Blazing Baroque Poster

“Blazing Baroque”

Bach Magnificat in D and Concerto for Two Violins
Vivaldi Dixit Dominus
Handel Zadok the Priest

Saturday 18 October 2014
Clifton Cathedral, Bristol

Christopher Finch - Conductor
Laurie Ashworth - Soprano
David Allsopp - Countertenor
Mark Hounsell - Tenor
Kieran White - Tenor
Dominic Bowe - Bass
Canzona (Leader Theresa Caudle)

This performance was dedicated to the memory of Alan Farnill, our Vice President, who passed away unexpectedly during the night of 4 October. Bristol Bach Choir owes its existence to Alan, who had the initiative, along with Adrian Beaumont, to found the choir and to establish its place in Bristol in 1967. He was always an enthusiastic supporter and promoter of the choir, becoming a staunch Patron and until very recently a Trustee of the Bristol Bach Choir Foundation. Alan was an accomplished and knowledgeable musician and a source of sound advice and wisdom at the many pivotal points which have determined the development and direction of the choir. He will be sorely missed as a member of our audience and a friend and we hope that this programme captured the essence of his vision of nearly 50 years ago.

Concert Order

(Scroll down or click a composer's name to view programme notes...)

Handel Zadok the Priest HWV 258
Vivaldi Dixit Dominus RV 807
J.S. Bach Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043
J.S. Bach Magnificat in D BWV 243

Programme Notes

The Dresden Kapellmeister had a problem. The date was sometime during the 1750s or 60s, and the Kapellmeister's name was Johann Georg Schürer. His problem was that since the court church had been moved to the splendid new Hofkirche, the demand for new and fashionable church music kept growing. The older composers of the golden age of baroque music in Dresden - Zelenka, Heinichen, Ristori and Hasse - had either died or were no longer living in Dresden, leaving Schürer to try and supply this huge demand alone.

Schürer decided to turn to Venice, the source of the most stylish new music, and he placed a large order for new church settings with the Venetian copyist and music seller Iseppo Baldan. He ordered over fifty pieces, including a large number by one of the most popular new composers of the day, Baldassarre Galuppi. Unfortunately Baldan was something of a rogue. He had a habit of substituting older works from his back catalogue for the new, modern pieces that his customers actually ordered. So when Schürer's order arrived, Baldan substituted some of the requested items by Galuppi for some forgotten pieces by a composer who was surely - so he thought - a ‘has been’.

Baldan was of course wrong. It is now Galuppi who is relatively unknown, and the ‘has-been’, whose music he tried to slip unnoticed into the Dresden order, was Antonio Vivaldi. We do not know if all the pieces in Schürer's music order were actually performed, and so whether the switch was ever noticed at the time. One of those pieces, the one we will perform tonight, remained in the court collection, catalogued as a work by Galuppi, until discovered just a few years ago by the Australian musicologist Jan Stockigt. As part of her extensive study of the music of the Dresden court church, she noticed that this piece must be an unknown work by Vivaldi, and called on the expertise of a visiting Vivaldi expert to verify her hunch.

We are used to considering J.S. Bach as the foremost composer of the Baroque era - indeed, some might think, of any era. So it can be a surprise to realise that Bach was influenced by what he learnt from other composers, and in particular from the concerto writing of Antonio Vivaldi. During Bach's employment in Weimar (1708 - 1717), he acquired copies of some of Vivaldi's concertos, and - like any good baroque musician - he set about copying and arranging them to suit his own purposes, in this case as pieces for harpsichords and organ. This gave him familiarity with the latest concerto style, and in particular the ritornello principle that is so fundamental to the structure of the baroque concerto.

We do not know exactly when the Concerto for Two Violins was composed, but it was most probably during Bach's employment at Cöthen (1717-1723). We do know that the concerto was performed during the 1730s while Bach was in Leipzig, at some of the weekly Collegium Musicum concerts that he directed at Zimmermann's coffee house. A contemporary account tells us that “The participants at these musical concerts are chiefly students here, and there are always good musicians among them... Any musician is permitted to make himself publicly heard...” This leaves us with the delightful impression of a kind of baroque open-mic night, with Kapellmeister Bach as a master of ceremonies.

During Advent in 1723, Bach took advantage of the pause in the weekly round of cantata composition to write a good deal of new music for his first Christmas in Leipzig, including the Magnificat, which was performed on Christmas Eve. At some later time Bach revisited the work, transposing it from the original key of E flat into D major, and making minor adjustments. We do not know exactly when this was done, but an attractive theory is that it was intended to be a companion piece to the 1733 Missa (the Kyrie and Gloria that were later to form the first two parts of the Mass in B minor), presented to the Catholic Dresden court. Both the Magnificat and the Missa were for five vocal parts, a relatively unusual format for Bach, the transposition into D major puts the Magnificat into the same (relative) key as the Missa, and with their Latin texts, both would have been suitable for Catholic liturgy as well as Lutheran.

