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Concert reviews

Corelli & music in England
The Beggar's Ensemble
concert: Jan 22, 2020, Utrecht, TivoliVredenburg (Hertz)

William CORBETT (1680-1748): Sonata in D, op. 1,1; Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Sonata in F, op. 5,4; Richard JONES (?-1744): Chamber Air in a minor, op. 2,1; Suite in D, op. 3,3; Toccata in d minor; John Christopher PEPUSCH (1667-1752): Sonata No. 5 in e minor;

Augustin Lusson, violin; Matthias Ferré, viola da gamba; Daria Zemele, harpsichord

It cannot be appreciated enough when a young ensemble presents itself with music which does not belong to the mainstream. Obviously, that is in their own interest. If they play music which can be heard from established performers and ensembles with many years of experience, there is a good chance they may fall short of their high standard. However, it is even more important from a musical point of view. Established ensembles tend to confine themselves to the standard repertoire. Their touring schedule is often so busy that there is not much time to explore unknown territory, which requires research and sometimes also transcription from manuscripts.

I was quite curious when I saw the programme The Beggar's Ensemble was going to perform during a tour across the Netherlands. It was part of their prize at the International Van Wassenaer Contest 2018 during the Festival Early Music Utrecht. They not only won the first prize, but also the public award. Having heard their performances at the concert in Utrecht, I was not surprised. What did surprise me is that I learned that they specialize in English music of the 18th century. To call that choice 'unconventional' is an understatement. Ask a lover of baroque music to mention English composers for the violin from the 18th century, and they will fall silent or come up with a name of an immigrant, some Italian composer who settled in England during the first half of the 18th century. It is unlikely that they will mention Richard Jones, unless they have heard The Beggar's Ensemble's first disc, which was released last year and is devoted to this composer.

The reference to Italian composers is very relevant, by the way. The violin was played in England since the early 17th century, but it was basically a consort instrument, an alternative to the treble viol. When real violin virtuosos, playing the baroque version of the instrument, made their appearance in England, such as the German Thomas Baltzar and the Italian Nicola Matteis, the English music lovers were stupefied. They had never heard anything like that before. Until around 1700 only few people were able to play the violin. That changed when the music of Arcangelo Corelli made its way to England. It was the beginning of a real Corellimania. His music was played across the country by professionals and amateurs alike. England saw an influx of Italian composers who looked for employment and found a fertile ground for their own compositions. Francesco Geminiani is the best-known of them.

The Italian style also had a strong influence on English composers. Some of them started to compose in that idiom. And that is where Richard Jones comes in. Around 1730 he succeeded an Italian violinist, Stefano Carbonelli, as leader of the orchestra of the Drury Lane Theatre. He also acted as teacher; the little-known Michael Christian Festing was one of his pupils. His compositional oeuvre is small, but remarkable. Apart from music for the theatre, he wrote instrumental music: six suites for harpsichord, eight Chamber Airs op. 2 and six suites op. 3, the latter two collections for violin and basso continuo.

One could well say that especially the Chamber Airs are little other than bizarre. In last year's Utrecht festival I heard a concert by the violinist Evgeni Sviridov with violin sonatas by Nicolo Porpora, the Italian singing teacher and composer of operas, who wanted to show that he was able to write instrumental music. His sonatas are technically highly demanding and listening to them I had my doubts about their musical quality. However, they pale in comparison with the Chamber Airs by Jones. In New Grove, Richard Platt states about these pieces that "they are full of double stops, wide leaps, cross-string figuration and florid ornamentation." These features were demonstrated in abundance in the Chamber Air in a minor, the first from the collection. The tone was set in the preludio, which was full of surprises. The other movements were more of the same. The concert opened with a pieces from the second set, the Suite in D, op. 3,3. This is a little more modest, but only a little. Here again the preludio will have come as a shock to an audience who very likely had never heard anything by Jones before. This suite includes a movement, entitled 'march', which was also quite unusual. In the middle of the programme we heard one of Jones's keyboard pieces, the Toccata in d minor. Stylistically it is quite close to the violin music. In his article, Platt suggests that Jones must have been familiar with Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas, and that seems very plausible.

By way of contrast, The Beggar's Ensemble played two pieces by other English composers. That is to say, John Christopher Pepusch was another immigrant, but from Germany rather than Italy. He was probably educated at the keyboard and started his career at the Prussian court. He came to England before 1700 and played for a number of years in the Drury Lane orchestra, not only at the keyboard, but also at the violin. His skills on the latter instrument come to the fore in the Sonata No. 5 in e minor, a piece in four movements following Corelli's model. The same goes for the Sonata in D, op. 1,1 by William Corbett, another brilliant violinist, who played in the orchestra of the Queen's Theatre and in the royal orchestra. He was not averse to the bizarre either: in 1728 he published Le bizzare universali, in which he parodies various musical styles and composers. The sonata performed at this concert was more conventional, but also showed that he is definitely an interesting composer, whose oeuvre deserves more attention.

That may be an interesting project for The Beggar's Ensemble. I had not heard it before, and I was pleasantly surprised by its performances during this concert. On the internet, I learned that Augustin Lusson is considered one of the most promising violinists of the young generation. I am not surprised: his technique is astonishing, and that came to the fore in particular in the pieces by Jones. However, in the other works on the programme he showed that he has more to offer than technical brilliance. He knows how to compel an audience with his interpretation of less unconventional stuff as well. He has congenial partners in Daria Zemele and Matthias Ferré. The former delivered a nice performance of Jones's toccata, whose surprising contrasts came off well, but I would have liked to hear a more interesting harpsichord. I found the instrument she used in this concert rather dull.

Matthias Ferré had the opportunity to shine in the Sonata in F, op. 5,4 by Corelli. Obviously, this was originally intended for the violin; it is one of the sonatas from that famous collection, that caused such a sensation across Europe, and not least in England. The programme notes did not mention it, but I assume this version is taken from a set of adaptations for the viola da gamba which is preserved in Paris. The question is why a piece from a French source was included in a programme with English music. Setting this aside, he gave a very fine performance, and proved to be a brilliant player in his own right.

I surely loved this concert, and so did the - unfortunately and surprisingly rather small - audience, whose long applause was rewarded with two encores. I hope to hear this ensemble again, on disc and live. The acquaintance with the music of Richard Jones was most interesting, but I am not sure what to make of his music. Is it more than a circus act? I just wonder what Giuseppe Tartini would have thought of these escapades on his beloved violin...

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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