4 October 2018
AAM and Barbican. Purcell and the Aeneid. All big names and that was enough to get us out, somewhat excited. The music was Dido and Aeneas, an early baroque opera from Purcell. That only lasted ~50 mins, in the second half. The first half was a collection of 7 pieces and songs, again by Purcell. The Barbican is big but comfy, arrayed with stalls, circle and balcony. The foyer is busy with lots of stairs (toilets well above and below!) and even a strangely raked floor down low. So it’s an adventure and an experiment. It didn’t always feel right but it’s of its period and renowned. I thought it sounded right. The audience was casual; the seating was similarly comfy and casually coloured. The stage was huge, sometimes noisy with footfalls, jutting into the audience. The AAM was similarly casual, bass and some others on stage early, tuning and warming up. Chairs were spaciously arranged; two harpsichords at the centre with two theorbos adjacent. Plenty of space around for theatricals. There was a surprising amount of theatre, mainly effective white puppetry against black costumes although also an oddly interjected sailors’ dance/ That was presumably for entertainment in the original: I’d seen something similar at the Globe to end Henry IV pt.1. So this was not music alone, but the music was lovely. It was mostly surprisingly simple, often repetitive, even as in contemporary looping (AAM uses the term in the program), several times with odd-feeling repeats. I counted one looping group of 6x¾ bars that was oddly unsettled but very inviting. Then the famed Dido’s lament, a tragic aria sung by Dido over a descending, repeated bass line as she dies. For this is a love story, love thwarted by the gods. Aeneas arrives in Carthage, falls for the widowed queen Dido; the gods forbid the love, call Aeneas away and Dido suicides. Typical ancient lit! The playing was lovely. I noticed a few holes (not least some strangely inexact sparse intro drumming; perhaps it was intended?). The singing was stunning if oddly complex to my ears. I guessed it was various ornamentations and articulations. The feel of time and interpretation was unexpected but these guys are experts in the relevant musics so it’s as close to authentic as we can expect to hear. But there were times that just floored me. Some beautiful and clearly identified individual choral voices and some stunningly together choral passages. Overall, it was pretty understated, fairly quiet in a large hall using period instruments, delicate with gut and harpsichords, with intense individual parts and a few ecstatic communal outpourings. So, a renowned venue and renowned performers and quite a lesson in the style. But one other factoid that stunned me. AAM have released over 300 albums, presumably mostly live. A list of future performances told of a concert that was planned to be recorded. That’s making a job of it, as well as a well-archived resuscitated genre. Much enjoyed and much learned.
The Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) with the Choir of the AAM performed Prucell Dido and Aeneas and more at the Barbican Centre under Richard Egarr (conductor, harpsichord) with soloists Caitlin Halcup (Dido), Ashley Riches (Aeneas), Rowan Pierce (Belinda) and Neal Davies (sourceress). Judith Evans (bass) covered the bottom end.