Monday 15 November 2021

From 'The Poppy' to 'Hit Her on the Bum': Ensemble Hesperi's debut disc, Full of the Highland Humours

Full of the Highland Humours; Ensemble Hesperi; EM Records

Full of the Highland Humours
; Ensemble Hesperi; EM Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 November 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Ensemble Hesperi turns its attention to London, to celebrate the Scottish music popular in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London

Ensemble Hesperi is a young quartet of performers (Mary-Jannet Leith - recorders, Magdalena Loth-Hill - Baroque violin, Florence Petit - Baroque cello, Thomas Allery - harpsichord) who are shedding new light on Scottish Baroque music and their innovative performances have included collaborations with a Highland dancer [see my interview].

For their debut disc on EM Records, Full of the Highland Humours, Ensemble Hesperi turns its attention to London, to celebrate the Scottish music popular in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London - by Scottish composers who spent most of their career there, and by Italian composers inspired by traditional Scots melodies. So we have a disc which mixes music by such London-based Scottish figures as James Oswald and Robert Bremner, a Scottish aristocrat, the Earl of Kellie, Italian composers Giuseppi Sammartini, Nicola Matteis and Francesco Geminiani, along with a tune from a Henry Playford collection. The music can be a long way from what we think of as Scottish, even when tunes are quoted directly they are tidied up and regularised, made suitable for those 18th-century drawing rooms..

Whilst the musical traditions of Highland and Lowland Scotland were entirely separate, seen from London, Scotsmen were Scotsmen and their music was uniform. This developed further as after the Union (in 1707), the Scots sought to forge a coherent cultural identity as Scotsmen (and women) flocked to London. Undoubtedly, Scots came to London in King James I's retinue in 1603 and there were Scots tunes in London in the 17th century, but it was not until 1700 that Henry Playford published the first collection of Scots tunes in London, with the by-line 'Full of the Highland Humours'.

James Oswald was one of the most successful London-based Scottish composers, eventually becoming chamber composer to King George III. Oswald's Airs for the Seasons comprises 96 short pieces published in four seasonal collections. And Ensemble Hesperi spread a selection throughout the recital. These are not necessarily Scots, but it is clear that Oswald had an ear for good tune. Before his London career, Oswald performed as a cellist in Edinburgh, giving interpretations of Scots tunes and here the group's cellist, Florence Petit, performs Alloway House, a Scots tune that Oswald published in 1740.

Oswald also had his own publishing enterprise in London, publishing his own music and that of others including Guiseppe Sammartini the London-based Italian composer and oboist. On the disc we have Sammartini's Sonata VI from his 1727 collection of trio sonatas; four strongly contrasting movements. Not strictly Scots, but an imaginative way of demonstrating the sheer variety of music Oswald offered, and giving an idea of the general musical atmosphere.

Oswald's publishing included his own airs and collections of Scots tunes, and this latter extended to his Sonata on Scots Tunes (1740) where he has created a five-movement sonata based on Scots melodies. This was something other composers did too, rendering the Scots tunes more suitable for the polite drawing room.

But fascination with Scots tunes wasn't new and Nicola Matteis, the earliest notable Italian baroque violinist in London, published his Ground after the Scotch Humour in 1680 in a collection featuring variations on popular tunes and aimed at the lucrative amateur market. Though quite what the particular 'Scotch Humour' of the music was, is something difficult to determine now.

Thomas Erskine, the Earl of Kellie, was a notable composer though he only left one published collection. He spent part of each year in London, but whether he knew Oswald or not is unclear. However his Sonata IV from his Six Sonatas for Two Violins & Bass of 1769 is well worth acquaintance.

We also have one of the tunes from Playford's 1700 collection, as well as a tune from another later collection produced by Robert Bremner, a Scot who opened a music shop in The Strand in 1761, and used his Scottish connections (and his business in Edinburgh) to supply the Scots tunes to London Nobility.

Francesco Geminiani, the London-based Italian Baroque violinist and composer, is another of the Italian composers to invest in Scots tunes, and his arrangements aim to improve the melodies! Here, he have the trio sonata The Last Time I came O'er the Moor.

The last track on the disc is another Bremner tune, the amazingly named Hit her on the Bum.

This is a delightful disc. Much research has gone into it and Mary-Jannet Leith's booklet notes are engaging, extensive and informative. But you forget that on listening, such is the wonderful engaging and infectious nature of the performances. The disc is full of music you have never heard of, and after listening to the disc you wonder why ever not. Ensemble Hesperi performs with a lovely combination of skill and affection, and whether playing Scots tunes or learned trio sonatas the ensemble brings lively character and vivid sense of style to the music, plus a smile to your face. 

JAMES OSWALD (1710 – 1769)
The Airs for Summer (1755 – 1756)
1. The Poppy: Aria – Gavotta

Twelve Trio Sonatas for Two German Flutes or Violins: Sonata VI (1727)
2. Adagio
3. Allegro
4. Largo
5. Allegro

NICOLA MATTEIS (? – c.1713)
Other Ayres and Pieces for the Violin, Bass Viol and Harpsichord,
The Fourth Part (c.1685)
6. Ground After the Scotch Humour

JAMES OSWALD (1710 – 1769)
The Airs for Autumn (1755 – 1756)
7. The Sweet Sultan: Siciliana – Allegro Moderato – Hornpipe con Spirito
A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes (1740)
8. Alloway House

Six Sonatas for Two Violins and Bass: Sonata IV (1769)
9. Andante
10. Minuetto

JAMES OSWALD (1710 – 1769)
The Airs for Spring (1755 – 1756)
11. The Ranunculus: Aria – Allegro Andante – Tempo di Minuetto

JAMES OSWALD (1710 – 1769)
A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes: A Sonata on Scots Tunes (1740)
12. O Mother What Shall I Do?
13. Ettrick Banks
14. She Rose and Let Me In
15. Cromlit’s Lilt
16. Polwart on the Green

HENRY PLAYFORD (1657 – 1709)
A Collection of Original Scotch Tunes, Full of the Highland Humours (1700)
17. Peggy’s the Prettiest – My Lady Hope’s Scotch Measure

JAMES OSWALD (1710 – 1769)
The Airs for Winter (1755 – 1756)
18. The Cyclamen: Gratioso – Adagio – Allegro, Tempo di Minuetto

ROBERT BREMNER (1713 – 1789)
A Harpsichord or Spinnet Miscellany (1760)
19. Maggie Lauder

A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick: Sonata III:
“The Last Time I Came O’er the Moor” (1749)
20. Andante
21. Grave
22. Allegro

ROBERT BREMNER (1713 – 1789)
A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes with Variations (1759)
23. “Hit Her on the Bum”

Ensemble Hesperi (Mary-Jannet Leith - recorders, Florence Petit - Baroque cello, Magdalena Loth-Hill - Baroque violin, Thomas Allery - harpsichord)
Recorded 25-27 May 2021, Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford
EMR CD074 1CD [62.05]
Available direct from the Ensemble Hesperi website.

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