Le Siècle des Lumières

The Holburne Museum, Bath, Thursday July 18 2013

Ian Peter Bugeja: Conductor/Fortepiano. Colin Scobie: leader. Nicola Said: soprano. Clare Ghigo: mezzo-soprano. Cenk Karaferya: countertenor. Les Bougies Baroques.
  • Mozart: Serenade N° 13 for strings in G major, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik [K. 525]
  • Mozart: ‘Se l'augellin sen fugge' from La Finta Giardiniera [K. 196]
  • Gluck: ‘Che farò senza Euridice?' from Orfeo ed Euridice
  • Haydn: Symphony N° 26, Lamentatione [Hob. 1/26]
  • Azopardi: Overture in D major [Ed. Bertil van Boer]
  • Mozart: ‘Dal tuo gentil sembiante' from Ascanio in Alba [K. 111]
  • Mozart: ‘Al mio ben mi veggio avanti' from Ascanio in Alba [K. 111]
  • Gluck: 'Nel mirar solo i sembianti' and ‘Di lor ciglia un lampo' (Duet and finale) from Il Parnaso Confuso
  • Haydn: Keyboard Concerto N° 11 in D major for fortepiano and orchestra [Hob. XVIII/11].
I see, on its website, that the Holburne Museum is "in partnership with Bath Spa University." Just as McDonald's has its hamburger university, Bath, therefore, has its spa one, dispensing degrees magna cum laude in reflexology, hot stone, Thai and Ayurvedic massage. But, like a lot of what I write on this blog, this is only tenuously relevant...

Stepping out of the deliciously air-conditioned environment of my suite at the Royal Crescent Hotel into the steamy heat of Bath, this muggy Thursday evening, felt much like opening a dishwasher right at the end of the cycle. I set off for the concert, via the Circus and Pulteney Bridge, with some trepidation, fearing that on hard seats, in a hot and humid hall, our Bath buns would end up decidedly sticky. But it wasn't the hamam-like conditions in the distinctly un-air-conditioned environment of the Holburne Museum that had the swooning ladies fanning themselves with their programmes, but the presence of rapidly-rising Turkish heart-throb revelation Cenk Karaferya, the dark-eyed "Tarkan of Countertenors".

Most countertenors, Italians more than others, look like vegan consumptives on a bad day and sound - if you can hear them at all - like gas escaping from a (small) pipe. Karaferya is, fortunately for us all (swooning ladies especially) (a) not Italian and (b) the magnificent, meat-eating exception that proves the usually wimpish rule:  he is, thanks to his unique and now-famous mixed (muscular) chest and head voice, an incredible countertenor combination of Kaufmann (for sultry romance), Vickers (for stentorian oomph) and Florez (for the difficult, twiddly bits), forging fearlessly through prestissimo triplets, firing off top notes and taking no prisoners, like Mehmet the Conqueror storming the ramparts of Constantinople in 1453. Under the admiring gaze of Mr and Mrs George Byam and their eldest daughter Selina, on the rear wall, this worthy male heir to Leyla Gencer was stoutly heroic in the rapid sections of ‘Al mio ben mi veggio avanti' yet meltingly, heartbreakingly tragic in ‘Che farò senza Euridice?'

His partners, not in crime but in the sublime, Nicola Said and Clare Ghigo, looked - the latter in blue, the former in red - as if Devis's Alicia and Jane Clarke (similarly attired: a clever clin d'oeil) had stepped down from their gilded rococo frame - only younger, prettier and with more ample cleavage: pretty, indeed, as a picture and with perfectly-contrasted voices to match. The finale from Il Parnaso Confuso, in which all three joined glorious forces (not to mention the absence of air-conditioning) left the audience breathless.

As well as information about degrees in reflexology, the museum's website bears an appeal for help in buying a basket "probably made by a talented young girl in [a] wealthy household around the time of the Great Fire of London. Made from thousands of tiny glass beads threaded onto wire frames, it has much in common with the Holburne's wonderful collection of seventeenth-century silk embroideries. However where they have faded, here the glass beads retain their astonishingly vibrant colours. The glass heads and hands of Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza in the centre of the basket are exceedingly rare and important." When the museum goes on to say that "This is the perfect Holburne object: exquisitely made, historically fascinating, irresistibly charming and slightly mad," I can't help thinking the words also apply to the astonishingly vibrant, colourful Maltese maestro Ian Peter Bugeja, whose music-making - with the excellent Colin Scobie leading an ensemble at its absolute peak - in the orchestral works was simply as stunning (if I am to believe the swooning lady next to me) as his physique.

Karaferya and Bugeja take a break
during rehearsals
And it's Bugeja we must thank for reviving (with some assistance from Bertil van Boer) Azopardi's scintillating Overture in D major, one of the rare works still attributed to this scandalously neglected Maltese genius* whose other scores - operas, symphonies, concerti, sonatas, quartets... - were stolen by Mozart's father in Naples to be published and passed off as his feckless son's. That Azopardi's piece should be restored to its frightful - sorry, rightful place as the centrepiece of this outstanding evening's programme, taking pride of place over the usurper's, is only fitting. It was a privilege to be there.

But I wasn't.

*Known to Haydn as "The Virtuoso of Valletta", inspiration behind The Maltese Falcon and origin - in an exchange with the ageing Rameau, who in the midst of composing Les Boréades, had called on him for advice on the use of clarinets - of the witticism "How do you make a Maltese cross?"


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