Bath Bach Fest 2023

A FAVOURITE remark of one of the BBC’S most experienced producers when giving advice to inexperienced young people following in his footsteps was “always start your programme with something attention grabbing and finish with something memorable. If you have any suspect or weak material hide it in the middle of the show”.

Looking at the two concerts that artistic director Amelia Freedman chose to open and close this year’s Bath Bach Fest you might well believe that she had been following that advice, but with one big difference. She had nothing second rate that needed hiding in the space between pianist Angela Hewitt, who delightfully opened the event, and the English Concert who triumphantly brought proceedings to a close.

In the imposing setting of St Mary’s Church, Bathwick, pianist Angela Hewitt presented an all J S Bach programme that left her audience spellbound by her virtuoso interpretation of the works. The clarity and brightness she brought to The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 11. No 5 to 12 filled the first half of the programme with mouth watering delights. The mood changed to a more light hearted mode in the second half, with her melodic, playful, dancelike interpretation of Overture in the French Style so enchanting the audience that it led to two encores. The serenely beautiful Sheep May Safely Graze ending the programme.

A very different sound filled the Guildhall for a lunchtime programme of Bach, Monteverdi, Couperin, Rameau, Handel and Scarlatti, by Bach fest debutantes Onyx Brass. The enthusiastic reception they received from a sell out audience for this wide ranging choice of music, suggests that this will not be the groups last visit to the Fest.

On their first return since the onset of Covid, La Serenissima played a Vivaldi programme with smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts, both of which they conveyed fully to an appreciative St Mary’s audience. Their leader Adrian Chandler’s light hearted informative introductions enhanced proceedings, as did his habit of quickly licking his thumb before launching the group into action. There was a lovely challenge in this gesture suggesting that he was ready to do battle with anyone who was not prepared to join in the fun and satisfaction that the music brought to all the members of La Serenissima.

Following La Serenissima into St Mary’s for an early lunchtime concert with a very different sound were the quintet of viol players who make up Fretwork, and soprano Ruby Hughes. Their combined renditions of works by Bach, Rameau, Telemann, Handel and Purcell, so filled the church with the sounds of the late 17th and 18th centurys that it seemed wrong to find people there dressed in modern clothes and trainers on their feet.

Because we so rarely have the chance to listen to this array of instruments, it was fascinating to hear their interpretation of these composers works. It was an equal teat to hear the way in which Fretwork backed Ruby Hughes in her eight songs, five by Purcell, two by Handel and Rameau’s Tristes Apprets. Purcell’s O Solitude and The Evening Hymn gave Ruby Hughes the opportunity, which she took with beautifully controlled delivery, to explore the depth of emotion in songs that fitted ideally into this venue.

When it came to control, nothing that had gone before was greater than that showed by The English Concert’s director Francesco Corti as accompanied by just five member of the baroque orchestra. He played Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D minor with the most delicate and sympathetic of touches. You could literally have heard a pin drop and felt the capacity audience holding their collective breath, as the so quite perfectly produced sounds drifted through Bath Abbey.

Then, taking his place out front, he carefully led this beautifully balanced group of musicians through Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos No 6 and 3, which between then exposed us to the talents of the bassoon, oboe, cello, violin and viola players in the orchestra, before the final tour de force with virtually every musician on view joining in the triumphant Concerto No 1, which closed the evening and this year’s Bath Bach Fest on the highest of notes.


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