Orchestra insight: Academy of Ancient Music

Andrew Mellor Fri 20th July 2018

Andrew Mellor profiles Britain’s first full-scale orchestra playing on period-specific instruments, which has made more than 300 recordings

Academy of Ancient Music (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Academy of Ancient Music (photo: Marco Borggreve)

Fact file

  • Founded

    1973 

  • Home

    London and is also Orchestra-in-Residence in Cambridge

  • Music Director

    Richard Egarr (2006-)

  • Founding Music Director

    Christopher Hogwood (1973-2006)

The recording industry spawned many an orchestra in the early- to mid-20th century. But was the Academy of Ancient Music the last of its offspring? Britain’s first full-scale orchestra playing on period-specific instruments was born of a pub conversation between Christopher Hogwood and the Decca producer Peter Wadland after a recording session involving a different Academy altogether, that of St Martin in the Fields.

Hogwood had been working as a harpsichordist and editor with the ASMF when he was approached by Wadland, the zealous and perfectionistic boss of Decca’s early music imprint L’Oiseau-Lyre. Wadland probed Hogwood: could an ensemble of similar size to ASMF, but using only instruments authentic to the music being played, be assembled in London? If the Dutch and the Viennese could do it, the English surely could too. In March 1973 the Academy of Ancient Music was recording Overtures by Thomas Arne for Wadland’s microphones.

Establishing early music ensembles was in vogue in 1973. The same year produced The Tallis Scholars, The English Concert and the Taverner Consort and Players. But the stars were aligned for the AAM. Wadland and Hogwood got on. The advent of the CD was around the corner. According to Sir Nicholas Kenyon, Hogwood had fully ‘absorbed Neville’s [Marriner] incredible professionalism about how to make recordings’.

Plenty followed. To barely even scrape the surface, we could mention Handel’s Messiah with the Choir of Christ Church Oxford in 1980 and from 1979 a set of Mozart’s symphonies as complete as complete could then be. ‘The Mozart symphony project did for us as Harnoncourt’s Bach Cantatas did for him,’ Hogwood told Gramophone a decade later.

At that time, the AAM was deep into Mozart and fast approaching Beethoven. Already, the group’s characteristics were known: an incisiveness which appeared new to rhetorical music; a taming of ‘new’ old instruments in search of tasteful musical balance; and a firm rhythmic foundation (‘that relentlessly over-emphatic sense of rhythm which is a Hogwood trademark,’ wrote Hilary Finch in Gramophone’s May 1988 issue).

That the AAM can claim to be ‘the most listened-to period instrument ensemble online’ is connected to its catalogue of over 300 recordings made during the CD boom. But the ensemble is still at it. Sample its two recent Bach Passion recordings under Hogwood’s successor Richard Egarr, and we hear once more the incisive pointing, vivid colour and, yes, strident rhythms for which the ensemble was recognised from the start. 

Listen to our special AAM playlist on Qobuz

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