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Edinburgh International Festival 2009 (14) - Bach at Greyfriars: Maria Keohane (soprano), European Union Baroque Orchestra, Lars Ulrik Mortensen (director, harpsichord), Greyfriars Kirk, 26.08.2009 (SRT) 

Handel: Silete venti

Bach: Concerto for harpsichord in D, BWV1054

Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, BWV202

There were lots of really quite diffuse elements here, by far the greatest of which was the playing of the EU Baroque Orchestra. This superb ensemble contains young players from across the EU and it generally acts as a bridge – hot-house, if you will – between Conservatory study and professional life. Their playing is really quite extraordinary. True, most orchestras comprised of young people impress with their sense of energy and vitality, but what impressed me here was the fantastic sense of living ensemble. They lean into every phrase with astonishing confidence and levels of skill that would shame many more senior groups. The sense of flow and community, so important to making music from the Baroque period, is palpable. It’s astonishing, then, that they create such a smooth sound under the belligerent direction of Mortensen! Watching him almost gave me a headache as he lunged around the keyboard, brining in sections with the most unnecessarily elaborate gestures I’ve ever seen from a conductor! From the look of him the music should have sounded fractured and obtuse, a little like his continuo accompaniment.

Showiness didn’t end with him: the opening of the Handel motet was made arrestingly dramatic. The strings evoked a real storm in their line, but the first words of the soprano soloist (“Be silent, winds”) were sung from the very back of the church, and Maria Keohane sang her opening lines while walking up the aisle towards the front. Fine, and in truth very effective, but in an entirely unnecessary touch Mortensen whirled round in his seat with a look of astonishment on his face and the rest of the players had a form of mild bemusement on their features too. Throughout the rest of the concert Keohane would often direct lines directly to Mortensen or to other members of the orchestra and it was quite bizarre to see! Throughout the programme I couldn’t quite make up my mind whether I liked this or not, but my mind was made up by her encore, a beautifully sung rendition of Semele’s O Sleep, why dost thou leave me? It was beautiful, pure and simple and so much more effective as a result. As for the voice itself, it’s rather richer than perhaps you would expect from a baroque soprano, full and refulgent and she really caught the acoustic of the building well.

The harpsichord concerto is a transcription of the more famous E major violin concerto that Bach made for his Collegium Musicum to play at their popular concerts in the Leipzig Coffee House, Zimmerman’s. It’s a lot less showy than the violin version, the harpsichord often blending into, almost subsumed by, the orchestral context. As such it came as blessed relief! The exuberance of the finale was irresistible.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 6th September at venues across the city. For full details go to


Simon Thompson

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