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The Academy of Ancient Music: the history of the Cambridge-based orchestra and its best recordings of 18th-century music

We chart the history of The Academy of Ancient Music, from its formation in 1973 and discover some of its best recordings

Christopher Hogwood, composer and founder of the Academy of Ancient Music
Published: January 12, 2022 at 4:35 pm

Harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood founded this Cambridge-based orchestra in 1973 – pre-dating Roger Norrington’s London Classical Players (formed 1978) and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (1986).

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What type of music does the The Academy of Ancient Music perform?

Named after an early 18th-century London organisation, the Academy of Ancient Music principally performs 18th-century repertoire on authentic or faithfully reproduced instruments of the period. Hogwood also researched original music manuscripts and treatises to discover as much as possible the composers’ original intentions.

Which are its most famous recordings?

His 1980 recording with the AAM of Handel’s Messiah, with its lively tempos and translucent sound, seemed to strip centuries of portentous performance style to reveal the work in its original vibrant colours. Their recording of Mozart’s symphonies that followed redefined what period instrument performance was about, and Hogwood and the AAM proceeded to storm the Billboard Classical charts: their album Pachelbel Canon reached No. 3 in 1983, ahead of any other orchestral album.

Does The Academy of Ancient Music ever play anything modern?

It hasn’t all been about ‘ancient music’. Paul Goodwin, appointed associate conductor in 1995, commissioned new works for the AAM, starting with John Tavener’s Eternity’s Sunrise; David Bedford, John Woolrich and Thea Musgrave have also composed for the AAM. Richard Egarr succeeded Hogwood as artistic director in 2006, holding the post until the 2020-21 season. Taking over the batten in 2022 is Laurence Cummings

5 other great recordings from The Academy of Ancient Music

Dussek: Messe Solemnelle

Orchestra and Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr, et al (AAM)

Our expert reviewer Jan Smaczny said: 'The work is fluent, imaginatively orchestrated with impressive contrapuntal writing. There are some fascinating harmonic touches, notably in the ‘Qui tollis’ and the expressive ‘Et incarnatus’. The ‘Et resurrexit’ is intoxicatingly uproarious and the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ charming.

'This enjoyable, well recorded rendition, with lovely solo singing, has clear passionate advocacy; notwithstanding the odd rough edge the performance does Dussek’s mass proud.'

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Castello’s Sonate concertate in stil moderno and Book I

Academy of Ancient Music/ Richard Egarr (harpsichord)

Our expert reviewer Paul Riley said: 'Egarr fields an octet of all the talents, wonderfully in tune both with Castello and each other. The result, gloriously idiomatic, beautifully recorded, is a truly life-enhancing set.

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Handel: Brockes-Passion

BBC Music Magazine says: 'Egarr recognises Handel’s often vivid responses to Brockes’s graphic text and draws from them deeply-felt, contrasting emotions.’

Eccles: Semele

Anna Dennis (soprano), et al; Cambridge Early Opera; Academy of Ancient Music/Julian Perkins (AAM)

Our expert reviewer Berta Joncus says: 'John Eccles’s sexy, sparkling opera bursts to life – finally! Shelved in 1706, Semele has never been professionally recorded, so this production was worth waiting for. Cast, band, director and sound are all top-notch, restoring Eccles’s score to its full glory.

'The Academy of Ancient Music’s playing is just as fascinating. Perkins directs from the harpsichord with a demonic intensity. When individual band members take over the storytelling, their solos gild Eccles’s invention with their own. Lost instrumental numbers – symphonies, dances, ritornellos – known on the page only from stage directions, are here taken from other Eccles compositions. They give the AAM further opportunity to strut, from the regal Overture (from his Rinaldo and Armida), to the sparkling ‘Dance of the Zephyrs’ (from his Aires).'

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Valls: Missa Regalis, etc

The Choir of Keble College, Oxford; Academy of Ancient Music/Matthew Martin, et al (AAM)

Our expert reviewer Berta Joncus says: 'Elegant and fresh-voiced, the Keble College choristers sparkle throughout their reading of Valls’s dense score. Matthew Martin deploys the choir’s blend and disciplined ensemble to give bite to motivic entries and word-play. He sounds the super-lively Keble Chapel like an instrument, slowing tempos and artfully delaying vocal entries to give climaxes maximum space, and himself takes to the keyboard between movements to perform little-known Spanish organ toccatas (‘tientos’) by Arauxo and Cabanilles.

'Altogether, this is a magnificent production of a regal mass.'

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Read our reviews of the latest recordings from the Academy of Ancient Music

Authors

daniel jaffe
Daniel JafféJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Daniel Jaffé has been associated with BBC Music Magazine since 2004 when he was the reviews editor, working in that post until he went freelance in 2011. Previously he was on the editorial teams of Classic CD and Gramophone. He is a specialist in both Russian and 20th-century British music.

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