The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the direction of John Butt performed a characterful concert, full of unusual colours and textures. ‘Pipedreams’ took place in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s New Auditorium, a room perfectly designed to allow period instruments to shine.
The pre-concert talk given by Professor Donald Burrows of the Open University provided eager audience members with vivid insights into the relationship between the two composers featured in the concert. Unlike many other eighteenth-century composers, for whom scholars can only speculate what their shared interests may have been (beyond music, that is), George Frederic Handel and Georg Phillipp Telemann are known to have had a shared interest in horticulture; Handel sent rare plants and flowers to Telemann. However, the links in the concert went beyond Handel and Telemann simply knowing each other. Both experimented with known compositional conventions. Telemann chose to feature odd instrumental combinations in his concertos including the viola d’amore, recorder, and oboe d’amore. Meanwhile Handel ‘devised the notion of introducing an organ to the theatre’ by performing organ concertos in between the acts of his oratorios (Butt, 2018). This had the advantage of keeping his audience entertained and allowed Handel to take centre stage at the organ, showcasing his own virtuosic performing skills.
On the whole, the orchestra was quite small, and I was initially concerned as to whether they would cope with Handel’s lively, theatrical works, particularly the opening overture from Alexander’s Feast which opened the concert. My concerns were eliminated as soon as the very first chord was played. The quickness of the opening was almost shocking, and it highlighted the cohesiveness of the ensemble. Even on period instruments, this overture was rich and sonorous, but the real surprise came when the sound completely changed for the following Concerto for two violas (violettas) and strings in G by Telemann. The orchestra drew the audience into an intimate sound world, one that was sensitive to the delicate tones of the two soloists. The two violas, Max Mandel and Simone Jandl, were perfectly in sync with one another, further demonstrating their care and sensitivity to each other’s playing. I particularly liked that they subtly turned into each other so that they came off each note together cleanly. It was obvious the two players enjoyed their time in the limelight, particularly Jandl who smiled with joy throughout the concerto.
John Butt skilfully directed the orchestra from the harpsichord. Even when he moved behind the orchestra to the baroque chamber organ hand-built by Robin Jennings, he maintained a clear connection with the ensemble. The organ itself was perfectly chosen for this performance, with Butt highlighting in a video created by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment that the ‘variety of pipework allows it to blend with other instruments as well as taking a solo role’, and it is very close to the type of organ ‘Handel would have understood as an organ in Germany’ during the time he was alive (2018). The Organ Concerto in B flat Major, Op. 7 No. 1 was certainly an array of virtuosic delights, particularly the Bourée: Allegro, where Handel borrowed the main theme from one of his favourite harpsichord suites originally composed by Gottlieb Muffat (Kemp, 2018). The excitement in this final section would have made for a better close to the whole concert, rather than the end of the first half.
Much like a da capo aria, the structure of the second half was almost exactly the same as the first, opening with the overture from Handel’s 1739 oratorio Saul. We then returned to the experimental sound world of Telemann, who once again created an unusual duet between the baroque flute and recorder. It took a little while for my ear to adjust to the piercing sound of the recorder combined with the breathiness of the baroque flute, and at times the full orchestra overpowered the two soloists. However, in the quieter sections, Rachel Beckett (recorder) and Liza Beznosiuk (baroque flute) balanced their sound, creating unique and delicate textures.
The Concerto for oboe d’amore, viola d’amore, flute and strings in E was an interesting piece and I particularly enjoyed the ‘Siciliana’ movement where we could hear Telemann’s use of dance motifs However, the piece lacked lustre compared with the rest of the concert. The concerto was colourful, but it was too relaxed to take centre stage since it is reminiscent of courtly background music designed to create ambience, not distraction.
The concert returned to a livelier mood with Handel’s Organ Concert in G Minor. Butt once again showed his virtuosic skill on the organ, and the final movement, which featured ‘a gradually intensifying set of variations on a lightly dancing triple-time theme’ brought together the two different sound worlds prevalent in this concert. Handel’s music is certainly richer and more theatrical compared to the delicate, experimental compositions by Telemann, but the two composers presented together enabled a well-balanced and intriguing concert. The New Auditorium enhanced the music greatly as I was able to hear the tiniest details within this space. The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall should highlight this space as a perfect venue for early music performances in the future.
Kemp, Lindsay. (2018). The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Pipedreams. Thursday, 29th November. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall: Programme note.
Butt, John. (2018). ‘Introducing Handel’s Organ’. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Available from: https://bit.ly/2zIzrYI
Pipedreams was performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 29 November 2018.