Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Dir. James Burton/Alison Bury
St John’s Co-Cathedral

Judging by the high standard prevailing at this festival, it would be difficult to single out highlights. However, were I pressed to pick one of the events, I would choose the concert by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the ever-magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral.

Arias and choruses followed in quick succession

This was a blazing blend of visual and abstract art: the stunning ambience and the music. As the former is a combination of architecture, paintings, sculptures, silverware and reliefs, the latter was a mix of vocal and instrumental, of solo vocal prowess and choral/orchestral/directional teamwork. Could one be blamed for feeling rather humbled and overwhelmed?

Orchestra leader Alison Bury was charged with directing the orchestra in the evening’s opening work. This was Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No.3 in D, BWV 1068, and of course, it moved wonderfully and smoothly.

Besides, no matter how many times one hears this suite, one looks forward to the magic of Air, which felt so uplifting and contrasted well with the emphatically performed Overture and the fun inherent in the different danced movements.

James Burton took over in Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria in D Major, RV 589, considered the composer’s most popular vocal work. This Gloria is truly glorious and is as exuberant at certain points as it could be sombrely reflective. However, the emphasis is more towards energetically expressed joy in crisply clear and precise terms by the well-honed Schola Cantorum of Oxford.

The average age of this choir, that has such good voices, must be in the lower 20s if not less. Soprano Helen-Jane Howells and alto Martha McLorinan sang the duet Laudamus te with great panache, and the alto’s pastorale solo Domine Deus Rex Coelestis was further enhanced by Anthony Robson’s fine oboe obbligato. The briskly paced fugue Cum Sancto Spiritu brought the work to a resounding conclusion.

George Frederick Handel’s Zadok the Priest had choir and orchestra on continuously good form in this expression of mixed joy and solemnity. More of the same with a pronounced accent on praise marked Bach’s justly popular Magnificat canticle. Arias and choruses followed in quick succession. Tenor Matthew Long and bass Edward Grint were confident and assertively decisive singers, with both having a very pleasant timbre.

Most impressive, however, was the trio work by Zoë Brown and Howells (both sopranos), with McLorinan (alto), in their captivating account of Suscepit Israel (His Servant Israel). Here, the choruses were widely distributed, and the chorus had the first as well as the last word with the concluding superbly climactic pieces Sicut locutus est and the Gloria Patri.

An added delight was the encore with an introduction by Burton. This was the Cum Sancto Spiritu from Benigno Zerafa’s Messa a Due Cori, compiled by researcher/musicologist Frederick Aquilina.

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