Georgian England: Country Fiddle to Court – Music by John Playford, Joseph Gibbs, and Georg Frideric Handel
PLAYFORD – “Paul’s Steeple” and “La Folia” (from “The Division Violin”)
GIBBS – Sonatas for Violin and Continuo Nos. 4, 5, 6, and 8
HANDEL – Sonatas for Violin and Continuo HWV 361, 364a and 371
Lara Hall (baroque violin)
Rachael Griffiths-Hughes (harpsichord – instrument courtesy of Douglas Mews)
St.Mark’s Church, Woburn Road, Lower Hutt
Friday 28th August 2020
If ever an organisation merited a special award for stickability in the face of troubles, it would, in my book, be Chamber Music Hutt Valley – after facing dissolution at the end of 2019 through difficulties in finding enough people “on the ground” to assist with running the concerts the Society overcame that problem only to find its well-crafted 2020 programme severely disrupted by Covid-19! The response was a reorganisation of the season which resulted in the year’s first two concerts having to be cancelled and a substitute found for the final concert’s would-be performers, prevented from visiting the country by the pandemic! Somewhat bloodied, but still unbowed, the Society made the changes and finally opened the doors for its first 2020 concert on Friday 28th August, one which appropriately marked the occasion with distinction as regards both the artists and their presentation – violinist Lara Hall and harpsichordist Rachael Griffiths-Hughes brought to us a delightful programme of music from Georgian England.
Until relatively recently the Georgian era of music and music-making in England was popularly thought to have been dominated by non-English composers such as Handel, Corelli, Geminiani and Veracini, a historical perception that in its way underpinned the development of the idea (particularly opinioned in nineteenth-century Germany) that England had indeed become “Das Land ohne Musik”. But harpsichordist Rachel Griffiths-Hughes in her excellent notes for the programme accompanying this concert, pointed to a more recent resurgence of interest in the contributions made to Georgian musical life by English composers hitherto neglected, prominently figuring one Joseph Gibbs (1698-1788) in these explorations.
Born in Dedham, Colchester, Gibbs was the son of a musician, John Gibbs, who played in a shawm band called Colchester Waits. The son became an organist, firstly at Dedham St.Mary’s Church, in 1744 and then, more prestigiously, at St. Mary le Tower, in Ipswich, a post he remained in until his death – he was obviously an all-round musician, being (a) in considerable demand as a performer in Ipswich’s musical life and (b) producing collections of both violin sonatas and string quartets, though unfortunately only a few pieces of his organ music seem to have survived time’s ravages. His fame did spread beyond these regional confines with the publication of the sonatas, subscribed to by composers William Boyce and Maurice Greene, to name but two contemporary sources of interest in his work. The Sonatas have more recently been praised by various commentators as representative of the finest work of that era by an English composer, and they have actually been recorded – by both the Locatelli Trio on Hyperion (CDA 66583, unfortunately deleted!) and Eboracum Baroque (on a hard-to-find “Sounds of Suffolk” issue!) – frustration, I fear, awaits the enthusiastic collector!
All the more reason to welcome the advocacy of Lara Hall and Rachael Griffiths-Hughes, whose playing brought the music and its composer to life with considerable elan and winning sensitivity. One of the articles I read in an on-line interview with a violinist who had played these sonatas mentioned Gibbs’ extraordinary “eye to the future” in the music’s portrayal of “realistic characters and raw emotions”, going on to further comment that while Gibbs, compared with Handel and Geminiani “perhaps lacks (their) innate understanding of the violin and the finesse of their compositional idioms”……one has the sense that he (Gibbs) “….understood the drama of performance”. He went on to comment that the brilliance of the writing seemed often to demonstrate an eagerness to explore as many performance and music-character ideas in the shortest possible time!
The programme featured four of Gibbs’ Sonatas, along with two by Handel, and two sets of Variations by John Playford (1623-1686), from a collection called “The Division Violin” – Playford took popular tunes of his day and wrote elaborate-sounding sets of variations on each of them. In the midst of all of this rather more consciously-contrived “display”, Handel’s music from two of his Violin Sonatas actually sounded somewhat more conventional to the ear, given that it was characterised by the strength, nobility and lyrical feeling we have come to expect from this composer. Next to the music of his great contemporary, however, Gibbs’ work held its ground by dint of the playing’s focused engagement with the music, the conveyance of something special and characterful. Rachael Griffiths-Hughes’s helpful introductions to each piece gave us something to listen out for, encouraging us to pick up on certain things the music was doing, the rest being up to us!
First up was John Playford’s Variations on the tune “Paul’s Steeple” a song which appeared in the wake of St.Paul’s Cathedral being struck by lightning and catching fire. In the manner of all good ballads the tune began in sombre fashion, then surrendered itself to all kinds of variant treatments, angular, mischievous, melancholic and ceremonial – Lara Hall’s fleet-fingered playing brought out a kind of narrative folksiness, the sounds vividly conveying an actual story.
Then, the first of Joseph Gibbs’ Sonatas on the programme (No.VI in F major) continued in this same almost “pictorial” vein, a sprightly swinging dotted-rhythm introducing the piece, Hall teasing out the voicings of the line, and suggesting a certain “restlessness” about the music. A busy and energetic Allegro ended in an almost stately manner, succeeded by a Largo e piano which spoke of solitude and loss, beautifully “emoted” by Hall’s discreet touches of vibrato, and a lovely accord between the instruments, before we were suitably “sprung” by the energetic concluding Gavotta.
