REVIEW: Brighton Early Music Festival

‘Bach’s Secret Addiction’ – Little Baroque Company: Helen Kruger, dir, Claudia Norz (violins), Oakki Lau (viola), Natasha Kraemer (cello), Jacqueline Dossor (double bass), Eva Caballero (flute), Tom Foster (harpsichord), Andrew Glover (tenor & narrator), Francis Brett (baritone), Elizabeth Weisberg (soprano). At Brighton Early Music Festival – The Old Market, Hove

A Bach comedy? His music, funny? Take Johann Sebastian, the most famous daddy Bach, out of the chapel and into a cafe and what might you have on your hands? An ecclesiastical and court musician escaping cloisters and chambers, unbuttoning his shirt and having a larf?

Most definitely. Hands up who’s heard of Bach’s Coffee Cantata? A hall of a thousand people and perhaps 10 ‘Ayes’ raised . . . Which week of the protestant church calendar was that one written for, then? Why, every one of the 52. After all, in which week does the world ever abstain from drinking coffee?

Nothing’s changed. In the early 18th Century, Bach’s Leipzig, and Telemann’s, experienced the advent of the Baroque European coffee house and it’s beanie benefits. Both composers directed on a Friday night the student musical band Collegium Musicum which Telemann put together in Cafe Zimmerman, whose owner, Gottfried, Corrina Connor’s programme notes tell us, provided the musical instruments that lay beyond most people’s financial means, the harpsichord, bass and cellos.

A father 20 times, JS Bach may well have berated, in exasperation, daughters unable to function caffeineless, and feared them unable to concentrate adequately on the business of choosing and pleasing a mate. One such father and carefree coffeed -out daughter argue it out in the libretto of his Coffee Cantata − a composition which may have been secretly fuelled by more than 52 cups of it.

Sounds fun? Sounds like Bach to you? Hardly. But three full-house audiences at The Old Market were tempted to find out. They followed the 2013 London Handel Festival in sipping The Little Baroque Company’s brilliant discovery and fancying another cup. For three sell-out performances − late morning, early, then late afternoon − all sat at round tables surrounding full circle the 10 musicians, dropping cake crumbs down their fronts in delighted astonishment at the mini-opera they could barely conceive their hallowed Bach had written.

This was a brilliant coup by Brighton Early Music festival, nipping in before friendly rivals York to present a show that could go round the world, given, say, an imaginative global coffee brand in a sponsoring role. The 33-years-old bass player Jacqueline Dosser’s concept, together with fellow antipodean Ellie Cowan’s production, plus Elizabeth Gadsby’s production design, and Rebecca Glover’s stimulating coffee table sculptures featuring baroque shoes, is a big, broad smile.

The three singers move and perform among the audience and the players on their gut strings are a feisty band in full costume with coffee cups, saucers and other bits and pieces in their wigs. The colours don’t care. All the bright ice cream shades except, ironically, coffee (or chocolate), vibrate before you. Long dresses and skirts, frothy drapes and sashes. A splendid gold tabard on keyboardist Tom Foster with black embroidery.

And Bach would not have cared either, at the cheekily updated libretto with its references to modern coffee types and brands, and social media, all slipped shamelessly past the authenticists.

Coffee’s such a deluding substance. Poor Lisa in the story. At first she thinks coffee tastes better than a thousand kisses. A case, I’d guess, of impaired judgment, having repeatedly mistaken armies of frogs for princes. Soprano Elizabeth Weiszberg (Lisa) was announced before the performance as feeling below par. Had it been the contemplation of personal reform, and singing later of having a lusty lover instead of a mug of coffee before lights-out, that kept her going? More likely, though, the cafatiere in her dressing room.

Handel opened the show with his Overture to Ariodante (HWV33), with its distinctive and somewhat unsettling three sections. Then cameTelemann’s Overture-Suite ‘Burlesque de Quixotte’ (TWV 55:G10), like the Bach also a revelation. Seven contrasting and descriptive movements etched scenes from Don Quixote with colour, vigour and humour, with each title announced with dramatic flamboyance by Andrew Glover in full Handelian wig and striding across the room, from out of the shadows back into them.

The appearance of a flute in the ensemble spelt mischief afoot and we were into the Bach’s Coffee Cantata (BWV 211). It carries the name: “Schweight stille, plaudert night”. Jacqueline Dossor translated this for me as: “Be still, don’t chatter”.

After a coffee, of course, that’s a preposterous ask. But, hands up, hall of a thousand: who’s ever heard of a skit on the stuff by Mozart or Rossini? Credit where it’s due, then. And maybe Little Baroque Company will be given the resources to make BWV 211 suddenly world famous.

Richard Amey