Review: Academy of Ancient Music play Purcell at the Barbican

Increasingly I find I’m writing blog posts not to provide an extant account of a concert I attended. I always think such long rambling posts run the risk of demonstrating knowledge rather than providing actual insight. 

Instead I’m wanting to record the memory of an experience. To capture a moment. At the very least, it should be something I can look back on in a few years time and be reminded of exactly what was going on and what I was thinking in response to the experience. Isn’t that what art is meant to be?

So it is with the Academy of Ancient Music’s most recent concert at the Barbican concert hall this week – a part-dramatised selection of Purcell-related titbits in the first half, and a semi-staged performance of Dido and Aeneas in the second. An important musical moment for me. Gripping. Absorbing. Electrifying.

Part of that was down to the impact of the location. The Academy of Ancient Music’s players didn’t number highly on stage – maybe 10 – which meant at first, even when they were combined with the chorus, they appeared dwarfed in the Barbican interior.

Purcell’s music works surprisingly well in that interior. We listen in a more focused way. By leaning in we listen more attentively. We form a closer bond with the musicians on stage.

It’s deceptively simple music too. The complex chromaticism is hidden. There’s  both delicacy and unequivocal strength about it. The sparse scoring amplifies the musical expression inherent in the Purcell’s melody, harmony, and instrumentation. 

The precision in the music was emphasised in the second half by the presence of puppets depicting the action in the semi-staged version of Dido and Aeneas – the dramatic equivalent of bold, italics and underline in Microsoft Word. Subtle shifts in the music by tiny moves of haunted puppets – physical movements emphasising emotional shifts in the music. That the singers and puppeteers, only had a week to rehearse together makes the compelling creation all the more remarkable.

What we might be collectively overlooking is that successful communication is partly down to the musicians on stage. Less an orchestra, more a collective of soloists expressing individual musical lines because they live and breath both the repertoire and the style of playing. It’s playing that brings the core of Purcell’s creation to the fore, makes us in the audience lean in, makes us listen more attentively and, in the case of me at least, makes us leave the auditorium finally feeling like we ‘get’ Purcell. It’s taken a long time. I’ve always been late to the party. 

The grit in the oil for me is the widely accepted conceit of any orchestra, exposed here because of the nature of Purcell’s music and the historically informed performance of it.

The Academy of Ancient Music’s brand is effectively a collection of extremely dedicated, highly experienced and passionate communicators, able to draw on rapport, shared devotion and a collaborative vision.

The same could be said of any orchestra. But it’s more marked when the group is playing music originally composed for only a handful of musicians.

That a brand’s success is dependent on such a small bunch of brilliant players means those player’s individual contributions need to be called out explicitly. 

Picture: Dido and Aeneas – A funeral for the Queen of Carthage in the Barbican October 2018. Photo by Mark Allan.

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