Wednesday 10 May 2023

The Library of a Prussian Princess: Ensemble Augelletti at the Newbury Spring Festival

The Library of a Prussian Princess; Ensemble Augelletti at the Newbury Spring Festival; Corn Exchange, Newbury
Ensemble Augelletti
The Library of a Prussian Princess; Ensemble Augelletti at the Newbury Spring Festival; Corn Exchange, Newbury
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 8 May 2023

Historically informed and charismatic virtuosity dazzle in the opening concert of Newbury Spring Festival's Young Artists' Recitals

One of the treasures of Berkshire's musical life, for years the Young Artists' Recital series has been part of the exciting programming of Newbury Spring Festival, giving a platform to exceptional chamber musicians and soloists at the start of their careers. A glance back at programmes from past years reads like a veritable who's-who of familiar names from across the UK and further afield, a clear reflection of the level of success enjoyed by festival director Mark Eynon's stated ambition to bring world-class music to Newbury.

Within the non-stop wall-to-wall concert programming of the two-week-long festival, this series of six recitals form a regular pattern, opening this year with the exciting UK-based period Ensemble Augelletti (Olwen Foulkes, recorders, Ellen Bundy, violin, Carina Drury, cello, Toby Carr, lute, Benedict Williams, harpsichord). With a string of prizes and awards already under their belts, and a very well-reviewed debut CD released last year [see Robert's review], it was unsurprising to see a large turnout at Newbury's magnificent Georgian Corn Exchange theatre for this lunchtime recital on 8 May 2023. 

Under the title, The Library of a Prussian Princess, the group presented a series of pieces collected from the personal library of Prussian princess Anna Amalia, perhaps best known as the musical sister of King Fredrich the Great and a life-long champion and patron of the Bach family, especially J.S. Bach, and his son C.P.E Bach, both of whom appeared on this programme, alongside works copied out in manuscript for the library for Amalia, and a selection of her own compositions as well.
This was a varied and thoughtful programme, with a clear sense of progression and connection between the pieces. Ensemble founder, recorder player Olwen Foulkes, spoke with knowledge and clarity about the music and her obvious passion for this repertoire shone through her words. The more familiar works by Handel and J.S. Bach provided the historical context for Amalia's own compellingly intricate compositions, and less frequently heard pieces by her contemporaries, Geminiani and C.P.E. Bach.

There was much to recommend in the performances by this youthful ensemble. Their approach to continuo, including both harpsichord and theorbo with the 'cello, initially threatened to present some issues with balance, but after the lively gigue which concluded Handel's early Trio Sonata in F major, Benedict Williams and Toby Carr restored a more equitable relationship, taking turns to provide harmonic support to the upper voices. In particular, William's deft phrasing and light touch provided a suitably lively and sensitive accompaniment to Foulke's meltingly lyrical virtuosity in Amalia's Flute Sonata – a fascinating work revealing her interest in, and study of, both the complex counterpoint of the older generation, as exemplified by J.S. Bach, and the clarity of melodic line favoured by his sons.

Toby Carr's theorbo brings an extra element to this ensemble. Many baroque chamber groups would be satisfied with a single continuo instrument, probably the ubiquitous harpsichord, but the addition of a second plucked resonance introduced a wealth of colouristic opportunities. Unfortunately, perhaps, the lute family are not the loudest of sonorities, and when the ensemble was in full-throttle mode, Carr's delicate and delightful contributions were somewhat lost. He more than made up for this when given the chance to shine, with some thoughtfully worked-out harmonies, delivered with a splendidly theatrical sense of timing and gesture.

Ellen Bundy is becoming a well-established figure in the baroque violin world, and clearly relished the opportunity to bring her own stamp of individuality to Geminani's charming Scottish-influenced Sonata 3 from A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick, stripping away the ornamentation to produce an achingly beautiful rendition of the opening material which very much emphasised its folk roots, before leading the whole ensemble into a foot-tapping high-energy dance. In fact, there was a vast amount of exquisite playing from her bow, and her interplay with Foulkes in the various trio sonata movements demonstrated a truly mature, perhaps instinctive understanding of the role of each note and phrase, delivering the dynamic shaping which this kind of baroque chamber music needs in order to charm and dance.

Underpinning everything the ensemble performed, 'cellist Carina Drury was a ceaseless current of musicality, turning every note into the next step in an endlessly flowing line. She has developed the knack of shaping every phrase so that she was never merely playing the bass line, but always leading the listeners' ears through to the next cadence point with a remarkable sureness of step. Her total engagement in every part of the music, and her absolute clarity of articulation and precision of finger placement made her a total delight to listen to.

Through this varied and colourful programme of short movements, the ensemble's energy never flagged. Impressing with the clarity and limpidity of their texture, in the most part, it was easily possible to trace each musical line – which is truly the goal of much chamber music playing, and baroque trio sonatas in particular. Once again Mark Eynon has brought a group of young players to Newbury from whom we can expect to hear more great things in the future.
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

The Library of a Prussian Princess
Princess Anna Amalia: Fugue in D major
Handel: Trio Sonata Op.2 No.4 HWV 389
Princess Anna Amalia: Flute Sonata in F major
J.S. Bach: Two Part Invention BWV 781
J.S. Bach: Trio Sonata in G major BWV 1038
Geminiani: A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick, Sonata 3
Princess Anna Amalia: Fugue in C major
C.P.E. Bach: Trio Sonata in C major H.571
Ensemble Augelletti

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