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Monday, 17 November 2014

La Bretagna all'Italiana - or La Serenissima in Cambridge (Part II)

A review of La Serenissima's concert, performing with Mhairi Lawson at Trinity College, Cambridge

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

17 November

This is the companion-piece to an (over)lengthy review of a Cambridge Early Music concert given by La Serenissima, with soprano Mhairi Lawson, in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, on Monday 13 October

Second half


5. Due Canzoni da Battello ~ Anon. (c. 1730)

6. Sonata in B Flat for harpsichord, HWV 434 ~ George Frederic Handel (1685–1759)

7. Sonata VIII for violin and continuo in G ~ Giovanni Stefano Carbonelli (1699 / 1700–1773)

8. Un’alma inamorata, HWV 173 ~ Handel

The two further (5) Canzoni began with one that, as a pastoral lute-song (Al prato e al cale o ninfe), would not sound out of place transmuted in Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella* (1920), not least since named composers in John Walsh’s three volumes do, Adrian Chandler’s notes tell us, include Giovanni Pergolesi. It was succeeded by No stè a condanarme, which was much more dramatic, with high notes and an emotional quality that suited Mhairi’s vibrato-less soprano voice.

In the introduction, from the stage, to (6) Handel’s Sonata in B Flat for harpsichord, we were advised to listen out for the piece’s elements of toccata, with improvisatory scales, and promised an eventual return to B Flat Major, as well as music that sounds like that from Rinaldo.

The Prelude felt exploratory of scales and tonality, but with ‘mellow’ moments, and nothing too outré. By contrast, the Allegro was passionate, at the pace of ‘The Arrival of The Queen of Sheba’ (from Handel’s oratorio Solomon) and using repeated notes, yet with a feeling of elegance, albeit of a restrained character.

The Aria con Variazioni presented as beautifully refined, with confident, clear articulation from Robert Howarth, and space left for the variations to breathe between times – one of which (almost in anticipation of Schumann’s Kinderszenen) seemed to have the quality of a nursery-rhyme.

This was engaging solo music-making, in confirmation of which, as Adrian sat at the side of the chapel (to be out of the way), his head could be seen, irresistibly dancing away to it : as the set of variations built up from an apparent pleasing simplicity, it challenged us, and, when it came to the last variation, the richness of both manuals made a highly satisfying conclusion.

If the ‘Manchester’ sonata** in the first half had been a winning combination of dedicated scholarship, musicianship and compositional skill, no less so was the (7) Sonata by Carbonelli – to whom, as Adrian observed, the passage of time has not been kind.

Maybe this was despite – or because of ? – the assimilation into life in Canterbury, under the name of John Stephen Carbonell, of which Adrian told us, and of Carbonell's business, latterly and by royal appointment, of importing wine ? In any event, we were made aware that, in this Sonata numbered VIII from the set of Sonate da Camera, we would spot connections with what is also the eighth of Corelli’s Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, and its Siciliana :

The opening tune of the Largo section of the first movement had an ‘easy’ quality to it, and, in combination with held notes for cello, gave rise to the effect of a drone (whence the reminder of Corelli and of shepherds with bagpipes). A modulating Andante section took us back to the Largo, and it was full of sweetness, as well as multiple stopping and sweeps across Adrian’s instrument.

Here, he ensured that his playing was serving Carbonelli’s music, and that, where it had character and made a statement, there was virtuosity with ego : the Allgero was musical enjoyment itself, and took its own shape, and ventured from being grand to urbane and back again, as well as taking time to be thoughtful, but finally expressive. If not the birds from the trees, in this piece made immediate that we did not know before, then Adrian’s approach to the closing Allegro – Largo was guaranteed to charm us, with slurs, bowing and accents performed to perfection.

And, as Carbonelli also knew that we could not have too much of a good thing, he brought back, in restrained form, that winning tune from the sonata’s opening. The piece delighted the audience, and was met with very keen applause.

Dating to the first decade of the eighteenth century, and, as Adrian said, now in the form recitative – aria, recitative – aria, recitative – aria, this (8) operatic recitativo demonstrated the clarity of Mhairi’s diction and the depth of her voice. In the first aria, at times we had a prominent accompaniment, at others obbligato violin, at others yet intermediate instrumental material – Handel’s vocal writing is superb, and alternated with the violin-led passages, which were performed with assurance and grace.

The second aria was marked by a good melody, full of variety and in which one could see where more mature Handel would come from, with a nicely judged balance between rhythm and harmony. Here, the violin acted as a second voice, an echo to the chirpy good-humour of Mhairi’s delivery, in a part whose tessitura she handled with ease – and with an agreeably falling figure in the harpsichord part, which then migrated to the violin. The aria ended simply, with violin.

The finale, by contrast, was in ‘summing-up’ style, the text full of sententiae, and the feeling unalloyed. A delight to see all the musicians listening to, and communicating with, each other – right up to the close !


* That said, either scholarship has moved on since The Agent first heard a recording, or Wikipedia® is being fertile in telling the tale, because the latter asserts that Diaghilev not only connived at Stravinsky basing his composition on Pergolesi, but urged it, even providing further scores of what was thought to be Pergolesi’s music.

Since (as the mid-1980s told us) Stravinsky did not acknowledge his sources, which then still appeared to be in Pergolesi, it seemed that he was disguising his plagiarism. Yet, if he did not reveal his sources, it follows that it is relatively unimportant (to Pulcinella and the various Suites made from it) whether the attributions in them were correct.

** By chance, since writing that first part of the review, the Central Library in Manchester has been visited, where staff in the Henry Watson Library confirmed that Adrian Chandler is personally known to them as a visitor…

And on the day of writing (10 November), though not with Adrian playing, Radio 3’s (@BBCRadio3blog’s) programme ‘In Tune’ is about to celebrate both the fact and history of the sonatas’ discovery and the music itself : 'listening again' (at 7:05 to 19:29), a week on, violinist Lucy Russell (accompanied by Peter Seymour) is, sadly, not a patch on Adrian's performance for musicality or expressiveness.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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