Vivid colours added to portrait of 18th-century Venice with ‘new’ ancient music

Conductor and harpsichordist Richard Egarr
Conductor and harpsichordist Richard Egarr
Have your say

WHEN the pioneering period instrument orchestra, the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM), first appeared on the scene in 1973 under its founder and original musical director Christopher Hogwood, it wasn’t the first time a musical outfit of that name had been set up to scrutinise the music of the past, wash away the excesses time had weighed on performance styles, and recreate historical works in the spirit they were composed.

For these were the very same aims of the original Academy of Ancient Music, established in 1726 to remind London’s secular musical world – steeped at the time in the trendsetting euphoria of Handel and his relentless No 1 operatic hits – that the Golden Age of madrigals and sacred music from the 16th and 17th centuries should not be forgotten.

Tomorrow night at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, the reincarnated AAM’s focus is very much on the Baroque treasures of early 18th-century Venice, with a programme dedicated entirely to Vivaldi at Christmas and featuring the highly festive Gloria and a team of soloists – Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Claudia Huckle (alto), Stuart Jackson (tenor) and Marcus Farnsworth (bass) – well-suited to the Cambridge-based band’s authentic performance style.

What makes this Edinburgh appearance doubly interesting is the opportunity it gives us to see the man who succeeded Hogwood six years ago as musical director, Richard Egarr, leading from the harpsichord, and to hear in action the AAM Choir, which Egarr established the moment he took over.

Even now, it’s difficult to disassociate Hogwood’s name – he still remains in the wings as conductor emeritus – from the outfit he was virtually synonymous with for over 30 years. But Egarr (pictured right) – as Scottish audiences well know from his frequent flamboyant appearances with the likes of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – is very much his own man, and is unperturbed by the inevitable shadow of his predecessor.

“I do what I do,” Egarr explains. “Christopher and I are very different kinds of musician. He did amazing work with the Academy, allowing it to change when necessary over the years. I have my own aspirations.”

And he has his own blunt views on the rather dry, purist approach that dominated the emergence of the early music revival in the latter decades of the 20th century, and which had an inevitable bearing on the early days of the AAM.

Anyone familiar with Hogwood’s seminal recordings, not least the AAM’s eye-opening 1980 recording of Handel’s Messiah, will appreciate how rigorously he dissected old favourites, stripping away the traditional Romantic excesses that had shrouded Baroque performance style and bringing bright new life to the music, in the same way so much Georgian and Victorian architecture in our cities was recently revitalised when decades of soot and grime were sandblasted from its surfaces.

With so much early music now restored, Egarr’s mission, he says, is now to bring back the spontaneity and subjectivity that would have been a natural part of Bach, Handel or Vivaldi performances in their own day and which was lost to some extent in the early music revival’s early pioneering days.

“Any performance of music, whether Bach or Corelli or even a Romantic work, is a subjective art. Take Corelli, for instance, who would have been appalled if other violinists had simply copied verbatim the examples in his famous print of ornamentation.

“He expected them to play their own interpretations of the ornaments, even to add bits of improvisation. Part of the skill of a performer was to add his own dimension to the music and that’s true right through the 19th century up to the 20th century.”

For Egarr, the important thing in any music is colour. “Music should be full of colour. I’m a great fan of conductors like Stokowski who used his Philadelphia Orchestra to colour the music he was performing, especially Bach. There are even recordings of him from the 1950s doing Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Vespers, which are so full of colour you cannot dismiss their relevance.”

So how will spontaneity and colour impact on tomorrow’s Vivaldi programme, particularly an old warhorse like the Gloria? “I can’t answer that – you’ll have to wait and see how the moment takes me,” says Egarr quite openly, who conducts the same touring programme in Paris two nights before it hits Edinburgh.

Guaranteed to freshen it up, though, is the inclusion of motet-style Intros, written by Vivaldi to go with the bigger work, which will preface the bits we all know.

As for the double choir Dixit Dominus, this is where Egarr’s newly established choir will paint the Usher Hall red.

“It’s a wonderful piece,” he says. “Very Venetian; very Vivaldi; dripping with colour”.

• The Academy of Ancient Music Orchestra and Choir present Vivaldi at Christmas at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh tomorrow, see