Friday 15 May 2015

Baroque London: Music for Court and Salon

Rachel Podger -  © Jonas Sacks
Rachel Podger
© Jonas Sacks
Handel, Geminiani, Purcell, Boyce, Avison; Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque; The Aspect Foundation at the 20th Century Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Engaging and above all fun; music from 18th century London

In Baroque London: Music for Court and Salon, the Aspect Foundation continued its Music Capitals series at the Twentieth Century Theatre in Notting Hill on Wednesday 13 May 2015. Lecturer Richard Wigmore, was joined by violinist Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque (Pavlo Beznosiuk - violin, Alison McGillivray - cello, viola da gamba, Marcin Swiatkewicz - harpsichord) for an exploration of music in 17th and 18th century London with trio sonatas by Handel and Purcell, violin sonatas by Francesco Geminiani, William Boyce and Charles Avison.

Rachel Podger, Pavlo Beznosiuk, Alison McGillivray and Marcin Swiatkewicz started things off with Handel's Trio Sonata in D major, Op.5 No.2, HWV 397. Handel's Opus 5 sonatas were assembled for publication in 1739, few were written specifically for trio sonata with Handel re-using material from a variety of sources. Opus 5, no.2 seems to be full of dance movements thus making it a highly attractive sequence of movements. The two violinists made a fine-grained slim sound, and matching their tone well and throughout the evening the lively interaction and easy balance between Rachel Podger and Pavlo Beznosiuk was noticeable. Handel's trio sonata opened with a very affecting Adagio which led into a lively but steady Allegro with notable articulation. The Musette with its constant drones double stopping on one of the violins, made a charming movement and contrasted with the lively Allegro where the two violins played alone. A perky, almost toe-tapping March lead into a catchy gavotte.

Richard Wigmore then gave a fluent illustrated talk which sketched in the background to Handel's career in London, the only place in the 18th century where it might be possible for a composer to have a vigorous freelance career. Then he widened this into a discussion with Rachel Podger about the Geminiani violin sonata we were going to hear; 'Corelli on speed' was how she described it.

Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) settled in London two years after Handel. A famous violin virtuoso (he played for Handel), he published not only violin sonatas but in important violin method too. Rachel Podger played his Violin Sonata in D minor, Op.4 No.8. The opening Largo was slow and grand, but still highly elaborate on the violin. A rather steady Allegro followed, but the tempo simply made space for cascades of violin notes. All this was over a very plain accompaniment, this movement was all about the violin with harpsichord and cello coming a very poor second. A lovely lyrical Andante provided recompense as it turned into a lovely duet for violin and cello, with a busy Allegro concluding with lots of furious string crossing from Rachel Podger.

Pavlo Beznosiuk then returned to the platform to join Rachel Podger, Alison McGillivray and Marcin Swiatkiewicz in Sonata no. 6 in G minor, Z807 from 10  Sonatas in 4 Parts by Henry Purcell (1659-1695), published posthumously by his widow Frances and, along with the 12 Sonatas in 3 Parts an important use of a separate basso-continuo part for the harpsichord in emulation of the famed Italian masters. Sonata no. 6 though is very French, being a single movement Chaconne. Over a steady walking bass the two violins duetted fabulously, giving us a real feel of them circling round and round the bass line, sparking off each other. And being Purcell, there were some lovely 'naughty bits' in the harmony.

The first half concluded with a sonata by Handel's younger contemporary William Boyce (1711-1779). Boyce's Twelve Sonatas for Two Violins, with a Bass for the Violoncello or Harpsicord'  was published in 1747 and the group performed Sonata no.1 in A minor. This opened with a gently lyrical and melodic Largo with a bass line which often let the cello off loose to add interest. The Allegro was a lively fugue for two violins and cello (supported by harpsichord), which was almost toe-tapping. Th final Allegro had the two violins echoing each other, but with a busy cello too making it much more string trio like in texture. Throughout the piece you got a real sense of the players enjoyment in the material.

The second half opened with Richard Wigmore talking about Henry Purcell and his career in London, before widening into a discussion with Pavlo Beznosiuk about the work of Charles Avison (whose work was described as 'music to ogle Mr Darcy by').

The Sonata for harpsichord, 2 violins and cello in D marjo, Op.8 No.3 by Charles Avison (1707-1770) was clearly designed to capture the amateur market with major harpsichord part and very subsidiary string parts. The opening March was rather charming and appealing, for all its directness, with some lovely cadenza-like moments for the keyboard. The concluding Aria was a very graceful, Allegretto movement.

Handel's Violin Sonata in A major, Op.1 No.3, HWV 361 survives in manuscript thus giving us security about its origins (some of the other sonatas are rather more dubious). Pavlo Beznosiuk played it just with Marcin Swiatkewicz at the keyboard. The opening Andante contrasted a gently moving keyboard part with a fluidly flowing violin with some almost rhapsodic prelude-like moments. Despite the profusion of violin notes, Pavlo Beznosiuk make it very graceful indeed.  A perky Allegro followed, with a short Adagio leading to a bouncy jig-like final Allegro.

Henry Purcell's 12 Sonatas of 3 Parts were published in his lifetime. The group played two of the sonatas No. 6 in C major Z795 and No. 3 in D minor Z792. Both have roughly the same format, begin fast, slow, fast with a short slow introduction. What was is memorable about the music was the sheer melodic felicity of Purcell's inventive mind. In no. 6, slow moving violins over a mobile cello part led to a perky fugal movement, with a lyrical Largo and a short, final lively canonic Allegro. In no. 3 we opened with a grave movement with dramatic double dotting, again followed by a lively canonic movement. The graceful slow section led to an Allegro with cascades of notes.

Finally, more Handel to finish with, his Trio Sonata in G minor Op.2 No. 8 HWV 393 which may or may not be by Handel but which is notable all the same. A graceful Andante over a walking bass, led to a vigorous Allegro. In the elegant Largo we had two finely intertwining violin lines, and a short but involving final Allegro with a real sense of dialogue.

Richard Wigmore's fluent and informative lectures were highly engaging. His knowledge of the lives of Handel and Purcell was clearly very great and he had a nicely casual way of putting this knowledge across, but I felt that the evening could have done with a slightly less biographical approach and that given the varied nature of the music a more general musical background to 18th century London might have helped put the pieces into context.

Throughout the evening, there was a lively sense of communication from Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque with the audience and feel of dialogue and sparking off each other by the players. Historical performance practice involves combining technical knowledge, historical information with musicality and sheer technical prowess to create a performance. Sometime one aspect tends to dominate, with a sense of deliberateness to the performance as it becomes about the historical re-creation, or simply by being about the virtuosity itself. Rachel Podger showed that it was possible to balance all, and still perform with a winning sense of charm. She and the other players wore their learning lightly, folding it into the performance along with considerable technical skill. The resulting performances were first and foremost engaging and vital, but underpinned with musicality, historical information and technique. But, above all they were fun!

The audience was rightly enthusiastic and were were rewarded with an encore, a Round by Nicola Matteis who was another visitor to the UK.

Rachel Podger's Brecon Baroque Festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary with Bach in Leipzig which opens with Bach's St John Passion in Brecon Cathedral on Friday 23 October 2015.
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