The Berlin Baroque Soloists with an Anglo-Italian evening

21 Mar 2012

Berlin Baroque Soloists

Bernhard Forck, Mark Padmore

  • Henry Purcell
    Overture for strings and continuo in G major, Z 770 (10 min.)

    Bernhard Forck Violin and Direction

  • George Frideric Handel
    Samson, oratorio, HWV 57: Arias (12 min.)

    Mark Padmore Tenor, Bernhard Forck Violin, Direction

  • Charles Avison
    Concerto Grosso No. 7 in G minor (after Domenico Scarlatti) (11 min.)

    Bernhard Forck Violin and Direction

  • George Frideric Handel
    Samson, oratorio, HWV 57: Excerpts (11 min.)

    Mark Padmore Tenor, Bernhard Forck Violin and Direction

  • George Frideric Handel
    Jephtha, oratorio, HWV 70: Excerpts (20 min.)

    Mark Padmore Tenor, Bernhard Forck Violin and Direction

  • Francesco Geminiani
    Concerto Grosso in E minor, op. 3 no. 3 (10 min.)

    Bernhard Forck Violin and Direction

  • George Frideric Handel
    Jephtha, oratorio, HWV 70: Excerpts (14 min.)

    Mark Padmore Tenor, Bernhard Forck Violin and Direction

  • free

    Mark Padmore and Bernhard Forck in conversation and in rehearsal (11 min.)

“A perfect blend of ‘modern’ playing with ‘historical’ awareness,” was how the magazine Gramophone described the Berlin Baroque Soloists. And in fact, rarely will you find an ensemble in which the playing on modern instruments and the knowledge of early musical practice come together so effortlessly and sensually. In this concert, the musicians – most of them members of the Berliner Philharmoniker – explore the fascinating relationship between English and Italian composers of the Baroque period.

Within this context, the leading figure of the age from today’s perspective was the German George Frideric Handel who, after a time in Italy, rose to become the most important composer of opera and oratorio in England. His contemporaries, however, quarrelled about which was the greater composer: Handel or the Italian Francesco Geminiani, who had been working in London since 1714. This dispute was triggered by an essay by Charles Avison, a student of Geminiani and one of the most successful composers in the country. When it comes to England, another name must be mentioned: Henry Purcell, the most important British composer of the 17th century. Although he is from an earlier generation of composers than the three previously mentioned and never went to Italy, he was also influenced by its music and played a decisive role in anchoring the Italian style in English music.

Ripe for the Isles

Music in England – from Henry Purcell to George Frideric Handel

The “land without music”: an infamous slur, without validity when the phrase was coined by a German Anglophobe at the beginning of the 20th century or even in 1659, when Henry Purcell first saw the light of day in London. With the Restoration and the return of the Stuart king Charles II in 1660, the Chapel Royal, dispersed during the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell, was reconstituted, and Purcell became one of its leading composers. His Overture in G major exists in two versions: as the introduction to a 1681 “welcome song” for King Charles and as a pure ensemble piece. It is in the style of a French overture, with a slow, solemn introduction in binary metre, marked by dotted rhythms, contrasted with a faster, fugal second section in ternary metre. The three movements without headings that follow in this suite may be construed as a bourrée, minuet and gigue, evidence of the refinement of French savoir vivre in a land full of music no longer under Puritan domination.

The “Orpheus Britannicus”

Already during Purcell’s lifetime – he died tragically young in 1695 – musical tastes in England were shifting in favour of Italy. Purcell himself increasingly emulated that style, yet after 1700 even the works of this “Orpheus Britannicus” were overshadowed by the fashion for Italian music and especially the cult of Corelli. All roads led to Rome: young English aristocrats made the pilgrimage to take instruction from Corelli and, in return, to bring his sonatas and concertos back to Britain. The violinist Francesco Saverio Geminiani, a pupil of Corelli, was able to turn these unusual circumstances to his own advantage. In 1714 he left Lucca for London, where he soon enjoyed one success after another. Geminiani knew how to satisfy the British craving for Italian concerti grossi with new, often highly original works. The Concerto Grosso in E minor Op. 3 No. 3 is distinguished – down to the literally flighty fugati – by an impulsive, uninhibited compositional freedom verging on wildness, to the extent that some of the stricter critics spoke reproachfully of “confusion” and “too great business”. The majority of British music lovers, however, apparently heard it differently. As late as 1797 the celebrated pianist Johann Baptist Cramer brought out a piano transcription of the third movement of the E minor Concerto under the title “The celebrated Adagio”.

England, the land of Italian music? This impression is hard to avoid if you consider that the British cultivated an increasingly anachronistic predilection for the concerto grosso until well into the 18th century, while the Italians themselves had long since turned away from this relic of a fabled past and began a new conquest of Europe with the symphony. It was, above all, the amateur orchestral societies flourishing in every British city that appreciated the concerto grosso, for practical reasons: invited professionals could take over the virtuoso solo parts while “gentleman amateurs” could scrape by in the tuttis. A former Geminiani pupil, the organist and controversial music theorist Charles Avison, directed such a musical society in his hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne and created for it numerous “grand concertos”. In his publication in 1744 of Twelve Concertos in Seven Parts,Avison paid homage to Domenico Scarlatti by transforming selected harpsichord sonatas by his Italian contemporary into the movements of his “own” production, as in the Concerto Grosso No. 7 in G minor being performed today. Scarlatti gained appreciable popularity in England from these concerto versions of his sonatas, which Avison, incidentally, by no means regarded as mere arrangements but rather as “taking off the mask which concealed their natural beauty and excellency”.

An “Italian master”?

