Tuesday 30 November 2021

A snapshot of London musical life in 17th and 18th centuries from Ensemble Hesperi at Temple Church

John Playford (engraving by David Loggan)
John Playford (engraving by David Loggan)

Handel, Purcell, Blow, Playford, Oswald; Ensemble Hesperi; Temple Music at Temple Church

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The period instrument ensemble exploring music by the web of musicians who lived or worked near Temple during the late 17th and early 18th centuries

During the late 17th and 18th centuries, the area around the Temple was home to quite a number of musicians. During the 1640s, John Playford opened a music shop by Temple Church and his business would remain in the area, whilst John Walsh would open his music shop in the nearby Strand in the 1690s. Other musicians lived in the area also, and it was this web of connections that Ensemble Hesperi explored in their concert in Temple Church on Monday 29 November 2021 for Temple Music. The ensemble, Mary-Jannet Leith (recorders), Magdalena Loth-Hill (baroque violin), Florence Petit (baroque cello), Thomas Allery (harpsichord), has become known for its exploration of Scottish 17th and 18th century music, and their Temple Church programme included some of James Oswald's music from their recent disc Full of the Highland Humours [see my review] alongside music by Purcell, Handel, Farinel, Pepusch, Finger, Blow and Matteis plus tunes from Playford's A Collection of Original Scotch Tunes and the English Dancing Master.

Thomas Playford's shop was the first music shop as we know it, and it was home to his music business. Samuel Pepys would queue up at the shop to buy the latest music by Henry Purcell, and Playford's son Henry would collaborate with Purcell's widow in printing more of the composer's music. Henry Playford also conducted auctions of music libraries (generally after someone had died), and when the composer Gottfried Finger failed to win the competition to write an opera based on John Eccles' libretto, The Judgement of Paris, the composer left London for good and Walsh auctioned his library. As Playford's business declined, John Walsh developed his, notable for his publishing of Handel's music (at first pirating it and then in collaboration with the composer).

James Oswald was one of a number of Scottish composers based in the capital, producing music for English audiences that evoked Scottish traditional tunes. He published a collection of 96 tunes themed around the seasons, each piece named for a flower. Throughout the recital three of these were threaded, The Tulip and The Marigold from Airs for the Spring, and The Sweet Sultan from Airs for the Autumn.

The programme explored the web of connections to musicians living or working around Temple, providing us with a delightful snapshot of London musical life in the late 17th and early 18th century. The larger scale works in the evening included Handel's Trio Sonata in F major, a four-movement work that moved between slow but elegant and virtuoso and toe-tapping, and which demonstrated the ensemble's engaging way with the music, playing full of character and delight in the music. Throughout the evening, there was a lively sense of ensemble and making the music matter.

Henry Purcell produced his Sonatas in three parts at a time when music was changing and the Italian style of basso continuo was coming in. He originally wrote the music in three parts, but later added a continuo part. We heard the original version, with violin, recorder and cello creating a striking texture. Purcell's expressive use of passing dissonances in the slower movements lent emotional weight, whilst the fast ones were lively and dance-like.

Purcell's mentor, friend and teacher, John Blow was involved with Temple as a result of the Battle of the Organs. In 1684, rival organ builders Renatus Harris and Father Smith both erected organs in Temple Church in a bid to get a new contract. Each builder hired distinguished organists to play them. Smith hired both Purcell and Blow, and Smith won. We heard Blow's only trio sonata, a lovely and striking piece that moved from slow grandeur to elegantly melodic and perkily virtuosic, before returning to slow grandeur at the end.

There were novelties too, Gottfried Finger (he of the opera composition competition) was represented by his Sonata No. 1 in F major, performed by recorder, harpsichord and cello; an interesting work that moved from the elegantly melodic to lively dances in triple time. Shorter works gave solo moments for individual instruments, so we had The Faronell's Ground from The Division Violin by French composer Michel Farinel, the prelude from Johann Christoph Pepusch's The Division Flute and Handel's solo harpsichord Chaconne in F major.

Playford was not neglected. Mary-Jannet Leith played two contrasting airs from his A Collection of Original Scotch Tunes, Full of the Highland Humours, and then the ensemble performed two numbers from Playford's best selling publication, The English Dancing Master, a work that included both tunes and instructions for various English country dances.  And whilst we couldn't dance to them, the ensemble's enthusiasm for the music was infectious.

The last work in the programme returned us to the influence of Scottish music on other composers, with Ground after the Scotch Humour from Ayers for the Violin, Italian composer and violinist Nicola Matteis' influential publication from 1676. It is a delightful piece, the divisions over the ground got progressively more complex, bringing an imaginative concert to a lively end.

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