Monday, February 26, 2018

Juilliard415 Performs O'Carolan, Purcell, Handel and Holborne

Last Tuesday afternoon, I went to Holy Trinity Church on Central Park West to hear another of the Juilliard415's recitals of Baroque music performed on period instruments.  This term the ensemble is focused on the music of England and accordingly presented a program of that country's music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, though the recital started off with several dance airs by an Irishman.

Turlough O'Carolan was a wandering Irish minstel who composed his own material and then performed it on an Irish harp.  The prominence given this instrument in Irish history dates back to the Middle Ages when minstrel/poets held an exalted place in early Irish history.  The seven selections played here - "Lary Grogan," "D'eala Mairi Iiomsa," ""Mrs. Poer," "Major Shanly," "Carolan's Receipt," "Sarsfield's Lamentation" and "John Nugent" - were all taken from The Hibernian Muse: A Collection of Irish Airs Including the most Favorite Compositions of Carolan, The Celebrated Irish Bard, published c. 1770, and were arranged for flute, violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord.

For the most part, this remainder of the recital concentrated on trio sonatas, that staple of the Baroque repertoire.  Unfortunately, there were few English composers who truly excelled in writing for this genre.  The Trio Sonata in A major by John Blow - here arranged for two violins, cello and harpsichord - was workmanlike but certainly not a masterpiece even after having taken into account that this was his only attempt at writing such a work.  One feels he was trying to master a form with which he did not feel entirely comfortable.  Though a respected composer in his day, Blow is today remembered primarily as the mentor of the younger and much more talented Henry Purcell.  In particular, Blow's masque Venus and Adonis, conisdered by some to have been the first English opera, influenced Purcell in his composition of Dido and Aeneas.

The difference between Blow and Purcell's were immediately apparent in the performance of the latter's Sonata X in D major, Z. 811 from Ten Sonata's in Four Parts (1697), a posthumous collection whose publication was arranged by the composer's widow.  It was performed immediately after the Blow piece and on the same instruments so that it was easy to compare the qualities of each.  While the bulk of Purcell's work, like Blow's, was religious (both had served as organist at Westminster Abbey) Purcell was much more at home with the lively spirit of Italian secular music and eager to share it with his countrymen.  If Blow's sonata seemed more an academic exercise, Purcell's was fully alive and filled with sparkling innovations.  These same qualities could also be heard in the other Purcell piece on the program, his Sonata No. 6 from Sonnatas of III Parts (1683), his first published work that was here arranged for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord even though Purcell had stipulated that both treble instruments should be violins.

There were two trio sonatas by Handel on the program - the Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 2, No. 3, arranged for oboe, violin, bassoon and harpsichord; and the Sonata in F major, Op. 2, No. 4, arranged for flute, violin, cello and harpsichord. Both pieces were written sometime between 1718 and 1722 (though not published until 1733) after Handel had already achieved great initial success in England.  By that time Arcangelo Corelli had made the trio sonata one of the most popular musical forms in Europe and it was inevitable that Handel, who had already met Corelli in Italy, would try his hand at the genre in much the same manner as he modeled his Op. 6 Concerti Grossi after Corelli's.  But Handel's works are not mere imitations.  As one would expect of the Baroque era's greatest opera composer, these sonatas are filled with drama in every movement.

The program ended with selections from a much earlier Elizabethan work, Anthony Holborne's 1599 Pavans, Galliards, Almains and other short Aeirs, here arranged for two violins, two violas, bass violin, violone and harpsichord.  The dances were so imaginatively titled that they're worth listing in full - a pavan ("The Cradle"), a galliard ("The New-Yeeres Gift"), a galliard ("The Fairy-Round"), a pavan ("Paradizo"), an almain ("The Night Watch") and a galliard ("Muy Linda").  They were all extremely enjoyable to hear and provided a lighthearted end to the recital.

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