Michael White’s classical news: London Festival of Baroque Music; Imeneo; Paul Lewis; Sonare

Thursday, 12th May — By Michael White

The Gabrieli Ensemble photo- andy staples

THE last time I walked into St John’s Smith Square it had been transformed into a film set, for Ridley Scott’s new Napoleon biopic that screens next year. But in more normal circumstances it’s one of London’s finest baroque buildings – and accordingly a perfect setting for the London Festival of Baroque Music it hosts from May 13-21.

An annual event that got cancelled last year and the year before, for reasons that don’t need explaining, this festival has always been a big deal; and for its post-pandemic resurrection, the director Richard Heason has deliberately gone for colourful, popular programmes to lure back an audience still needing some encouragement.

The theme is Venice: “Between the Land and the Sea” as the title has it. And things open on May 13 with the sonic spectacle of a Venetian coronation, recreated from what we know took place for a new Doge in 1595. Much of the music is by the composers Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli (uncle and nephew) who presided over Venetian music-making at the time. And it’s played here by the eponymous Gabrieli Ensemble, who found fame back in the 1990s by recording this very repertoire.

Other festival highlights include the Brook Street Band on May 17 playing music by Heinrich Schütz, who studied in Venice with Giovanni Gabrieli. And unmissably, on May 19, come Monteverdi’s dazzling Vespers – done not at Smith Square but in Westminster Abbey, by the Abbey Choir under James O’Donnell (who, after 23 years as director of music there has just announced his departure – needless to say, for America, the only place left to go when you’ve reached the pinnacle of church-music jobs in Britain).

Also on the schedule is a May 14 programme of works by Vivaldi and others based on folk songs and dances. And stretching the Venetian theme – although you get the point – there’s a performance of Handel’s Water Music on May 18 from Smith Square’s recently appointed resident ensemble the South Bank Sinfonia.

With plenty more besides, it’s seriously worth exploring. Visit sjss.org.uk for details.

If all that doesn’t exhaust your appetite for the baroque, there’s also a rare Handel opera playing this week in a student production at the Royal Academy of Music, Marylebone. It’s Imeneo, a late and relatively lightweight piece (ie, it’s short!) about what happens when you’ve been rescued from a fate worse than death at the hands of pirates but then feel obliged to marry your rescuer, although your heart belongs to someone else. The dilemma unfolds May 16-19 under the direction of period-specialist conductor David Bates. Booking at tickets.ram.ac.uk

• Some people like the razzmatazz of Lang Lang, others prefer thoughtfully reflective pianism. And if you belong to the latter, you’ll want to hear the 50th birthday concert on May 19 of Paul Lewis, one of the most radiantly insightful artists on the UK keyboard circuit. He’s at the Barbican, playing Beethoven and Sibelius. barbican.org.uk

Lastly, if you’re in the neighbourhood of St James’s Islington on May 15, a young vocal quartet called Sonare are there with a programme of spring-related music: Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns and more. sonarechoir.com

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