Even before George Frideric Handel visited the English capital for the first time, the performance of one of his compositions there was hailed as the work of an unknown “Italian master”. This isn’t surprising if you recall that in his young years the doctor’s son from Halle travelled to Italy and was celebrated in the Roman palazzi of art-loving cardinals. His years of triumph on the London stage, however, eventually came to rest on shaky ground, as the growing popularity of musical entertainment in English eclipsed that of Italian opera. When in summer 1738 Handel’s theatre manager failed to obtain enough subscribers for a new season of his operas, the composer decided to forsake that extravagant genre, with its costly sets, costumes and, especially, singers, in order to concentrate on English oratorios based on biblical subjects. The story took its course.

It was his oratorios that ensured Handel’s lasting fame in his adopted home and brought about his rise to the status of national composer. He became a British subject in 1727, and in 1738, during his lifetime, a statue of Handel was erected in London’s Vauxhall Gardens. Another portrait that Handel himself created – it would become a self-portrait – was the blinded eponymous hero of his oratorio Samson (1743). With the aria “Total eclipse”, he inscribed a frightful warning into the score that presaged his own tragic fate. After performing Samson with the Berlin Singakademie in 1829, Carl Friedrich Zelter described its overwhelming impression: “It is astonishing what Handel has made out of it. The lamentation over the loss of sight can be uttered only by a man who (like Samson) must end his most active life with the premonition of a desolate void.”

Handel’s British admirers also knew from the Bible the title figure of his oratorio Jephtha, first performed in 1752: a military leader who swears a sacred oath that if he is successful in battle against the Ammonites he will sacrifice as a burnt offering the first person who comes out of the doors of his house to meet him. It is his daughter Iphis, Jephtha’s only child, who greets him after the victorious battle. Handel’s librettist chose to spare his London contemporaries the dreadful consequences of Jephtha’s vow, and so, in keeping with the conventions of Italian opera seria, he softened the biblical story with a happy ending in which Iphis is dedicated to heaven in perpetual virginity. The arias, accompagnati and monologues in which the composer depicts his hero’s tragedy, however, completely eschew theatrical effects. Handel here finds an utterly new, unadorned, at times brusque and broken musical language, a realistically direct power of expression, but also an ethereal beauty and unprecedented tonal sensitivity. Happy the land that appreciates such music.

Wolfgang Stähr

Translation: Richard Evidon

The Berliner Barock Solisten (Berlin Baroque Soloists) was founded in 1995 by members of the Berliner Philharmoniker and leading musicians of the early music scene in Berlin with the aim of performing music of the 17th and 18th centuries with the highest artistic standards. They wanted to draw on the rich experience that the music world had made in recent decades with “authentic” performance. The conscious decision to play on modern or modernized old instruments does not stand in the way of their approach to “historical” performance practice. The size and line-up of the ensemble varies depending on the works performed in a particular concert. From its inception until 2009, its artistic director was Rainer Kussmaul, an internationally experienced soloist, particularly in the field of Baroque music. Since the beginning of 2010, the artistic direction of the Berliner Barock Solisten has been in a variety of hands: In addition to the concerts led by Bernhard Forck, the ensemble has also performed under the direction of Frank Peter Zimmermann, Daishin Kashimoto and Daniel Sepec. One point of focus is the commitment to works which have been unjustly forgotten – in particular by Georg Philipp Telemann – and also to compositions by unknown old masters. For their worldwide concerts, the ensemble regularly invites guest artists, including Sandrine Piau, Maurice Steger, Reinhold Friedrich and Andreas Staier. The Berliner Barock Solisten have already been awarded several prestigious awards for their recordings. Their most recent appearance in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation was in January 2012, when they performed with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin in a concert celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Frederick the Great.

Bernhard Forck studied violin with Eberhard Feltz at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin. From 1986 to 1991, he was a member of the Berliner Sinfonie Orchester. During his studies he worked extensively with the technique and aesthetics of Baroque violin playing and took lessons with Catherine Macintosh and Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Since 1984 he has been a member of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, becoming one of their two concert masters in 1985. In 1992, Bernhard Forck began a collaboration with René Jacobs, including performances of Baroque operas at the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin. He also has close links with the Berliner Barock Solisten and the Kammerakademie Potsdam. Moreover, he performs as a chamber musician and as the leader of a variety of ensembles. Since 2007, Bernhard Forck has been musical director of the Handel Festival Orchestra Halle, in particular as part of the Handel at home concert series.At the Handel Festival in 2010, he took over the direction of the production of Handel’s opera Orlando at Oper Halle. The versatility of his artistic work is documented in numerous recordings.

Mark Padmore was born in London and studied the clarinet before gaining a choral scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. He is known above all for his performances as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions, which he has sung under Philippe Herreweghe, Paul McCreesh and others. But his repertory extends beyond the concert hall and recital room to the world’s leading opera houses. Among the productions in which he has appeared are Les Troyens at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and Handel’s Jephtha at the English National Opera. He has sung with the Vienna and New York Philharmonics, the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra. He also performs regularly with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Nash Ensemble, with whom he gave the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s A Constant Obsession in March 2009. As a chamber recitalist he has worked with the pianists Julius Drake, Roger Vignoles, Imogen Cooper and Till Fellner. He appears frequently at Wigmore Hall in London where he first sang all three Schubert song cycles in May 2008 and was their artist in residence in the 2009/10 season. He first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker in June 2005 in performances of Haydn’s Harmoniemesse under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle. His most recent appearances were in April 2010, when he took part in performances of Bach’s St.Matthew Passion in a scenic version by Peter Sellars, conducted by Simon Rattle.

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