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"Let the bright Seraphim"

Elin Manahan Thomas, sopranoa; Crispian Steele-Perkins, trumpet
Armonico Consort
Dir: Christopher Monks

rec: Feb 16 - 18, 2011, London, St Paul's Deptford
Signum Classics - SIGCD289 ( 2012) (59'07")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, cantata (BWV 51)a; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Deidamia (HWV 42) (march; arr. C. Steele-Perkins); Floridante (HWV 14) (sinfonia, arr. C. Steele-Perkins); Judas Maccabaeus (HWV 63) (See the conqu'ring hero comes, arr. c. Steele-Perkins); Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (HWV 74) (Eternal source of light divine)a; Samson, oratorio (HWV 57) (Let the bright Seraphima); Scipione (HWV 20) (march, arr. C. Steele-Perkins); The Famous Water Peice (HWV 341) (attr) (overture; air; hornpipe); Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Su le sponde del Tebro, cantataa; Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Concerto for trumpet, strings and bc in D (TWV 51,D7)

The trumpet takes an important place in the music of the baroque era. From early times it was almost exclusively used for military and ceremonial purposes. In then 17th century more virtuosic pieces were written for one or more trumpets. Even so, in larger-scale works it was still referring to its military origins as it appeared especially in music of a military character or in sacred music written to celebrate military victories. That was about to change with the turn of the century. Several composers wrote solo concertos for one or several trumpets, and it also appeared in a solo role alongside other instruments, for instance the oboe, but even the violin.

Telemann is one of the composers who wrote several concertos for trumpet(s), and one of them is the Concerto in D. Unlike other German composers, for instance Johann Sebastian Bach, Telemann usually didn't follow the Vivaldian model in his solo concertos, but rather the Corellian sonata da chiesa with its four movements. That is also the case here. It is considered an early work, probably dating from the composer's time in Eisenach (1708-1712). The trumpet keeps silent in the third movement.

The trumpet continued to be used in vocal music, but its role was more varied than in the previous century. Because of its character it is still often used when the text refers to battles - real or spiritual - or to express joy and jubilation. That is not the case in the cantata Su le sponde del Tebro by Alessandro Scarlatti, though. The subject matter is traditional, about Aminta and Chloris, the mythological characters which turn up in so many cantatas of the baroque era. The text doesn't contain a phrase which could explain the use of a trumpet, apart from the B part of the first aria, which says: "For giant warlike troubles make assault and sorrow is their leader". In the booklet the B part is followed by four lines which begin with these words: "Brazen trumpets of sad sighs signal powerful attack". However, these lines are not sung and don't appear in the lyrics as printed in the booklet of the Hyperion disc with the same cantata. It is a bit of a mystery to me whether these lines belong to this cantata, and if so, why they are printed but not performed. As far as the role of the trumpet is concerned, it is possible that Scarlatti composed the part for a specific highly-skilled player as was so often the case in the baroque era.

There can be little doubt that Johann Sebastian Bach also explored the capabilities of specific singers and instrumentalists which were at hand. In the case of the trumpet we don't need to speculate about his identity. The famous trumpeter Gottfried Reiche (1667-1734) played all the trumpet parts in Bach's music from his arrival in Leipzig in 1723 until his own death. The cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landendates from 1730 and includes two virtuosic parts for soprano and trumpet which are involved in an elaborated dialogue in the opening aria and the closing 'Amen'.

The trumpet is used in a quite different role in Handel's Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne. It opens with a duet for alto - originally sung by a high tenor - and trumpet on the text "Eternal source of light divine! With double warmth thy beams display, and with distinguish'd glory shine to add a lustre to this day." The trumpet part is certainly virtuosic, as is the vocal part, but in a more lyrical way, with no military connotations whatsoever. That is, by contrast, definitely the case in the aria 'Let the bright Seraphim' from Handel's oratorio Samson. The programme is extended by instrumental pieces from vocal works by Handel which Crispian Steele-Perkins has arranged for trumpet and strings and put together as a suite as it could have been played at the Vauxhall Gardens. He has added three pieces from Handel's Water Peice (not to be confused with the Water Music, although there are strong similarities).

The playing by Crispian Steel-Perkins is outstanding as he is one of the most prominent representatives of the guild of players of the natural trumpet. We should keep in mind, though, that the instrument he plays is fundamentally different from the instruments which were used in Bach's and Handel's time. His instrument has vent holes in order to improve intonation. It is to be hoped that more players will follow the example of Jean-Paul Madeuf, who specializes in playing the natural trumpet without such tools. I was rather skeptical about the role of Elin Manahan Thomas about whose previous recordings I had to review I was rather disappointed. Here she makes a good impression at first in Bach's cantata, using much less vibrato than in other recordings, and with a pretty good German pronunciation. She sings nicely, but never goes under the surface, I'm afraid. A singer needs to do more with the text than she does here. The playing of the strings is light-weight; it just hasn't enough bite.

That is also the case in the cantata by Scarlatti, where the more gloomy episodes - for instance the arioso 'Infelici miei lumi' - are rather short in expression. Ms Thomas sings again nicely, but that is not enough. She also doesn't take enough metrical freedom in the recitatives. In Scarlatti and also in the aria 'Let the bright Seraphim' she turns to her own vibrato-laden self. 'Eternal source of light' comes off much better, and there we hear a very good blending of soprano and trumpet.

On balance, it is problably the playing of the trumpet which is the main attraction of this disc. The programme as a whole doesn't really make a lasting impression.

Johan van Veen ( 2013)

Relevant links:

Crispian Steele-Perkins
Elin Manahan Thomas
Armonico Consort


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