating background information which enhanced enjoyment and appreciation of some exceptional music-making, of a type which has to be heard live. He is an easy raconteur, not using any notes, but showing us facsimile original documents to illustrate his fund of historical knowledge about the Academy and its 18. C predecessor, founded as a bulwark against modernist tendencies and dedicated to performing 'Ancient Music', i.e. music more than ten years old!

Handel would have known well the same St John's - bombed during the 2nd World War, it has been rebuilt to the original 1720 plans - he was the composer most regularly performed by the then Academy, and his concertos have never fallen out of the live repertoire since then. This concert included his ever popular Op 6/7 Concerto Grosso, one of twelve composed during a single month in manic haste, 'like a madman, writing at top speed, struggling all the time' - a one-way system was organised for the coaches and fours expected to descend on his house on publication day!

The Academy members were 'oblivious of Purcell's existence'. Manze set the scene for the delicious Gordian Knot Untied suite by anticipating the paradox that we would be listening to this miraculous music attentively, whereas the audience of the time (who had come for the - now lost - play!) would have chattered through the music!

Although the 'English' Bach (John Christian) was featured, his father J.S. (whose orchestral music was never published in his lifetime) was never was played by the London Academy, having been relegated to the 'old, fuddy-duddy German' category. Manze played J.S.Bach's A minor concerto BWV1041, and was not in the least phased by one of the orchestral violin strings breaking; he told the audience 'we need another instrument' and went off-stage to bring back his spare one for her and then continued, completely unruffled. Before that there was an engrossing music lesson, dissecting and re-assembling remarkable Puzzle Canons, giving a real insight into J.S.B's extraordinary mathematical mind.

Geminiani was a founder member of the Academy to which he dedicated his Op 7 concertos; he brought to London the fame of Italian fiddling virtuosity, and was at his best as an orchestrator. We heard his La Follia concerto after Corelli, preceded by what sounded to be an improvisation on the original Spanish tune by William Carter, baroque guitar.

Even more of a puzzle than Bach's canons was the detective story background to a suave, delightfully mellifluous Concerto Armonico (No. 6) by Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer*. Formerly attributed to a non-musician Ricciotti ('merely a courier') when first published, later to Pergolesi when reprinted (accepted as such by Stravinsky who borrowed some of the tunes for Pulcinella), finally and (nearly) decisively proven to be by a dilletante amateur nobleman, who only reluctantly agreed to their publication incognito - but, scholars still debate, how could they then be so good?

The orchestra played standing (Manze explained that he is a hard task-master, and insists on this - it was usual right into the 19th Century) and all the music was given with energy and loving phrasing which reflected their long experience of playing together and familiarity with the repertoire; they were just back from a lengthy USA tour.

A great evening; future concerts in this series are 2 February & 20 March 2001 (details from www.aam.co.uk or www.sjss.org.uk).

Peter Grahame Woolf

*Note: The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd Edition came on line 6 December http://www.grovemusic.com/, an auspicious day for on-line music journalism in which MusicWeb & Seen&Heard are at the forefront. It is fascinating to browse in it, and it offers not only compendious information but also, as does Seen&Heard, numerous links for further study. It is intended to consult it regularly as a backup for our reviews during a three month trial period which Seen&Heard has kindly been offered.

Here is a first 'trawl' result, re. the obscure and interesting Dutch composer Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer:-

- - - The Concerti armonici reveal a strong personal stamp and acquired considerable popularity under Pergolesi's name, and have proved no less popular under the name of the real composer.

Reference: A. Dunning: Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692-1766): a Master Unmasked, or The Pergolesi-Ricciotti Puzzle Solved (Buren, 1980)

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