In Concert, Prom 6: English Concert / Aam / Manze

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The Independent Culture

Take 19 period string-players from the English Concert, add another 18 from the Academy of Ancient Music, stir in some 13 aspiring young performers from the Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra, place on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall under the direction of that passionate, needle-sharp violinist Andrew Manze, and you have a sound unlike any other.

Though not as loud as the equivalent number of "modern" strings, the line-up certainly generates force enough to fill the great void of the RAH - something smaller "authentic" bands regularly fail to do. But it also accumulates a quite special chiming brightness in more vivacious tempi, and in moments of gravity or calm, a wonderful kind of deep-varnished resonance. Nor are bodies of 50 strings so anachronistic to Baroque music as might be assumed. There is plenty of evidence of orchestras of up to 100 in the early 18th century.

And especially in Rome, where they were frequently led by the virtuoso fiddle of the great Arcangelo Corelli: born 350 years ago, and celebrated in this Prom with two of his vastly influential 12 Concerti grossi, Op 6, which laid down the models for Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, et al. No doubt, compared with these, Corelli is now generally regarded as an also-ran. But for the early 18th century, he was the father figure - not least in England, where an appreciation of Corelli was long regarded as a token of gentlemanly taste.

There was nothing gentlemanly, however, in the intensity with which Manze pitched his forces into the Concerto grosso in D major, Op 6 No 4. This was highly articulated and nuanced playing, with the slower sections drawn out to almost Romantic effect - except that there is evidence that Italian taste liked them that way.

Indeed, in his exquisitely hushed account of the reprise of the central Adagio of the Concerto grosso in G minor, Op 6 No 8 - the so-called "Christmas Concerto" - Manze almost persuaded time to stand still. All the more effective as a foil to this Prom's other composer, that dazzling young Saxon genius who descended on Rome in the 1700s and with whom Corelli actually worked, George Frideric Handel.

In fact, Handel's florid Catholic devotional motet "Silete Venti" was a rather mysterious product of his later years in Anglican London - which did not stop that rising young soprano Sarah Fox from carrying it off with radiant luxuriance. As for Handel's flagrant show-off piece to wow the Roman cardinals, "Dixit Dominus": with the combined English Concert and AAM Choirs, this was a reading to renew one's amazement at the invention and audacity of it all.

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