Sunday 8 July 2012

A Night at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Caneletto painted this famous view of the Grand Walk in 1751.
Canaletto - The Grand Walk, 1751
For two hundred years Spring Gardens at Vauxhall was the site of one of London's major attractions, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Founded in the 1660's, in the 1720's the gardens were taken over by the entrepreneur, Jonathan Tyers who turned the place into a festival of art, architecture and music, the place to see and be seen, the place for assignations. Music was important, there was a resident band of around 15 musicians, both Thomas Arne and James Hooke were musical directors, Paganinni played there twice and the vocalists who sang there in the 18th century were the pop stars of the day.

The site of Neptune Fountain is now St. Peter's Church,Kennington Lane, a glorious 19th century gothic church by JL Pearson, rather forbidding outside, it is a high church gem within. This was the site for London Early Opera's concert on 7 July, A Night at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The group, under harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham has just recorded the programme for CD, and this performance was part of St Peter's Church Music Festival, intended to raise money for their historic T.C.Lewis organ

With singers Ildiko Allen and Greg Tassell, Cunningham and her players performed a selection of music either written for the pleasure gardens or by composers associated with them. These were interspersed with readings by Dr Alan Borg co-author of the book, A comprehensive history of Vauxhall Gardens, 1661-1859 recently published by Yale.

We opened with Arne's Morning Cantata, five short movements, linked arias and recitatives, which charmingly depicted morning in the village. Affectingly sung by Ildiko Allen with clear bright tones, she was joined by in some movements by the delightful recorder of Jennifer Bullock. This was Arne writing in charming sub-Handelian pastoral vein. Next came Handel's Menuet from the Water Music, followed by Alan Borg's with an amusing description of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens by Addison from the Spectator in 1712.

John Worgan was organist at the gardens for many years. His Piece No. VII in D minor was played on the Lewis organ of St. Peter's Church by Daniel Moult. Taking the form of a prelude and toccata, it was somewhat lerned with hints of other music, emphasising the way that all the composers on the programme, both known and unknown, were part of a musical community.

William Boyce's strophic song, Spring Gardens, was given by Greg Tassell with harsichord and cello accompaniment. This was a lightly amusing ode to Spring Gardens, sung by Tassell with firm lyric tones, thou he seemed a little pressed at the top.

Alan Borg then mentionned the famous diarists; John Evelyn's diary is one of the earliest mentions we have of the gardens (1661), and Pepys visited 23 times during the course of his diaries, to walk, drink, entertain both his wife and other women. Finally we had a verse in praise of the gardens by Charles Selby.

John Hebden's Concerto Opus 2, No. 1 in A major was a well-made Corelli influenced concerto grosso, given a lively and well toned performance by the ensemble with solo contributions from Eleanor Harrison and Phil Yeeles. Though a relatively small body of strings, they played with a surprising rich depth of tone, helped by the gloriously warm acoustic.

Ildiko Allen's performance of The Ladies in Vaux-Hall - Gardens to the British Officers at Dettingen by T. Gladwin was musically apposite but rather lacking in diction, making it difficult to follow the text. Alan Borg then described how in 1729, Jonathan Tyers turned Vauxhall Gardens into the most fashionable place in London. It is worth pointing out that with London Bridge the only bridge over the Thames, access was by carriage over London Bridge or via the ferry.

Handel was a friend of Jonathan Tyers and though never resident composer was much associated with the pleasure gardens. In fact his rehearal there of the music for the Royal Fireworks got an audience of 12,000 and caused an almighty crush.

Tassell sang the aria Descend Kind Pity from Handel's penultimate oratorio Theodora. Singing from memory, Tassell gave an intense and serious account of the aria, with firm tones, good line and admirable diction. The first half ended with the only piece by Handel known to have been written for the gardens, The Vauxhall Hornpipe. Hardly the best Handel but given a spirited and lively rendering by the band.

Ildiko Allen opened part two with Hush ye Pretty Warbling Choir from Handel's Acis and Galatea with Jennifer Bullock contributing a fine recorder solo. The aria would seem to have been taken from the Canons version, as the viola player Nichola Blakey abandoned her instrument for one which emulated the tones of a nightingale. Allen's performance was stylistically apt and dramatically appealing, though her runs were inclined to be smudged.

Alan Borg then described Vauxhall Gardens in its heydey in the 18th century, with music provided by the theatre and opera musicians, working there during the summer when the theatres were closed.

Daniel Moult played Handel's Organ Concerto Opus 4, No. 2 on a chamber organ. Though the instrument was slightly under-powered for the work, the advantage of the Opus 4 concertos is that Handel fully worked out the organ part for publication. And Moult gave us some very nifty finger work. Granted, in the tutti passages, balance was a problem, but in the extended solo sections he displayed some neat organ playing, with verve and vivacty with some rather deft speeds. An attractive and lively performance.

Handel's song, There sweetest flowers setting words by Milton, is from the group of items that Handel wrote for Milton's masque, Comus. It was an attractively melodic song, and was sung with neat attractiveness by Allen. Then Alan Borg's description of Vauxhall's later years covered a sonnet by Keats and visits by Haydn, who commented that the music was fairly good. The musical director at this time was James Hooke who wrote some 2000 songs and 20 organ concertos for the gardens.

John Frederick Lampe (best known for his opera, The Dragon of Wantley), was another composer associated with the gardens. His strophic Song, The Farewell to Vaux-Hall was nicely put over by Tassell, sung with good firm tones. This was followed by Allen's lively and captivating, if not entirely polished, singing of Endless Pleasure from Handel's Semele. Perhaps not strictly associatd with the gardens, but in sentiments very apt.

After Alan Borg's decrption of the gardens sad decline, we had a fine performance of As steals the morn upon the night from L'Allegro, its pastoral vein entirely suited to the programme and a lovely way to end the concert. As an encore all concerned gave a lively performance of an early 18th century version of the National Anthem, less grandiose than the present arrangement and with al the verses celebrating Cumberland's victory over the Scots.

St Peter's music festival continues all week. There was a piano recital by Lesley Howard on 8 July, Clare Goodall's Sex, Lyres and Audiotape on 10 July, A Joy of Sound workshop on 13 July and on 15 July choral evensong with St. Peter's Singers, giving the first performance of a new Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis commissioned for the church from Ian Shaw. Full details on the church website.

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