The Sunday Times
There was The English Concert's Festival night at Christ Church Spitalfields, when Laurence Cummings directed superbly poised accounts of Bach's Magnificat in D and his cantata 'Schwingt freudig euch empor'.
The Daily Telegraph
This was a remarkable evening. A very remarkable evening. An exceptionaly remarkable evening ... there seemed to be a consensus among the audience that this practically flawless performance of Bach's B minor Mass was something quite extraordinary ... With first-rate forces at his disposal, Bicket created a wonderfully organic entity and an indelibly poignant, probing performance of Bach's masterpiece.
The Arts Desk
Bicket and his musicians produced a beautifully judged interpretation ... the warmth and fulness of their sound was the first delight ... then there were the tempi. Rather than the uniform lickety-spit pace favoured by some period bands, there was a deeply satisfying balance of speed and moods ... Rich and expansive one moment, crisply exuberant the next, their [the Choir's] multi-faceted performance was a triumph not just of technique and choral cohesion, but crucially also of emotional expression. The orchestra was on equally brilliant form ... As performances of the B minor Mass to, this one was life-affirming in the extreme.
The Independent on Sunday
Bicket's thoughtful, spacious B minor Mass was generoulsy phrased and naturally paced ...
Laurence Cummings and the musicians of The English Concert did fine things with Handel and Scarlatti. They also gave us Corelli's D minor Sonata for Violin and Continuo, 'La Follia', its exacting solo lines beautifully sculpted by Nadja Zwiener.
The Arts Desk
It’s not often that a performance of Purcell's King Arthur requires its entire cast of singers to strip down to very tight Union Jack boxer shorts. It's not often either that the audience find themselves actively encouraged to talk over the music, yet both were unexpectedly and riotously true last night at the Spitalfields Festival. Pairing Baroque big-hitters The English Concert and I Fagiolini, there was nothing half-hearted about this semi-staging of Purcell's semi-opera. It promised much and delivered more, and while those listening live on Radio 3 might have enjoyed better textural balance, they can’t have had nearly as much fun as the sell-out crowd sweltering away in Shoreditch Church...
There’s an intent and a precision to the music-making of both The English Concert and I Fagiolini that sets them apart from their rivals. Their meticulous attention to detail could result in fussiness, but paradoxically creates a kind of freedom – the beautiful anarchy that can only come from absolute control. As a listener it's exhilarating to be invited to lose oneself in such expertly crafted fantasy, though the danger of never wanting to emerge is a real one. This may have been a one-night-only show, but I have no intention of quitting Purcell's magic forests for at least another week.
This performance of Purcell's King Arthur opened with its conductor, Robert Hollingworth, requesting that the audience talk through the overture. In the 17th century, people didn't shut up until someone appeared on stage, so we all nattered away until the evening's narrator, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, swept on to the platform and kicked off what proved to be an engagingly quirky take on Purcell's odd near-masterpiece, performed by Spitalfields Music.
King Arthur is a play with masques rather than an opera – and the play, a prolix effort by John Dryden, has proved problematic. Jettisoning the dialogue is nowadays common practice, though in this instance a new narration was provided by Timothy Knapman: this summarised the work's plot (King Arthur subdues a Saxon rebellion) and cast a wry look at its politics, which envision a unified Britain, secure in its domestic harmony.
Musically, it was for the most part delightful. Hollingworth's vocal group I Fagiolini joined forces with The English Concert, whose music director Harry Bicket was the evening's harpsichordist. Purcell's score subversively suggests that this "fairest isle" is something of an erotic pleasure palace, and there were plenty of sensual instrumental textures and some finely suggestive singing.
Matthew Long swaggered his way through Come If You Dare with great panache, while Julia Doyle and Emma Tring made a nicely wicked pair of Sirens. There was an appealing Aeolus from Thomas Guthrie, who also directed the semi-staging, which cleverly utilised the church's space, but suffered from occasional slips in tone. The Saxons' German accents were a mistake as were the union flag knickers worn by the cast for the communal love-in that marks the passing of winter and the arrival of spring.
The Daily Telegraph
Back in the Seventies, The English Concert were trailblazers in the “historically informed” performance of Bach and Handel and Mozart. Audiences were amazed to hear this music played on instruments appropriate to the period, and with a dancing kind of expressivity rather than a heavy, romantic one. In recent years younger groups have muscled into this territory, but this event was a reminder that The English Concert can still show these Young Pretenders a thing or two not least because it has brought plenty of new blood into the ranks.
On this occasion they explored the century-long love affair of the English with the Italian composer Arcangelo Corelli. There was something in his gravely beautiful music that appealed to the English soul, and canny composers cashed in by producing cover versions, turning modest sonatas into full-blown concertos.
Some of the products of this Corelli-mania were displayed in this concert. They have a fascinating emotional tone, chaste and wild at the same time, which these performers caught perfectly. Geminianis take on Corellis famous La Follia sonata (which also fascinated Liszt and Rachmaninov) had a tremendous explosive energy, but also strange spectral moments where the tempo ground mysteriously to a halt. Here, as elsewhere the orchestras leader, Nadja Zwiener, really shone, switching in an instant from plaintiveness to fury.
