‘Horrid’ music: The dark side of the concert hall
The idea that classical music ought to be ‘nice’ has gained an alarming currency. Thank goodness, then, for ‘uneasy listening’ numbers performed at the Summer Baroque Festival
The big easy
Where did that easy-listening perspective on classical music come from? Muzak? The BBC, via Your 100 Best Tunes, or Music While You Work? Or radio itself, which first created the possibility of music as a background? No matter. Easy listening was never an issue for the man who wrote the “horrid” music, Henry Purcell, who needed it for a scene with witches and Furies in his opera Dido and Aeneas.
The opera was performed on Sunday by Denmark’s Theatre of Voices with the National Chamber Choir under Paul Hillier, as the culmination of a four-day Summer Baroque Festival, a new venture promoted by the choir in Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church. The opera’s big number, Dido’s Lament, When I am Laid in Earth, was firmly, affectingly sung by Norwegian mezzo soprano Kristin Mulders. The other standout was the incisive Sorceress of counter-tenor (and NCC member) Mark Chambers. The choir were in spirited full-voice. The small instrumental ensemble, led by Jesenka Balic Zunic, sounded altogether too mild by comparison.
The festival’s opening programme also included Purcell, his 1683 ode for St Cecilia’s Day, Welcome to all the pleasures, and the dramatic song In guilty night. The composer’s fondness for chromaticism also set the tone for selections by Vivaldi, Boismortier and Bruhns, with Vivaldi’s Gloria clearing the air after the interval.
The choir was given a rest on Friday for a performance of François Couperin’s Trois Leçons de Ténèbres, Holy Week settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah for voices and continuo. Soprano Else Torp and mezzo Kristin Mulders steered clear of the music’s full expressive depth and concentrated instead on sheerness of beauty – both have voices of such purity that they could almost afford to do so.
The weakest programme was Saturday’s, bringing together a selection of motets by Gesualdo, Verdi’s Ave Maria, three harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and that composer’s Stabat Mater. Danish harpsichordist Allan Rasmussen’s handling of the three sonatas was studiously insipid, and the choir’s blend failed them in the Stabat Mater, to the point where they sounded like a vocal ensemble with individual voices protruding rather than a choir. The singing in the Gesualdo and Verdi was also less than persuasive.
The programme book was a let-down, costing €5 for biographies, sung texts and a bare list of the music, but no notes of any sort. However, the idea behind the festival is excellent, the timing is right – Dublin is extremely short of classical-music festivals of any kind – the repertoire available is huge, and Paul Hillier, the choir’s artistic director, has a long track-record in early music. Onwards and upwards.