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Review: Academy of Ancient Music

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The Academy of Ancient Music completed their ‘New Worlds’ season at West Road on Wednesday evening with a programme of French compositions inspired by a one-time fad for all things Turkish at the Versailles Court of Louis XIV. The king had played host to the Turkish ambassador in 1669, a year before the première of ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’, perhaps the most famous of the collaborations between composer Jean Baptiste Lully and dramatist Molière.

This inspiring concert began with Lully’s ‘Overture’ and ‘La Cérémonie des Turcs’ from that collaboration, a mixture of the stately and the sprightly to set the tone for the music to follow. The ‘Grande Pièce en G ré sol’, Delalande’s second ‘Fantasie’ in G minor with its variety of dance rhythms was a favourite of Louis XIV who loved dancing.

A quartet from among the evening’s vocalists, baritone Marcus Farnsworth, Anthony Gregory (tenor) and tenors Thomas Kelly and Rory Carver, came on stage in the middle to sing a sequence whose tongue-in-cheek jocularity was perfectly delivered in a kind of cod Turkish with French inflections.

Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Patrick Allen (56775956)
Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Patrick Allen (56775956)

Sopranos Carolyn Sampson and Philippa Hyde joined Marcus Farnsworth for the parts of André Campra’s ‘L’Europe Galante’ (1697) that have Turkish settings. At one point Philippa Hyde was bundled off by two male abductors, but they brought her back happily at the end. I don’t think many in the audience knew quite what was going on (including this reviewer), but the French diction was striking and the voices of the two sopranos truly beautiful.

The second half of the programme was a performance of the ‘Overture’ and the first entrée (act) of ‘Le Turc Généreux’ by Jean-Philippe Rameau. The three headlining vocalists were outstanding in their individual roles. Osman, an Ottoman potentate, frees Émilie (whom he’s enslaved) to marry her long-lost fiancé after discovering that when formerly a captive himself he’d been granted his own freedom by this very same man.

Rameau’s take on Turkish culture is interesting, as in literary history Turks were usually associated with cruelty. Ottoman sultans routinely murdered their brothers (usually by having them strangled) to secure their throne (‘bear like the Turk no brother near the throne’ – Pope). Rameau’s Turk is généreux.

Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Patrick Harris (56775951)
Academy of Ancient Music. Picture: Patrick Harris (56775951)

The concert was so much enjoyed by the West Road audience that the vocalists were called back four times, and at the fifth they joined the orchestra for a final piece from Rameau’s work as encore. The exuberant and dramatic accomplishments of principal vocalists Carolyn Sampson, Anthony Gregory and Marcus Farnsworth had perfectly carried the drama, the subtlety and the exuberance of this extraordinary musical era.

The AAM (19 in all, including on Wednesday the notable Paolo Zanzu directing from the harpsichord) had brought ‘New Worlds’ to its conclusion with their customary standards of supreme musicianship. Each individual comprising wind and strings deserves a mention, but at this particular concert Rachel Gledhill’s percussion will be especially remembered for the sounds she elicited from her array of drums, and her variety of bells and whistles.

In our recent and somewhat depressing times this elegant and light-hearted programme was exactly what we all needed.


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