There is a pleasing narrative that connects the three longer pieces in tonight's programme. The Dixit Dominus and the Magnificat are from the beginning and ending of the office of Vespers, and linking these works by Vivaldi and Bach is a concerto that demonstrates the influence of one on the other. The opening work in tonight's concert, Handel's coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, does not fit at all into this narrative, but it is such a wonderful concert opener, that we could not resist it.

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Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus RV 807

Laurie Ashworth soprano
David Allsopp counter tenor
Mark Hounsell tenor 1
Kieran White tenor 2

As is usual with settings of this type, there is one movement for each psalm verse. Vivaldi's musical style is simple and direct, and uses vivid and striking musical imagery. Listen, for example, to the little ‘sitting down’ motif in the opening movement when the choir sings the word sede, or the intervention of the (last) trumpet in the opening of the 7th movement describing the day of judgement.

The tranquil heart of the work is the lovely alto solo De torrente, with the gently swirling water motif passing between upper and lower strings and the solo voice. The virtuosic high point is the tenor solo Dominus a dextris tuis, its technical difficulty betraying its origins as an operatic aria. The choir too have their moments of glory, with the high spirited fugal 5th movement, Juravit Dominus, and most especially in the final Amen, in which Vivaldi indicates ever quickening tempos until it reaches its thrilling conclusion.

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So how do we know it's by Vivaldi?

At the press conference that preceded the first performance of the rediscovered Vivaldi work, someone asked how certain it was that the piece was indeed by Vivaldi. “One hundred percent”, came the answer - but how are we so sure? The manuscript that was found in Dresden is not in Vivaldi's handwriting, so other ways of identification needed to be found. In cases like this, musicologists look for a number of things. First there needs to be a plausible reason why the score should be where it was found, and for its misattribution. In this case we have the story of Schürer's revitalisation of the Dresden court music collection, and the well-known tendency of Baldan to pass off older pieces as new ones.

Then, the style of the piece has to be ‘right’. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Vivaldi's music would surely agree that this work sounds pretty much like Vivaldi. But for a definite attribution, more is needed. Fortunately, every composer has little compositional habits, often very small details, which mark their work rather like a fingerprint. Vivaldi experts have identified a number of such compositional ‘fingerprints’ in this Dixit Dominus, which very strongly point to its authorship. The final and most decisive factor is that the music of one of the movements, the tenor aria Dominus a dextris tuis, is virtually identical to the first section of an aria from one of Vivaldi's operas. Even before this concordance was known, experts were convinced that this was indeed a lost work by Vivaldi, but this final piece of evidence put the question beyond doubt.

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J.S. Bach: Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043

Soloists: Theresa Caudle and Oliver Webber

The architectural principle governing so much baroque music (and most especially concerto movements) is the ritornello principle. The main musical material - the ‘ritornello’ - is stated in full at the outset, using the whole orchestra. This material is repeated at intervals throughout the movement in different keys and sometimes considerably shortened, with the final ritornello back in the same key as the opening. These statements of the ritornello are separated by episodes, which are the soloists' moments to shine. These solo episodes drive the music into the new key of the next ritornello, and typically elaborate on musical motifs picked out from the opening ritornello material.

The fact that this particular concerto is for two soloists gives Bach an additional musical opportunity, in that the musical material of the ritornello - and consequently that of the solo episodes - can be contrapuntal in style. There are four ritornello statements in this first movement, and the first one is considerably longer that the others, being a full fugal working out of the opening theme. The rest of the ritornello statements can be spotted by the memorable rising scale motif at the start, except that in the third ritornello it is quite well hidden, as unusually it appears in the bass line rather than in either of the violin parts. (The viola, ever a slightly Cinderella instrument, sadly does not get a turn at the tune...)

The second movement is all about the melody - one of the Bach's loveliest. The orchestra takes a back seat here, leaving the soloists to be the centre of attention as they weave together the beautiful main theme and its rocking counter-melody.

The brisk final movement is a lively dance of rhythmic complexity. The opening, played by the soloists in close imitation, is in triple time whereas the accompanying strings seem to be operating in a parallel universe of duple time. Other distinctive moments here are when the soloists pause from their energetic semiquaver figuration to play insistent double stopped chords, or when each of the soloists break away in turn, to play a sweeping countermelody.

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J.S. Bach: Magnificat in D BWV 243

Laurie Ashworth soprano
David Allsopp counter tenor
Mark Hounsell tenor
Dominic Bowe bass

Like the Dixit Dominus, the Magnificat has one movement for each verse. This allows each verse to be sharply characterised according to the text. There are the usual musical puns - the entry of the choir for the words ‘omnes generationes’, for example, and the return of the opening musical material for the doxology lines ‘sicut erat in principio’.

We also see Bach using his solo voices according to the cultural stereotypes of his time. The bass voice, for example, was considered to be the embodiment of might and power, so Bach uses it for the aria Qui a fecit mihi magna. Bach intensifies the idea of power by making this a ‘continuo aria’ - that is, one that is accompanied by just the continuo group. The basso continuo was considered by Bach to be the ‘most perfect foundation of music’, and as such ‘the ultimate cause...should be none else but the glory of God and the recreation of the soul...’.