Still, it has to be said that the star of this show was the snappily dressed, willowy figure of recorder player Maurice Steger. Anyone who thinks the recorder is fit only for school assemblies would have been forced to think again by Stegers amazing virtuosity, which somehow soared over the instruments limitations. The rapid passagework in Corellis F major Concerto emerges as a barely audible bird-like twittering, but Steger made it so crystal-clear that it pushed through the orchestral sound without difficulty.
This offered the wow factor, but more striking was the way Steger draped expressive ornaments over the melodies of the slow movements, creating a luxuriant melancholy at each dying fall by leaning on the dissonant notes. Even grandeur isnt beyond his reach, as was shown by a riveting performance of the Sarabande from Corellis 7th sonata. The unknown arranger added to the sense of unfolding majesty by bringing in more instruments (though I imagine director Laurence Cummings had a hand in this too), while over the top Steger floated a lovely line, fragile and droopingly expressive and dignified all at once.
The Independent on Sunday
The publishing sensation of the 18th century, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater remains the composer's best-known work, its sculptural beauty undeniably enhanced by the tragedy of his early death at the age of 26. It is easy to succumb to the opening movement's grief-drugged walking bass and sighing suspensions. (Pergolesi had already used these in his Salve Regina.) But what of the rest? What of the panting trills, the up-tempo, major-key flames of judgement, the scandalous physicality of Neapolitan passion? To northern European ears, much of the Stabat Mater sounds impious, even flippant. Yet Harry Bicket's exquisitely poised reading with Susan Gritton, Sara Mingardo and The English Concert revealed a work of consummate seriousness and pathos.
This was a Stabat Mater in the model of an altarpiece, its opening and closing duets as clear-eyed and consoling as a pietà, the movements between them miniature dramas of scourging and sorrow. From the scorching trills of "Cujus animam gementem", to the revulsion and horror of "Quae morebat", the violent shifts between major and minor in "Quis est homo", and the gasping syllables of "Vidit suum", the crucifixion is related in striking instrumental detail. Though Anna Caterina Antonacci had been scheduled to sing until a few hours before the performance, Gritton brought a purity of timbre that ideally matched Mingardo's grave contralto, adding to the quality of prayerfulness in Bicket's measured interpretation. After a neat account of Handel's Concerto Grosso No 6, Opus 6, Mingardo's balmy performance of Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus was stylishly supported by muted violins, delicate continuo work from theorbist William Carter and an enchanting viola d'amore solo from Catherine Martin.
The Sunday Express
The English Concert under conductor Harry Bicket chose a programme of sacred music as part of the Barbican Centre's baroque season, with Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus and Pergolesi's Stabat mater. Pergolesi, who lived only 26 years, was an 18th-century phenomenon and his Stabat mater is an exquisite harmony of soprano, alto, and strings. Soprano Susan Gritton and contralto Sara Mingardo blended to perfection in the duets, backed by superb playing from the strings. Venetian born Mingardo is a true contralto, possessing a rich voice with cello-like resonance. As soloist in the Nisi Dominus she elegantly complemented the dark tones of the viola d'amore. An uplifting evening.
Anyone who emerged from the Royal Opera's recent production of Tamerlano with their faith in Handel dented would have found it restored by this wonderful concert, in which Rosemary Joshua and Sarah Connolly sang arias and duets from his operas and oratorios with The English Concert and Harry Bicket.
They are all fabulous Handel interpreters. Joshua's blazing tone contrasts with Connolly's altogether darker sound, yet their two voices blend together stunningly. Each has a remarkable if restrained way with words more important in this music than you might think. Directed from the harpsichord with precision by Bicket, The English Concert have a marvellously acute understanding of Handelian sensuousness.
Operatic scenes came first. Connolly was implacable in one of Agrippina's murderous soliloquies and dazzling in Ariodante's Dopo Notte: Joshua was alluring as Agrippina's nemesis Poppea, and heartbreaking in Ginevra's lament at Ariodante's desertion. Then they tackled the lovers' big duet of reconciliation, spinning out their harmonised coloratura with heady perfection. Extracts from Solomon and Theodora followed the interval. Joshua's sensual Queen of Sheba preceded Theodora's When Sunk in Anguish and Despair, a powerful expression of faith, sung with huge dignity and assertion. Connolly gave us a rapt performance of Irene's As With Rosy Steps the Morn, also from Theodora, before changing roles to Didimus for the great duets in which the persecuted lovers face martyrdom.
It was bliss from start to finish. Any chance we could have the pair of them in a complete work – Theodora, preferably – with Bicket conducting?
You knew exactly when this concert was shaping up to be a blinder. It was when Sarah Connolly sprang out of her seat for her first entrance, dressed in a sleek tuxedo, and contemplated her public with a coolly imperious gaze. Well, she was the scheming Empress Agrippina in Handel’s barnstorming 1709 opera, and we were the pawns getting in her way.
