Monday 27 March 2017

Music for the Sun King: An exploration of 18th century music & dance at Royal Academy of Music

Mary Collins and Steven Player (Photo Andrea Liu)
Mary Collins and Steven Player (Photo Andrea Liu)
Music for the Sun King Mouret, Lully, Couperin, Rebel, Purcell, Handel, Corelli; London Handel Players, Academy Baroque Ensemble, Rachel Brown, Adrian Butterfield, Laurence Cummings; London Handel Festival at Royal Academy of Music
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 24 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Fancy footwork and instrumental bravura in a programme exploring music and dance

Dance was everywhere in the 18th century, there was dance of course in theatre and opera as well as the nascent ballet, and dance was an important part of the social fabric. And of course operatic melodies were re-used for social dances and even opera arias used dance-forms like the sarabande and the minuet.

This was the backdrop to the London Handel Festival's Music for the Sun King at the Royal Academy of Music's Duke's Hall on Friday 24 March 2017. Laurence Cummings directed an ensemble comprising members of the London Handel Players and the Academy Baroque Ensemble, with Rachel Brown (flute), Adrian Butterfield (violin) and Milly Forrest (soprano) plus the dancers Mary Collins and Steven Player.

Laurence Cummings, Adrian Butterfield, Rachel Brown, Academy Baroque Ensemble (Photo Andrea Liu)
Laurence Cummings, Adrian Butterfield, Rachel Brown &
Academy Baroque Ensemble (Photo Andrea Liu)
The ensemble had spent a week working with the dancers matching steps to the articulations and bowings of the music. The ensemble comprised 20 players including five members of the London Handel Players, along with Laurence Cummings directing from the harpsichord, and a three student relay on the second harpsichord.

What the evening demonstrated was the remarkable way the choreography counterpointed the music, the virtuosic footwork becoming another element in the piece.

We opened with a group of piece made for the French court. The Symphonie de fanfare by Jean-Joseph Mouret (1682-1738) made a perky entrance piece (complete with Cameron Johnson's trumpet). Then we heard the Suite La Bourgogne with choreography by Louis Pecour (1651 - 1729), and anonymous music arranged by Rachel Brown. Brown explained that notated choreography of the period (usually sequences of foot patterns) survives with music as a single anonymous melodic line. Research can usually uncover the musical originals but for La Bourgogne none have been discovered so Brown had arranged the music for a similar ensemble to Rebel's Les caracteres de la danse which closed the first half. This was a string of short, characterful dances with surprisingly lively footwork in the faster movements and an engaging sense of vitality to the movements seemed to interrupt each other.

Next followed a sequence from the opera Atys by Jean-Baptise Lully (1632 - 1687). First a light textured sarabande, a solo for Mary Collins, where the choreography seemed an interesting counterpoint to the music. Then Collins was joined by soprano Milly Forrest for Air pour un zephir, with Forrest's highly communicative singing (and movement too) complemented by Collins' dance and finally a lively gavotte.

There followed another anonymous piece, arranged by Rachel Brown, Sarabande non dancée a l'opéra, in other words danced at court or another setting. Given as a solo for Steven Player, Brown explained how the choreography tried to evoke the striking descriptions we have of male solos. The music for two flutes (Rachel Brown & Ophelia Zhao) and continuo complemented by Player's stylise yet strong dance with plenty of showy moments for arms and legs.

The Passacaille from Lully's opera Persée was choreographed in 1703 and 1710 by Louis Pécour. In this piece we went beyond simple character, Mary Collins and Steven Player developed quite a sense of drama in the dance. Next we went into the King's chamber for Francois Couperin' Concerto No. 4 for flute and continuo from Concerts Royaux, played by Rachel Brown and Laurence Cummings, a piece which we known was played to Louis XIV, one Sunday afternoon in his chamber. This was intimate, civilised entertainment, with Rachel Brown showing off a lovely range of colours in the flute.

The final work in the first half was Les caractères de la danse by Jean-Fery Rebel (1686-1747) which was choreographed by a number of people. The version we saw introduced a character who linked Paris and London, the dancer Marie Sallé whose company worked with Handel, and on whose version the evening;s choreography was based. Here we had narrative dance, a series of situations by turns amusing and serious.

The second half opened with a crisply characterful account of Purcell's Abdelazer Suite with a nice relaxed feel to the playing. And it was fascinating to hear Britten's tune in its original context.

There followed a group of pieces from operas by Handel. First Scipione, with the vigorous overture and the march which proved a surprisingly combination of dance and the march. Next 'Ho perduto il caro sposo' from Rodelinda sung by Milly Forrest and 'Se potessi un di placare' from Tamerlano where there was an interesting counterpoint between the vocal solo and the dance. These two were not danced originally, but the idea of the performance was to explore the interaction between the dance form of the music (the first a sarabande, the second a gavotte) and choreography, especially as the rhythms of the Italian texts sometimes went against the underlying dance rhythms.

A performance of the Violin Sonata, op. 5 no. 12 in D minor, 'La follia' by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) arranged for violin and ensemble by Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762), with a violin solo from Adrian Butterfield, was complemented by some striking Spanish-inspired choreography with plenty of tapping of feet and heels in counterpoint the violin, creating a surprisingly vivid combination.

Next came the Andante from the Overture to Handel's Admeto which was a gavotte in form, and again showcased Cameron Johnson's trumpet. Finally we heard a suite from Handel's opera Il pastor fido the first performance of which included Marie Sallé and her dance troupe. The seven pieces were appealingly characterful with some surprisingly strong choreography. And it was tempting to thing that you could detect differences between the choreography and the French inspired first half.

This was an engaging and intriguing programme, which made you think more about the way we see and hear baroque music and I certainly hope that we get further explorations of baroque dance.

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