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CD reviews

Music life in London c1720 - c1740

[I] "London circa 1720 - Corelli's Legacy"
La Rêveuse
Dir: Florence Bolton, Benjamin Perrot
rec: Oct 2019, Paris, Église protestante allemande
Harmonia mundi - HMM 905322 (© 2020) (61'09")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

William BABELL (c1690-1723): Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in D, op. 3,2 [5]; Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Sonata for violin and bc in D, op. 1,4 (H 4) [3]; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Admeto (HWV 22) (Spera si mio caro bene, arr for transverse flute, 2 violins and bc) [6]; Concerto a 4 in d minor (HWV deest) (attr); Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in g minor (HWV 364b); Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725), arr Nicola Francesco HAYM (1678-1729): Il Pirro e Demetrio (Thus with thirst my souls expiring, arr Pietro Chaboud, fl 1707-1725) [1]; Johann Christian SCHICKHARDT (c1681-1762): Concerto for 4 recorders, strings and bc in d minor, op. 19,2 (transp to a minor) [2]; Sonata after Corelli for recorder and bc No. 4 in F [4]

Sources: [1] John Walsh, ed., Aires & Symphonys, c1710; [2] Johann Christian Schickhardt, Concerti pro Flauti et Oboe, op. 19, 1715; [3] Francesco Geminiani, Sonate a violino, violone, e cembalo, op. 1, 1716; [4] Johann Christian Schickhardt, XII Sonate del Sigr Arcangelo Corelli, Op. 6ta, a 2 flauti e basso continuo, transportate da Gio. Christiano Schickhard, 1719; [5] William Babell, Babell's Concertos in 7 Parts, op. 3, c1726; [6] John Walsh, ed., Handel's Select airs or Sonatas ... collected from all the late Operas, 1738/1743

Sébastien Marq, Marine Sablonière, recorder; Serge Saïtta, Olivier Riehl, transverse flute; Stéphan Dudermel, Ajay Ranganathan, violin; Florence Bolton, viola da gamba; Benoît Vanden Bemden, double bass; Benjamin Perrot, theorbo; Carsten Lohff, harpsichord

[II] "London circa 1740 - Handel's musicians"
La Rêveuse
Dir: Florence Bolton, Benjamin Perrot
rec: Oct 2019, Paris, Église protestante allemande
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902613 (© 2023) (69'02")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pietro CASTRUCCI (1679-1752): Sonata for viola da gamba and bc in g minor; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Hornpipe Compos'd for the Concert at Vauxhall in D (HWV 356); Sonata for two violins and bc in g minor, op. 2,5 [1]; James OSWALD (1710-1759): A Sonata of Scots Tunes in D [3]; Hugar Mu Fean [4[; Sleepy Maggie [4]; The Cameronian's Rant [4]; Up in the Morning Early [4]; Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695-1750): Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in F (GSM 1711); Charles WEIDEMAN (c1705-1782): Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in e minor, op. 2,6 [4]

Sources: [1] George Frideric Handel, VI sonates à deux violons, deux haubois ou deux flutes traversieres & basse continue, op. 2, 1733; James Oswald, [2] A Curious Collection of Scots Tunes, 1740; [3] The Caledonian Companion, 12 vols., c1745-c1765; [4] Charles Weideman, Six Concertos in seven parts for One and Two German Flutes, two Violins, a Tenor [viola], with a Thorough Bass for the Violoncello and Harpsicord, op. 2, 1746

Sébastien Marq, recorder; Olivier Riehl, transverse flute; Stéphan Dudermel, Ajay Ranganathan, violin; Sophie Iwamura, viola; Florence Bolton, viola da gamba; Benoît Vanden Bemden, double bass; Benjamin Perrot, archlute, theorbo, guitar, cistre; Carsten Lohff, harpsichord

Since the late 17th century London was one of the musical centres of Europe. For performers and composers it was one of the places to be. Immigrants from overseas played a major role in musical events, from the intimate rooms of the aristocracy to opera. The ensemble La Rêveuse devoted two discs to what was written and performed in London during the first half of the 18th century. The respective titles of these discs indicate the developments at the music scene during these fifty years or so.

The first disc shows the influence of Arcangelo Corelli. The man himself never visited England, but his music disseminated across Europe and had a huge influence on other composers of his generation and the next. When his sonatas and concerti grossi were printed in England, the whole music-loving country fell for it and came under the spell of his music, and the Italian style in general. His music was arranged in many different ways and found an enthusiastic reception among the amateurs, playing it at home and/or together in the many musical societies across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

One particularly striking feature of music life at the time is the coexistence of tradition and modernity. The latest music from Italy was embraced, but at the same time amateurs continued to play the recorder and the viola da gamba, two instruments which enjoyed their heydays in the 17th century. In Italy the viola da gamba had become obsolete since the mid-17th century, and since the last decades of that century the main string bass was the cello. In England music for the viola da gamba was still written, for instance by Benjamin Hely, which indicates there was still a market for such music. It is not known for whom Handel may have written his only sonata for viola da gamba, included here. Interestingly, Pietro Chaboud, who was a bassoonist, also played the viol. This may well explain why he arranged an aria from Alessandro Scarlatti's opera Il Pirro e Demetrio, which had been adapted for the London stage by Nicola Francesco Haym, for viola da gamba and basso continuo.

