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.

Review: Bach’s St John Passion from Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican

Academy of Ancient Music with Iestyn Davies, James Gilchrist, Mary Bevan, and Cody Quattlebaum

This was a mesmerising performance, the emotional impact of which lingered after the final note sounded, and long into the warm and enthusiastic applause. There was an immediacy to the drama that made the penultimate chorus hard-earned and well-deserved. The effect was harrowing and poignant. Necessary.

Part One saw performers on stage need to adjust slightly. The chorus was a little strident in the fortissimos, and occasionally lagged behind the orchestra in ensemble, notably in Jesum von Nazareth and the chorale Wer hat dich so geschlagen.

But strength was found in Evangelist James Gilchrist who shone throughout the performance combining shapely contours and a pristine tone, with a touching humble presence.

Making his UK debut was US baritone Cody Quattlebaum with a delectably deep rich voice that belied his age and pinned us to the wall. The melisma of Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen, a stunning performance of Betrachte, meine Seel being one of many highpoints.

Cody Quattlebaum is a gratifyingly hot ticket. It’s rare I get excited by singers. He is on my special list.

Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies – silky and smooth – appeared to be holding back slightly in Part One. But like the chorus, he returned to the stage for Part Two with a much-appreciated clarity and a slightly less demonstrative presence.

Mary Bevan who stepped in for originally billed Lydia Teuscher a clear blue tone and razor sharp clarity throughout, but delivered a stunning Zerfliesse, mein Herze, with an electrifying crescendo in the final few bars.

If the chorus had experienced mild-difficulties in Part One these were, like the tonal consensus amongst the soloists, ironed out in the second half. At times as though we were hearing a different chorus – a tighter more alert ensemble. Ware dieser nicht ein Ubeltater was a blisteringly urgent affair. Similarly Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn!

The chorus’ best was saved until near the end during the crushing but also hopeful Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine. People cried, I kid you not.

A performance that touches will last beyond the auditorium. Rare things. This was one of them. A deeply moving experience on a special day.

James Gilchrist features on the Academy of Ancient Music's recording of St John Passion directed by Richard Egarr. It's available to stream on Spotify.

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Review: Correlli, Handel and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with the Academy of Ancient Music, Keri Fuge, and Tim Mead

The Academy of Ancient Music present themselves as a modest, unassuming bunch on stage. Professionals who have studied hard and continue to develop their art by immersing themselves in the music and practise they love. Their work often feels like music produced in labaratory conditions. A band to be cherished.

They’re currently touring the south of the country with a programme of Correlli, Handel and Pergolesi. I heard the opening night on Thursday last week at Milton Court.

The opening work – Correlli’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.1 in D minor had moments of tenderness in the opening largo, though some of the bass line articulation was lost in the mix during the allegro that followed. The combined dominant bass line masked the interplay between the first and second violin. I wanted to hear the complex articulation across all of the instrumentation but there were times when that was lost.

The balance issues followed during the first two Handel cantatas. Ah! Che troppo ineguali saw soprano Keri Fuge’s competing against the band that needed to dial things back slightly. This sorted itself out towards the end. The addition of counter-tenor Tim Mead for the second of the cantatas –  Il Duello Amoroso – helped secure the balance. The line E vanta d’un cor was utterly ravishing.

Such pedantry on my part won’t be applicable come the later gigs in the tour by which time the balance issues will have been ironed out.

Where this concert really came alive was during the second half performance of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, possibly because first and second violins were sat next to each other. This resulted in a far more sympathetic, supportive and disciplined ensemble. Here the band played with grit and bounce.

Of particular note was complexity of the harmony exposed in the line dum emsit spiritum. Also, the organic quality of the string sound – especially in the pianissimos – contributed to a compelling sense of jeopardy.

Especially high appreciation from me for Tim Mead’s porcelain voice throughout the performance, but in particular during the aria Fa cut portem Christi mortem. Mead sings with a captivating delicacy and precision.


Academy of Ancient Music’s tour of ‘Mortal Voices’ continues on Tuesday 20 February (The Apex, Bury St Edmunds), Friday 23 February (Assembly Rooms, Bath), concluding on Thursday 1 March (Turner Sims Concert Hall)

Listen to a recording of Pergolesi’s Academy of Ancient Music with Emma Kirkby and James Bowman on Idagio or Spotify

Edinburgh Diary – Thursday 24 August 2017

I’m visiting the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Fringe from Monday 21 – Friday 25 August.

