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BACH, HANDEL & MOZART The Academy of Ancient Music at St John's Smith Square, 6 February & 14 March 2002, with observations about singing competitions and a note on the Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition of Belgium (PGW)

AAM, which mainly works abroad, has established a residency at St John's, under the joint directorship of Christopher Hogwood, Paul Goodwin and Andrew Manze, with such success that next season they will give concerts there monthly.

On their return from America, Christopher Hogwood conducted an unusual Mozart programme 14 March with Robert Levin (fortepiano). At the well attended introductory talk, Hogwood told of the vicissitudes of touring, and explained how they took repertoire for 1½ programmes, varying the items to keep fresh, abetted by Robert Levin who embellished Mozart's lead-ins in proper eighteenth century manner and improvised cadenzas differently each night, keeping everyone on their toes. In the C minor K491 concerto Levin made us attentive to the small voice of his Walther copy (the fortepiano 'speaks', whereas later pianos were developed to 'sing', explained Hogwood) and after the interval he improvised on melodic fragments written by audience members and with the orchestra played one of Mozart's favourite party pieces, the Concert Rondo K382 (Hogwood alerted us to the curiosity that the violas have the easiest part in all classical music, consisting of repeating A on the open-string - another such is the Purcell Fantasia Upon One Note). The concert had begun strongly with the first three movements of Mozart's Haffner Symphony, but its finale, saved to become the finale of the whole concert (as happened at its 1783 premiere) was hectic and ragged - maybe the musicians were a little tired and jet-lagged?

On 6 February, under Paul Goodwin, two recent prizewinners of the Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition of Belgium were featured in Bach and Handel; Olga Pasichnyk (soprano) & Marius Brenciu (tenor), who subsequently became winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. A Suite of six Bach Sinfonias compiled by Paul Goodwin proved a welcome change to more familiar fare, with opportunities for several solo instrumentalists of the AAM to shine. Olga Pasichnyk captivated the large audience with her charming appearance and relaxed, communicative manner in Handel's florid Motet Saeviat tellus inter rigores of around 1707.

The second half disappointed, with a lack-lustre account of Bach's Suite No 3 and vocal excerpts from Handel's 'Samson' in which Marius Brenciu confirmed the doubts about his triumphs which had been expressed widely at the time, e.g. Graeme Kay " - - If the requirements for a winning CSW are technique, musicianship and charisma -- an aggregation of 'star quality' -- then I have yet to discover it to the requisite degree in Marius." He sang loudly, with an uningratiating tone quality and little evidence of that love for music so irresistible with Olga Pasichnyk. My reservations were trumped by the two singers returning for an unfortunate encore in duet, Happy we from Handel's Acis and Galatea, with Brenciu shamelessly upstaging and overwhelming Pasichnyk, who wisely made no attempt to match his decibels.

My contrasted opinions of the two prize-winners are supported by listening to the Cypres CDs of the 2000 Queen Elizabeth Competition of, for which Paul Goodwin and the AAM were in Belgium to accompany the baroque items [CYP9610]. Olga Pasichnyk is a sheer delight in her Monteverdi and Handel; Marius Brenciu unremarkable in Evgeny Onegin, though better in the Flower Song from Carmen (hear him sing as Verdi's Macduff on line).

To celebrate 50 years of this prestigious competition, Cypres has also released a fascinating boxed set of 12 CDs covering all its first prize winners from its beginnings (salutary to realise how many of them have vanished) with a multitude of superb performances including future luminaries such as the young Leonid Kogan (1951) Leon Fleisher (1952) Vladimir Ashkenazy (1956) Gidon Kremer (1967) Vadim Repin (1989) Nikolaj Znaider (1997) and Mitsuko Uchida (10th prize 1968) - a feast of fine live music-making, mainly in complete works.

The Mozart Concert Rondo with the above artists is included with Concertos 11 & 13 on Decca L’Oiseau-Lyre 444 571-2OH, but some of these highly praised AAM recordings are no longer available and unfortunately, because of the troubles in the recording industry, the series may not be completed on that label.

Peter Grahame Woolf

The next AAM concert in London, Angels & Devils of the Violin, with Andrew Manze, has an attractive programme of Italian Baroque violin writing. St John's Smith Square, 11 June 7.30.

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