The term Baroque can be new to many music lovers. When I told a friend I was going to this festival she quizzically asked ‘the Ardee rock festival’? An understandable mistake. As the predominant musical style of the 17th century Baroque music can have a flamboyant and often decorative style which reflects the aesthetics of the time. Think Handel’s Messiah or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and you’re on the canvas.
Now in it’s 14th year the Ardee Baroque Festival has garnered quite a local following in the North East becoming what the Irish Times called ‘a music festival that could hold it’s head up anywhere’. Although having a programme of events over a full weekend which included concerts, poetry, youth engagement & education the headline performance was at the historic St. Mary’s Abbey. We gathered in this beautifully maintained church to welcome the festival’s anchor ensemble and perennial favourites the Irish Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Claire Duff who were joined by soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace for a concert of instrumental and vocal pieces heavily weighted towards Handel although Corelli and Telemann did make guest appearances.
Opening appropriately enough with Corelli’s Christmas Concerto, the slow introduction of the first movement quickly gave way to a full baroque soundscape of strings, harpsichord and the vigorous bass which underpins this seasonal masterpiece. The mood well and truly set, soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace then introduced us to the operatic genius of Handel with the slowly rhythmic and aching Ah, Mio Cor from Alcina and Son Contenta Di Morire, an aria which Sinéad is familiar with following her tour playing Zenubia in Opera Northern Ireland’s recent production of Radamisto. A pacey and wonderfully decorative piece of vocal acrobatics which she reprised with aplomb and which displayed the development of Sinéad’s voice to incorporate deeper mezzo roles.
The evening continued with a Telemann Concerto which had the added treat of Miriam Kaczor, a graduate of the Royal Irish Academy of Music taking the lead on baroque flute. Not an instrument you immediately associate with the Baroque style, the delicacy of the flute was beautifully supported by the subtle playing of the string ensemble.
After a brief intermission it was Handle all the way with a selection from the ever popular Messiah. If God Be For Us lulled us with it’s lush harmonies before Sinéad gifted us another coloratura spectacular with Rejoice Greatly lifting our spirits on a very cold and damp evening. After another Concerto Grosso we returned again to the operatic stage for the urgent and rather intense Ma Quando Tourerai also from Alcina before finally being treated to Lascia Ch’io Pianga from Rinaldo, a beautiful and emotionally intense aria which enjoys huge popularity.
There is currently a lot of renewed interest in Baroque and indeed early music in general. You only need look at the success of smaller festivals like Ardee Baroque Festival and East Cork Early Music Festival right up to the large scale revivals of early operas. Of course there really is no substitute for the live experience of accomplished performers, often playing period instruments, to bring the enduring beauty of this music to life.