Whilst I’m here I’m making appearances as co-host on Ewan Spence’s Edinburgh Fringe Podcast.  And I’m keeping a diary, just as you’d expect every good blogger to do.

I hate writing the date. It seems so late in the year. Summer is running out of juice. Autumn is on the horizon. Festivals are coming to an end.

EIF and the Edinburgh Fringe concludes on Tuesday next week, the Proms a couple of weeks after that. Sad. Freedom is slowly being extinguished.

Academy of Ancient Music / Edinburgh International Festival

I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew.

I agreed to go to the Academy of Ancient Music’s Thursday concert at the Queen’s Hall before I’d accounted for the distance between the concert venue and Rose Street where the podcast is recorded. The podcast started an hour after the concert started, and it takes 25 minutes to get from one venue to the other.

I heard the first twenty minutes of the concert (which had in itself taken half an hour to walk to) and then I had to head back.

Listen to it on BBC iPlayer. The first work – the Telemann – is amazing.

Oh, and I made it to the podcast with 5 minutes to spare. Nice.

Second Edinburgh Fringe Podcast

I thought this morning about the joy of the podcast process.

I realise that I’m not especially keen on the technicalities (although I do understand them), and I really do despise editing.

That’s why I like recording things in one ‘stab’ – know as ‘as live’ if you’re interested in the jargon. I like sitting down in front of a microphone and sparring with someone. I liked doing it at LBC, and I like doing it here. There’s a running order, of course, but in the space of 60 minutes things just happen. Questions naturally arises. Banter bubbles up without warning. It’s quite an amazing thing.

What interested me this morning was the memory of me doing it quite a lot in the workplace too. Treating the office environment like a platform, joshing, bantering, and cajoling people I came into contact with.

I remember how draining it became.

Being ‘up and perky’ during the working hours was exhausting.

I did it for a hit – I got something back from it. But the more I do it, the more I became aware of my underlying feelings of droopiness. What I was saying out loud didn’t equate with how I felt deep down.

There’s an analogy that might help here. Think of the experience of stepping into a church and suddenly being aware of the fustiness in the air. It’s not a pleasant smell especially, but its one we’re all familiar with. In theory, its a smell we don’t want to have around. You’d think we’d want to do something about the damp and eradicate the smell, but we don’t because we’re OK with it.

Same with the banter thing I did at work. Habitual. Addictive. Inauthentic.

That said, the third podcast was great. I got to meet a professional broadcaster, a playwright, an actress, and a man with a very deep voice. It all went rather well. Loved it.

Brutal Cessation / Milly Thomas

This was the highpoint of my day.

I’m fascinated about the playwriting process, how a writer has to conjur up characters, issues, and dialogue, and then trust other people to bring those elements to life.

It is a remarkable collaboration, and something I think I’d struggle to feel comfortable with.

Brutal Cessation is unrelenting story about a disintegrating relationship. It’s uncompromising, necessary, and inspiring.

It’s also a brilliant thing. I walked away from it with a new resolve, and a copy of the script under my arm.



Academy of Ancient Music’s trail for Monteverdi Vespers on 23 June 2017

I’m impressed with the AAM’s latest video promotion for their upcoming Monteverdi Vespers gig at the Barbican Concert Hall on Friday 23 June 2017.

Monteverdi is a hard-sell on me – it’s not my go-to experience, but the video hooks me in with some simple techniques:

– Rich colour palette with a mixed selection of unexpectedly complimentary fonts
– Straight-forward storytelling conveyed in text
– Swift and engaging present-day contextualisation of a composer’s work
– Meaning conveyed without audio
– Simple audio track conveys excitement of concert-going experience

The content is surprisingly straightforward to achieve. At it’s simplest level, it’s a series of slides displaying a couple of sentences, underneath which a gently moving background (a video loop) gives an air of sophistication to the finished product. The final slide contains the concert times and venue. Tracking all of the slides is a series of three crossfaded audio clips, mixing auditorium ambience, and sequences from a recording.

A simple eye-catching piece of content that doesn’t take very much in terms of time or software to turn it around.

One thing I would have liked to have seen is the video clip appearing on AAM’s Twitter feed, and definitely the Barbican’s Twitter feed. Cross-posting seems like a no-brainer. Good content like this needs to be seen more.