This is what happens when you give every bar of Handel’s music its own raison d’être and breathe every wisp of nuance into his flavourful duets and those prolonged da capo arias. This concert, delivered by The English Concert under Harry Bicket, offered two artists of great refinement: Connolly and the elegant soprano Rosemary Joshua. Actually, there was a third great artist here, too: Bicket led his ensemble with both dramatic concision and pungent expression. The ballet music from Ariodante was lithe and punchy; the bracing Sinfonia from Solomon (the wedding favourite The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba) firmly erased all trace of stale confetti.
We progressed from Handel the punky Italian (Agrippina), to the florid heights of his London operas (Ariodante) and on to his chaste, more reflective oratorios. Joshua, whose warm, rather dusky tone is best appreciated at close quarters, brought a fervid anxiety to the lament Il mio crudel martoro, from Ariodante. Connolly’s show-piece aria of triumph from the same opera, Dopo notte, took on its virtuosic range without sacrificing nuance and, here, a rather gleeful intimacy…
The Evening Standard
The strings of the English Concert brought a splendidly acetic tang to Purcell’s pungent dissonances, while Robert Howarth’s discrete direction from the harpsichord ensured well-paced accompaniments for [Mark] Padmore’s ravishing accounts of Handel arias.
The Vancouver Sun
As the program unfolded, it was easy to see the complete rapport between singer [David Daniels], conductor, and ensemble. Bicket and his players provided remarkably sympathetic accompaniment, carefully scaled to the dynamic range of the soloist and responsive in the highest possible degree to his interpretations.
[Harry Bicket's] performances with his period band English Concert here Sunday were beautiful... wonderfully in tune with the fire, fantasy and dancing lightness of the music...
The New York Times
Conducting from the harpsichord or portative organ, Mr Bicket elicited fine, colorful performances, and he achieved good variety in the Bach Suite (No.1 in C) by lightening the orchestration or dynamics in repeated sections.
This is music [Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day directed by Harry Bicket] that needs zip, and The English Concert musicians had it in plenty, allied with a razor-edge ensemble sense and faultless intonation. The strings alone were delight enough, rollicking through the twists and kicks of Handel’s leaps and syncopations…. a victory for vigorous, healthy music-making in the best English Concert tradition.
The Sunday Times
This superlatively sung recital of alto highlights from Bach’s Passions, Mass in B minor and cantatas (J S Bach Sacred Arias & Cantatas - Virgin Classics) [David] Daniels sets a yardstick for the singing of these arias - even if the programme is a bit heavy on dolefulness for a single sitting, I will recall these extracts when listening to complete recordings. The stylish playing of The English Concert only enhances the glory of Daniels’s unique voice.
BBC Music Magazine
The English Concert’s artistic director Harry Bicket draws some poised eloquent playing: dramatically charged in Es is vollbracht, rapt in Vergnügte ruh, exquisitely tender in Schaf können sicher weiden… (J S Bach Sacred Arias & Cantatas - Virgin Classics)
[Harry Bicket, The English Concert and Jonathan Lemalu at Wigmore Hall] proved to be a strong demonstration of how it is possible for a classical concert in formal surroundings to still be a convivial, light-hearted, accessible and relaxed occasion. Some beautiful music, exactly performed…
As the English Concert wolfed down the semiquavers in Bach's fourth orchestral suite during Wednesday's Baroque mixed grill, it was hard to imagine the music ever sounding fresher or cleaner. Or faster: if Laurence Cummings, directing so spiritedly from the harpsichord, wasn't breaking the Bach land speed record, he was close. The woodwinds' dexterity here was jaw-dropping. Not a hair of a note was out of place.
(As Steals The Morn - Harmonia Mundi – winner of a 2008 BBC Music Magazine Award) is a collection of arias from Handel's oratorios and operas sung by Mark Padmore. The lyrical numbers are as dreamy as one would expect from a light and agile singer who knows how to float a phrase with effortless ease but he's equally good at high drama. He cries, whispers and rages in Bajazet's death scene from Tamerlano and the result is barnstorming. Andrew Manze's luscious, full-bodied conducting of The English Concert provides a wonderful cushion for Padmore's exquisite sound, and the title track, a pastoral duet (with soprano Lucy Crowe) from L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Ed Il Moderato, is a delight.
The Daily Telegraph
[Harry Bicket’s] theatrical experience bore fruit in these performances in the way he brought out the innate drama of Haydn’s symphonic vision… Needless to say, the crack players of The English Concert made the most of these opportunities…
These are splendid performances (Mozart Violin Concertos – Harmonia Mundi), musically astute and full of ear-catching detail. The playing of the English Concert under Andrew Manze is simply marvellous, with polished strings and delightful flutes, oboes, and horns.
These fabulous performances (Vivaldi Concertos for the Emperor – Harmonia Mundi), played with exhilarating virtuosity and panache in the Allegros and deeply felt expressivity in the slow movements, reveal Vivaldi as anything but the ‘dull fellow’ attacked by Stravinsky for composing the same form repeatedly.