Academy of Ancient Music at St George’s, Hanover Square: Handel and Heroes

Christopher Gibbons
Fantasia the fourth à 3 in D minor; Fantasie in C; Voluntary in C
The Little Consort – Suite in E minor
Suite in A minor
Ground in D minor
C. Gibbons
A Voluntary for ye Duble Organ in A minor; Verse for the Double Organn [sic] in D minor; Fantasia the seventh à 3 in F
Trio-Sonata in B flat, Op.2/3

Members of the Academy of Ancient Music: Richard Egarr (harpsichord & chamber organ), Pavlo Beznosiuk & Cecilia Bernardini (violins), Mark Levy (bass viol) & Stephen Farr (organ)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 16 November, 2012
Venue: St George’s, Hanover Square, London

One of two concerts by the Academy of Ancient Music under the heading “Handel the Londoner”, this one centred on the theme of ‘Handel and Heroes’. However, despite taking place in his parish church, the programme bore only a tangential link to the naturalised German composer, for the music presented proved to be a gallimaufry of English instrumental music from the latter years of the 17th-century. The connection with Handel was simply that he expressed great admiration for Purcell and is likely to have been influenced to some extent by the other featured composers, all of whom flourished in London in the decades immediately before Handel’s arrival.

Much of the music played is marked by a distinctly English character with various melodic and rhythmic quirks, and occasional bittersweet harmonies. This was certainly so in the opening Fantasia by Christopher Gibbons – son of Orlando – with its ascending chromaticisms in the first movement. As with the Suite by Locke, the performers played the music in a flexible tempo, the phrases flowing and ebbing into each other, rather than marking them emphatically. In the case of Matthew Locke there was an organic progression across the four movements by getting continually faster so that the finale was despatched with compelling vivacity. Although this is a ‘saraband’, Richard Egarr explained that Locke’s model was the livelier Spanish ancestor of this form rather than the slower, statelier version known from the suites by Bach and Handel.

In between the two instrumental pieces came a couple of Voluntaries by Gibbons, played by Stephen Farr on the main organ of St George’s. The first seemed marred by a hesitant, plodding performance, but there was a thoughtful delicacy with the flute-like tones of the registrations selected, contrasting with the brighter timbres of the mixtures for the second Voluntary. After Locke, Egarr performed alone music by John Blow, demonstrating a range of contrasting moods as well as technical virtuosity with some well-handled, highly ornamented passages – notes sprinkled around as though they were grains of sugar. In Purcell’s Ground, Egarr span a graceful but sparse melodic line over the arpeggiated bass, to create a bleak wintry mood and a sound that was almost spindly, like a dewy spider’s web swaying in the winter wind.

Two further Voluntaries by Gibbons followed from Farr on the pipe organ. These were played with more confidence than the previous pair, but despite being written for ‘double organ’ – that is, for what was in 17th-century England was the novelty that was simply an organ that had two manuals or divisions – there was little contrast between lines. There followed another Fantasia by Gibbons, the performers creating an atmosphere of airiness and sunshine, for a piece exuding Italianate charm and elegance. Indeed one could have deemed it Corellian, with its considerable use of imitation, were it not that Gibbons was writing before Corelli composed his exemplary Trio-Sonatas. It was particularly in the ‘Allmain’ that the passing back and forth of melodies between the two violins propelled the music’s rhythm and motion.

The goal of the programme was reached with Handel’s B flat Trio-Sonata, in which the musicians felt entirely at ease in the seamless, vivacious lines of Handel’s Italianate style. There was notable passion – even anger – in the bass part of the third movement, but the violinists failed to go along with this mood quite so much, missing the opportunity to realise the sighs the music so clearly expresses. There was teasing humour in the finale, between the music’s dramatic pauses, ending a concert that demonstrated that Handel adopted a country which was very far from the musical vacuum it was long thought to have been.

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