The English Concert/Harry Bicket

Telemann, Bach, Keiser

Wigmore Hall, London, 20 June 2008 4 stars

Harry Bicket

Harry Bicket is less than twelve months into his directorship of The English Concert, and yet as only the third artistic director of this ensemble since their inception in 1973, he appears calm and confident at the helm of this grand musical ship.

Bicket led from the harpsichord in a programme of pleasing - if largely unremarkable - music from J.S. Bach and the ever-underrated Telemann. A welcome lesser-known surprise was included in the form of Reinhard Keiser – a dramatically-influenced composer, who Bicket tells us was more well-known for his influence on others than his own music. Referred to by his contemporaries as 'the greatest opera composer in the world', sadly, even in his own time, his reputation diminished.

Opening with Telemann's Tafelmusik, the ensemble's playing was sprightly in effect, yet maintained at a steady pace throughout.  There was good interplay between trumpeter Mark Bennett and Katharina Spreckelsen on baroque oboe. Violinist Nadja Zwiener had an assured stage presence in Bach's Concerto in E major and her phrasal interpretation was intelligent, despite a slight lack of warmth in her performance at times. That said, her sense of rubato and cadenza work has sensitivity and we heard some impressively complex passages performed with panache in the final movement. It is a shame that the vivacity and confidence of the last eight bars of this performance were not the foundation of her playing earlier in the concerto.

Bicket gave a light-hearted, yet informative introduction to the Keiser cantata that sat at the centre of the programme. As Bicket explained, Reinhard Keiser (1674-1739) composed music that stands out from many of his contemporaries' work. It has a very definite individual sound; dramatic and programmatic in nature, it vividly depicts the text through the music. A great example of this is in his cantata, Von de Grossmuth, sung by the charismatic Jonathan Lemalu. The protagonist journeys through stormy seas, where many who have gone before have died. A lilting tempo depicts the sway of the ocean, low-pitched violins illustrate the dead bodies on the seabed, and recorders (often used to symbolise the supernatural) represent the souls that float above.

Bicket's multitasking skills were put to the test in the Keiser, as frequent tempo changes demanded more explicit direction, playing the harpsichord and furiously page-turning too. Despite all this, he masterfully maintained the control of the ensemble, creating some vivid and exciting music. One suspects that Bicket is a bit of a comedian at heart: his manner on stage, but also his occasional comments to the audience, established a relaxed, informal environment. The ever-expressive Joseph Crouch on cello interpreted the music with enormous emotion. Double bassist Peter McCarthy, too, resonated with a force of enthralling energy as he made his way through the fast-paced movements. Lemalu gave a lively performance, his smooth bass-baritone voice rolling like thunder around the auditorium. He conveyed the story well and integrated seamlessly into the surrounding ensemble, maintaining the mood between his entries and creating a very real atmosphere as established in the text itself. Oboist Katharina Spreckelsen performed flawlessly, with a free sense of melody and exacting ornaments. Her tone was pure and only occasionally, sadly, lost under the full ensemble with trumpet.

Rapturous applause induced an aria encore, much to the delight of audience members. Also, much to my delight, it gave Katharina the opportunity to include some sopranino recorder in the evening's music – a combination with Lemalu's rounded bass vocals that was particularly effective.

A distinctively relaxed feeling to this Sunday evening concert prevailed. Indeed, so much so, that for me it proved to be a strong demonstration of how it is more than possible for a classical concert, in formal surroundings such as Wigmore Hall, to still be a convivial, light-hearted, accessible and relaxed occasion. Some beautiful music, exactly performed - this was the perfect diversion to ensure a relaxed end to the weekend.

By Claudine Nightingale