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"Mr Handel's Musicians"

Benoît Laurent, oboea
Teatro del Mondo

rec: 2016, Rosbach vor der Höhe, Burgkirche
Perfect Noise - PN 1703 (© 2017) (63'22")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

William BABELL (1690-1723): Sonata II in c minoracd; Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Sonata in a minorcd; Andrea CAPORALE (fl 1735-1757): Sonata V in F (adagio)cd; Giacobbe Basevi CERVETTO (1690-1783): Sonata VI (adagio)acd; Willem DE FESCH (1687-1761): A Songabd; Pollyabd; John Ernest GALLIARD (c1680-1747): Sonata III in Fcd; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Solomon (HWV 67) (Haste, haste to the cedar, arr John Walsh)abd; Suite in e minor (HWV 438) (gigue)d; John LOEILLET (1680-1730): Lesson II in D (hornpipe)d; Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695-1750): Sonata II in Gacd; Thomas VINCENT (1720-1783): Sonata I in Dacd

John Loeillet, Lessons for the Harpsichord or Spinet, c1712; William Babell, 12 Solos for a Violin or a Hautboy, Book 1, c1725; Pietro Castrucci, XII solos for a German flute, violin or harpsicord / compos'd by Geminiani and Castrucc, 1733; George Frideric Handel, Suites de pieces pour le clavecin, II, 1733; Andrea Caporale & John Ernest Galliard, XII Solos ... VI of Sigr Caporale VI compos'd by Mr Galliard, 1746; J. Simpson, ed., Six Solos for Two Violoncellos, Composed by Sigr Bononcini and other eminent Authors, 1748; Thomas Vincent, Six Solos for a Hautboy, German Flute, Violin, or Harpsichord, with a Thorough Bass op. 1, 1748; Willem de Fesch, VI English Songs, c1748

Marie Deller, recorderb, celloc; Andreas Küppers, harpsichordd

London was one of the main musical metropoles of Europe during the first half of the 18th century. Many musicians from across Europe came to the city to look for employment. There were many opportunities to perform, both in public concerts and in the homes of the upper echelons of society. And then there was the opera: music for the stage was popular, and two rival companies regularly performed operas by the leading composers of the day. Many performers were also composers in their own right, and as London also had a flowering music printing industry, the main representative of which was John Walsh, there were also plenty opportunities to publish music, in particular of music for the growing number of amateurs.

The present disc offers an interesting insight into the London music scene in Handel's time. Many of the virtuosos of his day played in the orchestra of the Haymarket Theatre, where his operas were performed. Much attention has been given to the great stars, in particular the castratos, who sung the main roles in his operas. In their own way some members of his orchestra were also stars, and Handel was well aware of that. Giuseppe Sammartini, for instance, was given the opportunity to shine in various obbligato oboe parts in opera arias. It is documented that Handel was particularly fond of the oboe, so he did not hesitate to write some brilliant parts for the instrument, when he had the right man to play them.

Unfortunately the present disc is accompanied by a booklet which is rather short on documentation: the track-list omits sometimes the keys of the pieces and the sources from which they are taken (such as the Hornpipe by John Loeillet) and the liner-notes don't make up for it. The same goes for the scoring: it is not always clear what is the original scoring and which line-up is the result of a decision by the performers. The biographical notes are also terse, which is especially regrettable as most of the composers are not that well known and deserve a more thorough evaluation.

The oboe plays a key role in the programme. One of its main exponents was Giuseppe Sammartini. Contemporaries sometimes referred to Sammartini as "(San) Martini" which is derived from his father's name: Alexis Saint-Martin. He was of French birth and emigrated to Italy. Here Sammartini was born, probably in Milan. Like his father he became an oboist, and together with his brother he played in the orchestra of the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan in the 1720s. The German flautist Johann Joachim Quantz heard him play and ranked him among the best of his time, of the same level on the oboe as Vivaldi on the violin. In the late 1720s Sammartini moved to Brussels and then to London, where he would remain until his death. It was here that he made a career as a virtuoso on the oboe and as a composer. The music historian John Hawkins stated: "As a performer on the hautboy, Martini was undoubtedly the greatest that the world had ever known." In his compositional oeuvre the number of oboe pieces is very scarce. The main reason could be that the oboe was seldom played by amateurs, and professional performers did not need any printed music, as they mostly performed their own compositions. That undoubtedly was the case with Sammartini as well. It is not clear where the Sonata II in G comes from, but it seems likely that it was intended for transverse flute, one of the most fashionable instruments among amateurs.

William Babell is almost exclusively known for his harpsichord arrangements of arias from Handel's operas. His efforts in this department were sharply critisized by Charles Burney: "Mr Babel ... at once gratifies idleness and vanity". This part of his activities has overshadowed his own original compositions, among them a set of six concertos in seven parts (op. 3) and two books with twelve sonatas each for a melody instrument and bc, which were published posthumously. Although Babell seems not to have played the oboe - he was educated at the keyboard and the violin - a modern editor of some of his sonatas states that they seem best suited to the oboe. However, in his editions Walsh mentioned the transverse flute and the violin as alternatives, probably - as we have already noted - because the oboe was almost exclusively played by professionals.

