A weekly ‘concert’ taken from the finest recordings in the extensive Academy of Ancient Music catalogue: join us each Sunday at 3pm on Spotify as we unveil a new playlist of music, personally chosen by AAM players, directors, soloists and guests.
A keen supporter of AAM and friend of Christopher Hogwood, Michael has assembled a programme of fascinating and less-frequently-played recordings from the discography, with works by Holborne, Rebel, Purcell, and more. As Michael remarks:
I have had a mildly obsessive relationship with music since my parents introduced me to a heady mix of Brahms 3 and My Boy Lollipop at the age of two. Later, thanks to an English teacher who sang with the Taverner Choir in his spare time, I discovered old music. That interest deepened upon encountering the Academy of Ancient Music, and benefited from the kindness and encouragement of Christopher Hogwood.
For forty years the Academy has been making me hear familiar music with new ears, and introducing wonderful music that hasn’t been heard for centuries. Thank you AAM.
AAM’s first recording of Messiah was unlike any previous account, brimming with freshness and energy that marked a radical departure from the stolid performances we were used to. Here’s Emma Kirkby, utterly dazzling in ‘But who may abide’. It still makes my hair stand on end, forty years after I first heard it.
The AAM’s early work included quite a few pieces we thought we knew well, including Handel’s Water Music. And so the Academy rescue the famous ‘Air’ from the lugubrious performances that hitherto ignored Handel’s marking of ‘Presto’.
The Academy has never limited itself to throwing new light on familiar works – they’ve always sought to revive great music that has been unjustly neglected. Here’s ‘Gentle Morpheus’, from Handel’s Alceste. I think it’s one of Handel’s most beautiful sleep songs, sung exquisitely by Emma Kirkby.
Elizabethan music is not the first genre that comes to mind in connection with AAM, but I’ve always been fond of their ‘Music from the Armada Years’, a set produced jointly with Jordi Savall’s group Hespèrion XX. I’ve chosen a delightfully airy performance of a dance by Anthony Holborne: Muy Linda.
Next: one of the strangest works the Academy have ever recorded – Le Cahos, Jean-Féry Rebel’s depiction of ‘the confusion among the elements’ before creation. The piece begins with all the notes of the d minor scale sounding at once, dissonance gradually resolving into order.
A frequent collaborator in AAM’s early years was Simon Preston, directing the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford. Together they brought us Haydn’s early masses, including the magnificent St Cecilia Mass. Here’s the ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, thrillingly sung by Judith Nelson.
One of the Academy’s first large-scale projects was an eight volume series of Purcell’s theatre music. The third volume was of music Purcell wrote for Thomas D’Urfey’s play Don Quixote. It included this wonderful mad song, ‘From Rosy Bowers’, wittily sung by Emma Kirkby, the shifts in mood handled effortlessly.
Christopher Hogwood’s series of the complete Mozart symphonies was a milestone in period instrument performance. There was a collegial feel to these readings, with direction shared between the leader Jaap Schröder and Christopher Hogwood at the keyboard.
The balance between strings and winds is much more even than in ‘modern’ performances, with a simplicity and directness that was always at the service of Mozart.
Here’s the andante of Symphony no. 39 – I love the warm sound of the gut strings and the soft pungency of the woodwinds.
Haydn: The Creation, Hob.XXI:2 /Pt.1 – Scene 1. Overture – ‘The Represention of Chaos’ and ‘In The Beginning God Created The Heaven’ – Michael George, Christopher Hogwood, Choir of New College, Oxford
Growing commercial success led to Decca’s willingness to invest in large and expensive projects. Accordingly, the orchestra was able to reproduce some of the huge ‘festival-sized’ orchestras that were a feature of late eighteenth century concert life; when AAM came to record Haydn’s Creation, it was with an orchestra of 115 players, and a similarly-sized choir.
The opening is vividly characterised, and the blazing fortissimo ‘And there was light’ is one of the greatest dramatic moments in all of music – an immediate hit with its first audiences. A contemporary observer wrote that ‘the enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes’.
The first AAM Hogwood Fellow was Robert Levin, one of today’s most creative pianists. Before commercial pressures put a hold on recordings, Levin made a series of fine recordings of Mozart piano concertos.
Here’s the opening of the D Minor concerto, which gives you an idea of the sheer verve of the playing.
The Academy now has a busy recording schedule for its own label, AAM Records, and their goal of discovery and exploration continues with discs like their release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion. It’s a work that’s rarely performed, but it’s full of tragedy and drama, and I hope this superb performance will lead to many more. Here’s the brilliant soprano Elizabeth Watts bringing real conviction to ‘Jesu dich mit unsern Seelen zu vermählen‘.
The Brockes-Passion was very influential in its day, and seems to have been an important inspiration for Bach’s St. John Passion, which AAM recorded in an intense reading under Richard Egarr. Dame Sarah Connolly brings her customary warmth and richness to ‘Es ist vollbracht’, with its achingly beautiful obligato gamba part.
One of the Academy’s most fruitful partnerships has been with the Choir of King’s College Cambridge. In their 2011 account of the Mozart Requiem, conducted by the late Sir Stephen Cleobury, they gave us the traditional Sussmayr completion – with a twist. An appendix adds realisations of some of the incomplete movements by later composers, up to the present day. I’ve chosen a wonderfully operatic version of the Lacrimosa, completed by Michael Finnissy.
One of the things I love about Bach is the way his music can be played with such a variety of approaches and arrangements, while still maintaining its essence.
The brilliant young recorder player Lucie Horsch and the AAM have recorded a programme of short baroque works arranged for her instrument, including ‘Erbarme dich’ from Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
It’s sensitively played, with the famous violin obbligato given an exquisite performance by the AAM’s leader and guest director Bojan Čičić.
2020 has been a memorable year in several ways, but one of the musical highlights has been the exploration of some of the lesser-known works of Beethoven, whose 250th birthday falls this year.
Richard Egarr and the Israeli soprano Chen Reiss have brought us an imaginative programme of Beethoven arias including the charming and graceful ‘Es blüht eine Blume im Garten mein‘ from Leonora Prohaska.
I’m ending this selection of AAM performances with their latest release, Dussek’s Messe Solemnelle. This is its first recording – indeed it seems not to have been performed since Dussek wrote it – and Richard Egarr’s faith in this work has been amply rewarded by the Academy’s performance.
Here’s the grandly-constructed Kyrie – what a shame Dussek probably never heard it!
Finally, a non-AAM ‘Joker’ card, from Bellowhead, one of the most inventive folk-rock bands of the twenty-first century. Here’s their gloriously angry Widow’s Curse.