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"All Your Cares Beguile - Songs & Sonatas from Baroque London"

Martin Davids, violina; David Yearsley, organb

rec: May 15 - 17, 2006, Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University (Sage Chapel)
Musica Omnia - mo0111 ( 2008) (75'26")

Thomas Augustine ARNE (1710-1778): The Tempest, incidental music: Where the bee sucksab; George Frideric HANDEL (1685/1759): Acis and Galatea, masque (HWV 49): Sinfoniaab; Giulio Cesare, opera (HWV 17): V'adoro pupille, ariaab; Sonata in F (HWV 392)ab; Nicola MATTEIS (?-after 1713): Fantasiaa; Passagio rottoa; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695); Fantasia upon one note (Z 745)ab; Oedipus, incidental music (Z 583): Music for a whileab; The Faery Queen, semi-opera (Z 629): Dance of the Chinese Man and Womanab; Johann Christoph PEPUSCH (1667-1752): Sonata in g minor, op. 2,12ab; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Sonata in a minor (K 3)b; Sonata in d minor (K 18)b; Sonata in G (K 22)b; Francesco Maria VERACINI (1690-1768): Sonata in d minor, op. 2,12ab

(Sources: Johann Christoph Pepusch, Sonates, op. 1, 1707; Domenico Scarlatti, Essercizi per gravicembalo, 1738/39; Francesco Maria Veracini, Sonate accademiche, op. 2, 1744)

From the late 17th century onwards England, and especially London, developed into one of the main centres of music in Europe. Musicians from various countries settled there and looked around for employment. Others just passed through, displaying their skills in public concerts and then leaving again for another country. This disc presents music by some composers whose music was performed in "baroque London".

One of the first immigrants was Nicola Matteis, born in Naples and entering England around 1670. He astonished audiences by his virtuosity on the violin and published some books with pieces for unaccompanied violin. These are expressions of his sometimes bizarre imagination. Before the turn of the century Matteis' example was followed by Johann Christoph Pepusch (not 'Johann Christian' as the track-list says) who was from Prussia and entered England in 1697. Here he developed into a respected composer. His oeuvre has been overshadowed by his involvement in the performance of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in which the Italian opera was ridiculed.

The success of this opera, first performed in 1728, comtributed to the troubles of George Frideric Handel, who settled in London in 1712 and became the main composer of Italian operas. Until the late 1720s he was very successful in this department. The fact that he was also invited to compose music for royal and state occasions bears witness to his dominant position at the English music scene. His popularity also resulted in arrangements of arias and instrumental pieces from his operas. His chamber music was also much sought after.

Francesco Maria Veracini was one of those musicians who just passed through in the 1730s. He was from Italy and travelled through Europe as a performer on the violin. He wasn't only known for his virtuosity, but also for his arrogance. Charles Burney wrote that "Veracini was so foolishly vain-glorious as frequently to boast that there was but one God, and one Veracini". This judgement didn't hold him back from acknowledging that he was "the first, or at least one of the first, violinists of Europe".

Domenico Scarlatti never visited England, but his music was very popular there. Only one collection of sonatas for keyboard was published in his lifetime, and it was not by chance that it was printed in London. The three sonatas on the programme are from this collection.

In addition to music by foreigners, pieces by two native English composers are added. Henry Purcell was the most celebrated English composer before the era of Handel, and his music was held in high regard even in the early decades of the 18th century. In some of his works Handel was clearly inspired by him. Thomas Arne is the best-known English composer of the generation after Handel. He had the bad luck to be overshadowed by immigrants, first by Handel, and after his death by two other native Germans, Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. Even so, he considerably contributed to the music for the theatre.

It is not that easy to give a fair judgement of this disc. From which angle should one look at it? First of all, nearly the complete programme consists of arrangements of some sort. Only the two pieces by Matteis are played in the scoring intended by the composer: violin without accompaniment. The three sonatas by Scarlatti were written for harpsichord which doesn't exclude a performance at the organ. The sonatas by Handel, Pepusch and Veracini one is probably not inclined to call 'arrangements'. The performance of the basso continuo in chamber music at the organ is certainly an option, although it seems highly unlikely that organs were used in public performances. Moreover, the organ used here is more of the format of a modest church organ than of an instrument used in private rooms where chamber music was usually played. As David Yearsley is not afraid to explore the full powers of the organ the basso continuo part is more prominent than with a harpsichord or a positive. From that perspective performances like on this disc can be considered 'arrangements'.

From a historical perspective there is nothing wrong with arrangements. Handel frequently arranged music by colleagues, and his own music was also often arranged by others. But if you are looking for arrangements as they were in the time of the composer performances of vocal pieces by Purcell, Handel and Arne with organ and violin are not all that plausible. Whether the interpreters care about this I don't know. David Yearsley ends his liner notes thus: "We make our arrangements of these songs and sonatas in the tradition of opportunistic adaptation Handel so brilliantly and unapologetically cultivated".

So let us say that these arrangements are partly unhistorical, even if they are played with period instruments. The ultimate question then is: do they work? The three sonatas by Scarlatti work pretty well, although the Sonata in a minor (K 3) is not that convincing: the repeated descending figure doesn't come off very well, and can only be realised by using a slower tempo than would be ideal. In the sonatas for violin and bc the organ is often too dominant. But the performances as such also leave something to be desired. The fast movements are mostly done well, although the andante from Handel's Sonata in F is played like an adagio. The slow movements are generally too flat, with far too little dynamic gradation.

The arrangements of the vocal pieces are quite odd, and I really didn't like them. An opera aria with full-blown organ and a violin is very strange. The short figures at the line "till the snakes frop from her head" from Purcell's Music for a while are very unnatural. The Fantasia upon one note is even more curious: the 'one note' is played here by the violin, with the organ performing the other parts. This way the subject of this piece is singled out in a way the composer obviously did not intend. An interesting question is whether the meantone temperament which leads here to severe dissonants, is in line with Purcell's intentions, even though this temperament was common in Purcell's time.

Taking all things into consideration, I find this recording not very helpful in painting a portrait of the multi-coloured London music scene in the early 18th century. From a historical perspective the performances are questionable, and musically they are largely unsatisfying.

Johan van Veen ( 2011)

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