Handel’s appearance in the programme brought a marked majesty and serenity to the lines, a beautiful inevitability of grace and repose in the opening Andante of his A major Sonata HWV 361. The succeeding Allegro grew out of the poise and solemnity, the playing triumphantly astride the music’s energy and graceful movement. A brief Adagio brushed in a
winsome gesture of melancholy before the Allegro skipped our sensibilities away with the wind, the players catching the notes’ strength and exhilarating “fizz” of the composer’s invention. Before proceeding with the next work, Gibbs’ Sonata V in F major, Hall alerted us to the latter’s relative volatility compared to Handel’s lofty serenity, telling us to expect a caprice-like feel to the music, and some extraordinary “flights of fancy”. The opening Adagio soared from the outset, before digging in with some vigorous figuration mid-stream, and continuing with impulse-like gestures. Then, the Vivace was a fugue, no less, with plenty of virtuoso double-stopping – perhaps not every note was hit perfectly, but certainly the fiddling conveyed a sense of the music’s forceful flow. A lovely contrast was given by the Sarabande, both instruments in serene, thoughtful accord, a brief respite before the Gigue’s life-enhancing energy burst upon us, tumbling warmth alternated with touches of rustic drollery, Gibbs’ music leading us a merry dance via Hall’s and Griffiths-Hughes’s eloquently nimble fingers!
Again, Handel’s music “lifted” our threshold of awareness, the opening music of his D Major Sonata HWV 371 somehow having a “marbled” aspect suggesting great columns of nobility and strength – and how the phrases of the Allegro which followed the opening leapt from the instruments with god-like confidence! What, then, a difference in the Larghetto! – the first minor-key phrase seemed to take us to a well of worldly sorrow – the lines beseeched us with a candour and then a sweetness which captivated the ear! Then, the Allegro, with its strong, running passages and its chameleon-like easeful moments made one catch one’s breath – Hall and Griffiths-Hughes resisted the temptation to “indulge” the music’s mastery of utterance at the end, though we would have allowed them a certain expansiveness with the last few phrases had they been so inclined!
After the interval came what Griffiths-Hughes described as the most demanding of Gibbs’ Sonatas by dint of its key-signature – Sonata VIII in E-flat Major, a challenge particularly for the violinist re the “remoteness” of the key to the violin’s own tuning. Adding to the difficulties were Gibbs’ “inventive” touches, the opening Grave continuously double-stopped, here richly and gloriously voiced, the subtleties closely and meticulously worked. The Siciliana’s grace and poise momentarily relieved some of the intensity, though the music abounded with spontaneous impulse denoting light-and-shade – then the Fuga, in no less than four parts, drew us into an amazingly complex web of sounds, relieved by the finale’s “hunting-horn” aspect – “Corno poco allegro”, if you please! – vividly trenchant “digging in” by both instruments vividly recreated a sense of the chase – a remarkable evocation which brought a visceral response from both musicians! Handel’s G Minor Sonata HWV 364a which followed had its share of evocation, too, the opening Larghetto sounding as if borrowed from/loaned to the composer’s own “Water Music” – such beautiful, buoyant gravitas, leading to flourishes introducing – no, not the famous “Hornpipe” from the latter work, but an equally brilliant Allegro of another provenance! The succeeding Adagio, brief as it was, had as well an air of familiarity; but there was no time to ponder its associations before the final Allegro swept everything before it in Hall’s and Griffiths-Hughes’s hands with an irresistible flow of notes – “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” were words that came to my mind……..
And so to Gibbs’ last Sonata of the evening, the fourth of the set, in B-flat major, one whose first half my violinist who had recorded these works had described as, for him, “the trickiest”, with a challenging cadenza, and demanding double-stopped passages, not to mention some triple-stopping later in the work! The opening Largo was filled with extravagant gesturings, in both major and minor key sequences, beautifully “thrown off” by Hall, the melodic lines seemingly more extravagant than were Handel’s, more improvisatory, the “flow” being frequently broken by impulsive gesturings. After a more conventional Allegro (demonstrating that Gibbs could “finger” lines with the ease and fluidity of Handel), the concluding Affetuosa and Variations revisited the composer’s fondness for detailing a melody with echo phrases and triplet sequences, the concluding Minuet Allegro again horn-like in its display-mode and disarmingly compelling in its single-mindedness! And after the rigours of these structured displays, it seemed fitting that Hall and Griffiths-Hughes go back to the beginning, and another of John Playford’s Variations sets, this one most enticingly titled “La Folia” (The Madness), reckoned by some to be the most enduring tune ever devised, one whose history derived from the folk music of Portugal, spreading to Spain and thence across the Mediterranean, where it reached its peak of popularity at the end of the seventeenth century, though still exerting creative impetus today.
The tune seemed here to coalesce from the instruments’ tunings, the simplicity of the line having its shape, its figuration, its texture and its gait reinvented by Playford to remarkable effect, profoundly satisfying our by now finely-honed taste for variation of the most diverse kinds, here concluding with a vigorous running sequence rounded off by a brilliant flourish! A triumph, in short, to “finish off” the evening, and one for everybody concerned!