Pietro Castrucci was one of two brothers who were both violinists and arrived in London in 1715. They played the concertino in Handel's orchestra for over twenty years. Castrucci published a set of twelve concerti grossi and several collections of sonatas. Obviously most of them were scored for violin, but one of them is intended for the transverse flute. The Sonata V in G included here is taken from a set of twelve sonatas by Geminiani and Castrucci, printed by Walsh in 1733. It was a reprint of two sets of six sonatas each, put together by a certain Pietro Chaboud. The title page of these first editions mentions that the sonatas were originally composed for transverse flute, oboe or violin and that they had been "fitted to the German Flute" by the editor. Undoubtedly this sonata by Castrucci was originally intended for the violin.

Among the least-known composers is Thomas Vincent, who was an oboist and had been a pupil of Sammartini. I have not found any information about his connection to Handel. He played in the orchestra of the King's Theatre, but probably after Handel had anything to do with it. The Sonata I in D is from his only published collection of music, a set of Six Solos for a Hautboy, German Flute, Violin, or Harpsichord, with a Thorough Bass op. 1 (1748).

The second instrument which is given attention here is the cello. Giovanni Bononcini was a cellist by profession, but has become best known as Handel's rival at the London opera scene. In 1720 he arrived in London and started to compose operas for the Royal Academy of Music. He stayed here until 1732, but in the second half of the 1720s he hardly wrote any operas. Considering his rivalry with Handel it is rather odd that he is ranked here among "Mr Handel's Musicians", as he definitely never played with Handel or in his orchestra. His Sonata in a minor is a piece which was included in a set of Six Solos for Two Violoncellos by different composers (1748).

Andrea Caporale, on the other hand, certainly played in Handel's orchestra. Nothing is known about him until the 1730s, when he settled in London. Here he was held in high regard because of his lyrical style of playing. He became Handel's favourite cellist, and sometimes he was given an obbligato part to play: according to Charles Burney the cello part in the aria 'Son qual stanco pellegrino' from the opera Arianna in Creta, which was performed during the 1733-34 season, was "intended to display the abilities of Caporale". Burney had mixed feelings about the cellist: he praised his "full, sweet, and vocal tone" - which must have attracted Handel -, but also judged that Caporale was "... no deep musician, nor gifted with a very powerful hand". It is a shame that we get here only one movement from the Sonata V in F, which is part of a set of twelve sonatas for cello and bc, published in 1746.

Six of these sonatas are from the pen of Caporale, the other six were written by Johann Ernst (or John Ernest) Galliard, among them the Sonata III in F. He was born in Celle in Germany, where he received lessons on the flute and the oboe from a French member of the court orchestra. He joined the orchestra himself in 1698, but when it was disbanded in 1706 he went to England where he joined the chapel of Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne's consort. He played a considerable role in musical life in London and was one of the founders of the Academy of Ancient Music. It has been suggested that Handel composed his Sonata in c minor (HWV 366) for Galliard. As he was not a professional cellist, his sonatas may be adaptations of pieces originally written for the oboe.

It was common practice to publish sonatas which could be played on various instruments. The last item on the programme is another piece which is played on a different instrument than it was intended for. Giacobbe Basevi Cervetto was probably from Venice and seems to have arrived in London in 1738. Again, it is not clear whether he cooperated with Handel. Although his playing was technically brilliant, his tone, according to Burney, was "raw, crude and uninteresting" (New Grove). Cervetto's cello pieces are considered important contributions to the repertoire. Two sets of six sonatas each were printed around 1750; the track-list does not indicate from which of them the Sonata VI is taken. Once again it is regrettable that only one movement from this sonata is played here, as a solo for oboe and bc.

I already referred to the Hornpipe by John Loeillet, a member of a musical dynasty from the Southern Netherlands (modern Belgium), who had settled in England and was known as 'John Loeillet of London'. He published chamber music and harpsichord works. There seems to have been hardly any connction to Handel. That is different with Willem de Fesch, a composer from the Republic of the Netherlands. Until 1730 he lived and worked in Amsterdam and Antwerp respectively. In 1732 he appeared in London. He worked as violinist; in 1746 he was first violin in Handel's orchestra. The present programme includes two songs from the VI English Songs, which are scored differently. The two songs here are for solo voice and bc, with ritornellos for a single melody instrument. The two parts are divided between the recorder and the oboe. They also share an arrangement of the aria from Handel's oratorio Solomon, which was published by John Walsh.

This disc is undoubtedly highly interesting, both from a historical and from a musical point of view. Handel worked with many different musicians, not only singers, but also instrumentalists, and some of them were true virtuosos, who were also active as composers. Their oeuvre deserves more attention, and this disc includes some fine examples of their art. But as many of them are little known, the lack of documentation and biographical information about them is disappointing. There are also some issues in regard to the line-up. In the third movement from Babell's sonata, some episodes are given to the cello; I find that rather odd, and the score doesn't give any indication in this direction. Both the last movement from Castrucci's sonata and the second from Galliard's are introduced by a short solo for the harpsichord. It was not uncommon at the time to introduce a sonata with a short improvisation in the key of the sonata, but I doubt whether such improvisations were included in the various movements. The third movement from Galliard's sonata is a short improvisation on the cello, without the basso continuo. Stylistically it seems not to fit the rest of the movement.

All in all, this disc raises some questions and the production falls a little short on the standard of the music and the performances. The latter leave nothing to be desired. Benoît Laurent delivers excellent performances; he produces a beautiful tone, plays with much panache and adds some nice ornamentation. Marie Deller shows her considerable skills on both the recorder and the cello. There is some good support from Andreas Küppers, who plays his short solos very well. The shortcomings should not withhold anyone from purchasing this disc, which includes three first recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Benoît Laurent
Teatro del Mondo

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