The popularity of the recorder is documented by the many arrangements of Corelli's violin sonatas for the instrument. Many such arrangements were printed, and they are well documented on disc. Arrangements of his concerti grossi are less well-known, and it is interesting that this disc offers one of them: Johann Christian Schickhardt, himself of German origin, composed much music for his own instrument, for instance six sonatas Op. 6 after Corelli's concerti grossi. He also wrote a set of six concertos for four recorders, strings and basso continuo. It is a bit of a shame that the performers decided to arrange the Concerto in d minor, op. 19,2 in order to play the solo parts with two recorders and two transverse flutes. William Babell has become best-known for his keyboard arrangements of opera arias by Handel. The Concerto in D is taken from a set of six concertos with one or two recorder parts.

For a long time the violin had been mainly used as an alternative to the treble viol in consort music. After the Restoration in 1660, when music life started to join in with the latest fashions on the continent, it was more and more used as a solo instrument. The influx of Italian composers after 1700, most of whom were violinists by profession, contributed to the dissemination of the violin and advanced its role in music life. One of those violinist-composers was Francesco Geminiani, who presented himself as a pupil of Corelli, which certainly favoured the reception of his music. The Sonata in D, op. 1,4 is a specimen of his art.

A really new instrument was the transverse flute, usually called the 'German flute'. It was still not widespread in the 1720s. From that angle the inclusion of an arrangement of an aria from Handel's opera Admeto, which was published by John Walsh in 1738 or 1743 is a bit out of place here, and would have been better included in the second programme, devoted to music of the 1740s.

The second disc brings music from the 1740s. Handel was still a force to be reckoned with, and obviously he is represented in the programme. However, the heydays of the Italian style were gone. Italian opera had lost its appeal, partly under the influence of the Beggar's Opera which ridiculed opera and the social circles that had embraced it. Handel abolished opera and turned his attention to oratorios on an English text.

Another development was the emergence of public concerts: "[Concerts] by amateur music societies, series of public subscription concerts, opera seasons at the Lincoln's Inn Fields or Covent Garden theatres, open-air summer seasons in the pleasure gardens, and even a Masonic musical season organised by the 'Philo-Musicae et Architecturae Societas Apollini', one of the oldest Lodges, founded by Geminiani in 1724." (booklet) During summertime the elite was on the countryside, and concert life came to a halt. Jonathan Tylers, the owner of the Spring Gardens at Vauxhall, took advance of the presence of professional musicians who did not have much to do: he organized public concerts of high calibre, but open to everyone for a modest price of admission. The concerts at Vauxhall Gardens have become very well-known, as some of the best composers of the time wrote music for it, such as Handel. However, most pieces performed there were taken from existing sources. It is there that the tradition came into existence of crowds's singing 'Rule, Britannia!', taken from Thomas Augustine Arne's opera Alfred.

The programme comprises music by composers most of whom were associated with Handel in that they played in his orchestra. It opens with the Concerto in e minor for transverse flute by Charles Weideman, who was from Germany (born as Carl Friedrich Weidemann) and joined Handel's orchestra in 1725. It attests to the increasing popularity of the flute, which was mostly played by performers who were educated on the oboe. Weideman may have been one of them (as New Grove states in the entry on the flute; the article about himself suggests that he was educated on the flute). Giuseppe Sammartini certainly was an oboist by profession, and according to contemporaries probably the greatest of them all. Here we hear his best-known work, the Concerto in F, in which the solo part is originally written for the recorder.

Pietro Castrucci was from Rome, and there he met Handel, when the latter was staying there. Castrucci followed Handel to London in 1715 and became concertmaster of the latter's orchestra. According to Charles Burney he invented the violetta marina, a kind of viola d'amore which Handel used in two of his operas. The largest part of his modest output comprises violin sonatas, but here we get a curious piece for viola da gamba, an instrument that in his time was in the process of being overshadowed by the Italian cello. However, among the higher echelons of society the gamba was still played; until the end of his life Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) taught the viol to some of them.

One of the features of English concert life in the mid-18th century was the growing popularity of traditional music, be it from Scotland or from Ireland. Several composers included traditional tunes into their compositions or arranged such tunes for 'art' instruments, such as the flute or the violin. In this programme that aspect of concert life is represented by James Oswald, who was from Scotland and was educated on the cello. He settled in London and became acquainted with the English, Italian and French styles. He a had a strong influence on later generations of composers. Here we hear a selection of his versions of traditional tunes, played on a variety of instruments.

The entire ensemble closes the programme with a performance of the Hornpipe in D, a piece that Handel wrote specifically for the Vauxhall Gardens.

These discs offer a nice mixture of well-known pieces and unknown items. Among the former are the pieces by Handel and Sammartini's recorder concerto. Weideman may be new to the catalogue, and I am pretty sure that Castrucci's sonata for viola da gamba has never been recorded before. That is certainly a valuable addition to the viol repertoire. Some of the arrangements on the first disc may also appear here for the first time. La Rêveuse has produced a most interesting and musically compelling survey of what was written and performed in London during the first half of the 18th century. The ensemble includes some young performers but also an old hand as the French recorder player Sébastien Marq, who delivers an excellent performances of the solo concertos. He also shines in a number of pieces by Oswald. From Serge Saïtta we get a fine performance of the aria from Handel's Admeto, Oliver Riehl is the outstanding soloist in Weideman's concerto, and Florence Bolton excells in the solo pieces for the viola da gamba.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

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