St. John's, Bassenthwaite, Cumbria

A full house for the opening concert of the 11th Bassenthwaite Festival at St, John’s Church. Bassenthwaite in Cumbria is a village at the foot of Skiddaw (931 m,) England’s fourth highest mountain. David Gibbs’ introductory remarks as Director introduced a festival programme featuring the work of just one composer, the British composer Henry Purcell (1659-95). This opening concert included a semi-staged performance of Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, two odes and two instrumental pieces.

The wooden ceiling of St. John’s added acoustic warmth to Lakeland stone. The instrumental performers meshed well in the revealing but sympathetic acoustic; the singers clearly enjoyed the lively and supportive acoustic too. The strong winds of recent days had abated so no wind noise, the church clock wasn’t striking nor was there car traffic. A few cows calling their calves. Even a helicopter passing nearby during the quiet Adagio of the Sonata in F failed to disrupt the calm.

Henry Purcell’s music is anything but calm, except of course when he wants to be calm. David Gibbs had reminded us how well Purcell writes for the voice and how he establishes a harmonic environment and just when the listener thinks he has understood the composer’s musical rhetoric, Purcell “twists the knife” with apparently crazy jumps. In my words, Purcell’s music is not about the structure, which is apparently simple, but is about the musical environment. Playing this music in the idyllic calm of a country church in a National Park makes this even more apparent, emphasising Henry Purcell’s discordant harmonies.

The instrumental group were fantastic, playing fluidly and with good solid ensemble. Virtuosi themselves but playing as ensemble and providing the musical bedrock for the vocal performers.

During the interval of wine and nibbles, we ventured to the brisk cool outside the church to watch the light change as dusk came on Skiddaw, The stage was reconfigured on and around the chancel step for the performance of Dido & Aeneas.

The Sorceress started Act 2 with gusto, the audience suddenly “got” the opera and the show gathered justified confidence. The solo witches played the acoustic and played off each other and the audience loved them. If the Vicar of St..John’s was present he didn’t stop heretics bewitching from his chancel step!

The two big tunes of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas are in Act 3. Both gained clarity and understanding from listening to this performance. The Sailors’ chorus was sung with gusto but perhaps a touch more of church reverence than High Seas lilt but this placed it clearly within in Purcell’s careful musical construction. Dido’s lament was sung with great authority, the performance gripping the full church. A long pause after the reflective instrumental finale and then fulsome applause.

Coming out to a chilly but colourful sunset over the Solway Forth and a full moon in a crystal blue sky.

St John's Church, Bassenthwaite, Cumbria
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas
Ensemble Buxtehude; David Gibbs – Director

Henry Purcell
Sonata in F The “Golden Sonata” Z. 810
See where she sits Z. 508
Chacony Z. 730
Raise, Raise the Voice Z. 334
Dido & Aeneas Z. 626

Philippa Dodd
Karen Filsell
Barbara Gibson
Patricia Rees-Jones
Fiona Weakley
Michael Deakin
Anne-Marie Kerr
Jerry King
Ian Wright
Pail im Thurn
Jonathan Millocan
David Rees-Jones

Julian Cann - Violin
Clare Douglas –Violin
Ian Wright – Violin
Sally Bell – Viola
Ed Pendrous – Cello