Music in Oxford Back

Oxford Philomusica Summer Baroque: Virtuoso Bach, directed by Mahan Esfahani, Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 13 July.


W. A. Mozart: Il Rè pastore, New Chamber Opera, New College Oxford, 14 July 2012.


Two outstanding eighteenth-century musical events based on Oxford took place during July 2012; both had connections with New College. Oxford Philomusica, a professional orchestra in residence at the University, presented a series of five Summer Baroque concerts, with two of the programmes given also one at Bristol and one at Bath. New Chamber Opera gave, as its annual summer production, eight performances of Mozart’s early Il Rè pastore, this year given in the College Antechapel due to the unseasonal weather. I review here the concert of music by J. S. Bach, Pachelbel and Telemann given in the Sheldonian Theatre on the 13 July, and the opera performance on the 14th


The concert on 13 July was given by an ensemble of six violins and two violas, with cello and double bass continuo and with flautist Anthony Robb, all drawn from the full Philomusica orchestra and providing the soloists for the concertos. The concert was directed by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. Aged only twenty eight, of Iranian origin, Esfahani has to be regarded as one of the foremost musicians of his generation and as one of the leading harpsichordists since the revival of that instrument in the twentieth century. Having made an instant impact on Oxford audiences from his appointment as Artist in Residence at New College in 2008, he has now gained an international reputation, giving in 2011 the first solo harpsichord recital in the history of the BBC Promenade Concerts. A chance to hear him again, therefore, was a good reason to break my steadfast rule never to go to concerts in the Sheldonian ‘except for Handel, occasionally’ on grounds of lack of comfort for the expense. It paid off.


The programme consisted of four works by J. S. Bach; in the first half the Flute Suite (Suite No. 2) and the second Harpsichord Concerto sandwiching Telemann’s Concerto for four violins in D major and, in the second, the violin Concerto No. 1 and the fifth Brandenberg Concerto surrounding Pachelbel’s Canon in D major.


It was clear from the outset that Esfahani is also an exceptional director from the keyboard of baroque music, reminding me of Georges Enesco’s conducting, with the same ability to control every detail of the performance with the minimum of gesture and eye movement. Thus, for instance, perfect balance was achieved between flute and strings in the opening Suite with exquisite phrasing from Anthony Robb; in the Bach concertos, with  Anna-Liisa Bezrodny (the violin solo), he miraculously brought out the inner counterpoint of the string accompaniment, giving renewed interest to these familiar works. Despite playing on modern instruments with modern bows the strings brought an authentic sound to the music. The Telemann Concerto (previously unknown to me, apparently not to string players) was played by Natalia Lomeiko, Yuri Zhislin, Shlomy Dobrinsky and Bezrodny. It is a very attractive work helping to support my view that Telemann is the one ‘underrated’ composer for whom the epithet is deserved. A slight problem was the feeling of mal de mer induced by the swaying of the soloists in unison! The Pachelbel received a refreshingly clear performance as a three part canon with ground base stripping away the excesses which have made it a favourite among Classic FM audiences.


The one miscalculation was the choice of harpsichord (made in 1980 by Robert Goble and built around a 1728 Christian Zell instrument, not mentioned in the programme – shame). Although with beautiful tone, it was far too quiet to be heard even with this minimal number of strings. This was most unfortunate in the first movement of the Brandenberg Concerto (with violinist Tamás András, Robb and Efahani) where the extended keyboard cadenza only became audible when it became unaccompanied. On a positive note this gave prominence to the continuo playing of cellist Peter Adams (his chamber music playing has previously been noted as exceptional in Brahms and Schubert), which provided indefatigable and elegant support throughout the concert.


New Chamber Opera, founded in 1990 by Gary Cooper and Michael Burden of NewCollege, Oxford, seeks to promote chamber opera and music theatre in a number of ways. Through the NCO Studio it is heavily engaged with young singers (several of whom have gone on to forge international careers), staging two student productions a year. For opera audiences the main event of the year is the annual summer production, given in the Warden’s Garden (weather permitting) or the College Antechapel, on the decision of the Musical Director who conducts the accompanying Band of Instruments; this year the choice for Steven Devine was easy, though an over-optimistic attempt to hold the opening in the Garden was aborted after fifteen minutes. During a long interval, patrons enjoy picnic dinners on tables provided in the Cloisters.


This year’s opera was Mozart’s drama per musica, Il Rè pastore, his tenth, written at the age of nineteen in 1775. It was given eight performances; I saw it on the penultimate 14 July. I wish to remark that capitals and accents in the title seem to be optional (I adopt Köchel’s catalogue) but in any event the general rule is that titles should be given in the language of the production, in this case the English translation, as the Shepherd King, of Amanda Holden for Opera North. I have seen the opera once before in dress rehearsal at Drottningholm with little lasting impression. It was written to commemorate a visit to Salzburg by Archduke Maximillian returning from a visit to his sister Marie Antoinette I Paris. There he must have enjoyed Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, first performed for her in 1774, the year before. How did he compare Gluck’s revolutionary masterpiece with Salzburg’s offering? It is not clear whether the opera was first given in a staged (the Warden’s Garden could have been an ideal setting), semi-staged (as it was seen in Oxford) or concert performance. The text is based on Metastasio’s 1751 version of the story which had proved very popular with composers, there being at least twelve settings before Mozart (listed by Charles Osborne in The Complete Operas of Mozart – Gollancz 1978, including Gluck). This popularity is hard to understand from Mozart’s version: the plot is very light weight. As drama, compared to the ultimate opera seria, Idomineo, written only six years later in 1781, it is very weak indeed. But it is redeemed by the music, a succession of recitative, solo aria and duet of great beauty, intricacy and flamboyance and requiring the utmost control and endurance from the singers.


There is a cast of five: Alessandro, soft-hearted tyrant, and two pairs of lovers: Aminta, the shepherd king, heir to the usurped throne of Sidon, and Elisa, daughter of wealthy parents disguised as a shepherdess, requiring their consent to marry and Agenori, loyal follower of Alessandro, in love with Tamiri, daughter of the defeated ruler of Sidon. The story is one of the victory of love over duty. Alessandro seeks out Aminta to proclaim him King of Sidon but wishes him to wed Tamiri. Elisa, Agenori and Tamiri are willing make the sacrifices to go along with this, each with their own motives of duty and loyalty to the Emperor but Aminta, in an aria reminiscent of Edward VIII’s abdication speech, puts his foot down. When Alessandro grasps the situation, he changes his mind and all ends happily in a triumphal quintet.


The five singers, led by Kate Semmens in the demanding role of Aminta, are uniformly superb. Semmens herself who has appeared in most of the recent productions is better than ever, having controlled her over-mannered style of acting noted on previous occasions. Unlike some of the others she showed no sign of fatigue at the end. With Rachel Shannon as Elisa, she gave a touching portrayal of pastoral love while Tom Raskin and Merryn Gamba formed a feistier pair as Agenore and Tamiri; Kevin Kyle, Alessandro, had a rather light voice for the dominating presence of an Emperor, not fully convincing in commanding the acquiescence of the lovers. As usual, the seven-strong Band of Instruments, led by Caroline Balding, directed from the keyboard by Steven Devine, provided ideal support for the singers. Only once was there a near-failure of synchronisation due to the separation of singers and band. Michael Burden’s direction of the action provided a visual dimension which partly compensated for the absence of the Garden setting. Once again I must compliment the costume designers Dinah Lincott and Fiona Hodges for striking exactly the right note in representing the (supposed) social status of the characters.