The tenor voice was associated with heroism, and so makes it a natural choice for the aria Deposuit potentes. Bach uses the simple but effective technique of a tumbling downward musical phrase for the word ‘deposuit’, and an ever-rising phrase for ‘exaltavit’. (This phrase is high in the range for the singer in this D major version - in the original E flat version a semi tone higher, it would have been even more challenging.)

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the alto aria Esurientes is the ultimate in grace and charm. The gentle accompaniment of the flutes would have been considered the height of fashionable galant style, and there is a delightful moment at the end of the movement where the accompanying flutes - like ‘the rich’ - are sent empty away.

Although the movements for choir are relatively few, they are marvellously vivid and a delight to sing. As well as the joyful opening movement, the choir burst in on the end of the second soprano solo, declaiming ‘ omnes generationes‘. There is a tricky fugue in the movement Fecit potentiam - notice the scattergun effect near the end for the text ‘dispersit ‘- and then the closing movements with the thrilling gathering of the voices in the Gloria, followed by a reprise of the opening music to complete the work.

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Soloists' Profiles

Soprano Laurie Ashworth graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music in 2006 and was awarded the RNCM Gold Medal, the college's highest accolade for performance. Awards from The Arts and Humanities Research Council and The Countess of Munster Musical Trust enabled Laurie to complete her Masters in Vocal Performance at the Royal College of Music, where she studied with Patricia Rozario and Janis Kelly, graduating with distinction in 2008. In 2010 Laurie was awarded the Song Prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards. In the same year she was a finalist and runner-up in BBC Radio 2's Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Prize which led to numerous appearances on BBC Radio 2's Friday Night is Music Night and for BBC Radio 3. Laurie's broadcasts include solo appearances for BBC television performing repertoire ranging from opera arias to musical theatre and wartime songs made famous by Dame Vera Lynn. In the summer of 2012 she made her BBC Proms debut in the world premiere of Bob Chilcott's The Angry Planet.

David Allsopp, counter-tenor was a choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge, where he studied computer science, and subsequently a lay clerk in Westminster Cathedral Choir, before pursuing a freelance career. In addition to solo engagements, he continues to perform and record with both English and continental consort groups and is also a member of the early music ensemble Gallicantus. David's solo performances have included many of Handel's oratorio works and Bach's major choral works and cantatas in venues all over Europe. He made his debut at the BBC Proms in 2010 singing Arvo Pärt's Passio and has worked with the virtuoso organist and conductor Wayne Marshall giving performances of Orff's Carmina Burana and Bernstein's Chichester Psalms in several European venues. In the last year he has performed with the Eric Whitacre Singers, the North Netherlands Orchestra, Huddersfield Choral Society and the BBC Singers.

The English tenor, Mark Hounsell began singing at the age of 7 at Northampton's civic church All Saints, and went on to study singing at Birmingham conservatoire with Julian Pike. He was a Vicar Choral at Lichfield Cathedral for five years before joining the Choir of St Albans Abbey. In 2009 he was appointed a Vicar Choral at Wells Cathedral and combines this with a busy freelance schedule throughout the South of England along with his day job as a Dispensing Optician. Mark is increasingly noted for his baroque and classical performances and is is greatly in demand as an oratorio soloist and in the role of Evangelist. As well as singing in cathedral choirs, Mark regularly performs as singer with some of the country's leading consort groups including The Choir of the English Concert, Ex Cathedra and Armonico Consort. In his short but varied career to date, Mark has sung on fifteen CD recordings, toured across Europe, America, Hong Kong and China, sung solos on both BBC Radios 3 and 4 and sung on backing tracks for Ferrari.

Kieran White tenor, is currently studying under Amand Hekker at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where he recently won the second prize in the Jean Highgate Competition. Kieran was a chorister at Sherborne Abbey and then at Wells Cathedral. While singing as a treble, Kieran was a finalist in BBC Radio 2's Young Chorister of the Year two years in succession. In his final year as a chorister he was the soloist in the boys' production of Britten's Missa Brevis. Kieran was a Choral Scholar at St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin and subsequently at Truro Cathedral. As a soloist and a choral singer Kieran has toured extensively in the UK, Europe and the Far East and has appeared as a soloist at the Cheltenham Music Festival. Kieran's oratorio repertoire is wide and his increasing operatic engagements include a forthcoming production of Britten's Billy Budd with the Nationale Reisopera, Netherlands.

Dominic Bowe, bass, is currently a postgraduate student of the Royal Academy of Music where he studies with Alex Ashworth and Audrey Hyland. Since starting at the Academy he has appeared in masterclasses with Simon Keenlyside and Dennis O'Neill. Prior to this he studied Classics at the University of Oxford. While at Oxford he sang with many ensembles including the Schola Cantorum, Exeter College Chapel Choir, the Clarendon Consort, and the Blenheim Singers as well as touring with the Choir of New College. His increasing solo career includes performances of the major choral works, roles in opera, and recitals. Before moving to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music, Dominic sang with the internationally renowned choir of Wells Cathedral with whom he toured Hong Kong and sang the bass solos in the world premiere of John Joubert's Missa Wellensi.

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