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A Baroque Festival
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Solomon: The arrival of the Queen of Sheba (1748) [2:46]
Harp Concerto in B flat major, op. 4 no. 6 (1736) [15:50]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
‘Three Parts upon a Ground’ [5:06]
A Suite of Theatre Music [7:52]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706)
Canon and Gigue [5:00]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 29: Sinfonia (1731) [3:36]
Ich steh’ mit einem Fuss im Grabe, BWV 156: Sinfonia (1729) [2:18]
Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, BWV 31: Sonata (1715) [2:21]
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248: Part 2 Sinfonia (1734) [5:57]
Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106: Sonatina (1707 or 1708?) [2:44]
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147: Jesus bleibet meine Freude* (1723) [2:13]
Ich liebe den Hochsten von ganzem Gemute, BWV 174: Sinfonia (1731) [5:45]
*Taverner Consort, Taverner Players/Andrew Parrott
rec. No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, April, June 1987. DDD
VIRGIN CLASSICS 391340 2 1 [60:22]

Handel’s Queen of Sheba makes a dazzling sprint start of an entrance to begin this cornucopia of baroque goodies first released in 1988. It’s all scintillating strings and gleeful oboe duet. The effect is one of total exuberance and vivacity. But the next track finds this CD springing a different surprise. Concerto 6 may be familiar from the opus 4 set for organ, but here’s the original version for harp, more delicate and suited to its backing of recorders and muted strings. Andrew Lawrence-King is the soloist who for me finds more sweetness and relaxation in this role than the 1983 recording by Ursula Holliger with The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock (Archiv 469 358-2). This latter characteristic is confirmed by Parrott’s overall timing of 15:50 against Pinnock’s 13:11 and the general effect thereby is both intimate and luxurious. Lawrence-King adds a modicum of ornamentation in the repeats. The opening is light and glistening, the G minor slow movement suitably thoughtful, while the finale’s emphasis is squarely on the latter element of Allegro moderato.

Purcell’s ‘Three Parts upon a Ground’, a hybrid between fantasia and chaconne, sports a ground bass which appears 28 times with a 3-part canon displayed above it, clever stuff technically but also enjoyable to hear. In this performance, at once meticulous and full of life, you appreciate the variety Purcell finds. It begins in mellow fashion with smooth imitation between the 3 violins but by the eighth ground (tr. 5 1:15) there are flurries of semiquavers let loose. The following calm brings the ground alone (1:36) and then gentle application as the three parts re-establish themselves from 1:44. By the eighteenth appearance of the ground (3:02) it’s in the three violins parts just offset by a little activity in the bass. The twentieth ground (3:23) is a more active phase in the violins with dotted rhythms leading to shimmering semiquaver descents in the twenty third (3:55). The final ground appearance (4:47), marked ‘Drag’ is suddenly a brief reflection of sombre thanksgiving for all the previous riches.

I compared the 2005 Ricercar Consort/Philippe Pierlot recording (Mirare MIR 012). This is slightly faster, 4:43 against Parrott’s 5:06 and freer flowing, with more of an improvisatory feel. The rhythms are spikier and the whole stylish enough but never relaxes. Parrott’s more formal approach incorporates clearer display of melody and structure, more breadth of phrasing and space to reflect but also makes the faster passages distinctive enough yet rather more gracious than Pierlot. I make this comparison simply to clarify the quality of this Virgin CD. With a collection like this you’re likely to choose it or not on the basis of your liking for its mix of items.

Parrott’s Suite from Purcell’s theatre music begins with the Trumpet Symphony in Act 3 Scene 2 of The Indian Queen, not as the booklet note states the one borrowed from Come ye sons of art, which is Act 2 Scene 2, but it’s a sunny performance, the trumpet stylishly blending with the sheen of the period instrument strings before a luxuriantly savoured slow coda (tr. 6 1:58) for strings alone. Next is the rondo from Abdelazer made famous in Britten’s Young person’s guide to the orchestra, neatly phrased with the inner parts distinct and subtle dynamic shading in the episodes. Then the chaconne from The Gordian knot untied seems succinctly to sum up a sensitive appreciation of life in both a shining and soulful manner. Finally trumpet and drums as well present the Second Act Tune of The Indian Queen, festive indeed, with a Dance also in C major interpolated (tr. 9 0:36). This has a slightly lighter style and the 1994 Purcell Society edition suggests the Dance is by Purcell’s brother Daniel.

Pachelbel’s Canon is his best known work and attractive in its short, straightforward ground bass, gradual increase of the violin parts to three and more flowing rhythm, melody and imitation as it progresses. Parrott’s performance combines elegance and a sense of flowering forth, lightly applied yet with a merrily dancing character. This chimes in well with the following Gigue, which has the jollity to which the Canon aspires, because its briefer point of imitation allows greater freedom. And it’s good to have the Gigue, because that makes two works by Pachelbel you now know. Harpsichord continuo is appropriately used for these blithe pieces though the booklet confusingly credits Andrew Parrott playing the organ, as he does in the Purcell ‘Three Parts upon a Ground’.

This CD closes with a sequence of bite size Bach. To start, the Sinfonia of Cantata 29, in which Bach’s third Partita for solo violin is turned into an organ concertante and robustly garnished with oboes, trumpets, drums and strings’ accompaniment. It’s a formidable solo, negotiated with considerable aplomb by John Toll at a fair lick, 3:36 against the 3:43 of Arthur Grumiaux’s 1960 recording of the original (Philips 464 673-2). But the orchestration rather warms and civilizes it. The agony and ecstasy don’t show to such awesome effect as when the soloist is out there on his own.

A very different kind of solo comes next, however, a tender oboe one in the Sinfonia of Cantata 156, here played as a chaste song in contrite manner by David Reichenberg. It’s a pure, largely unadorned focus on the melody, a refreshing contrast to the same piece as the slow movement of Keyboard Concerto 5 where the opportunity for ornamentation tends to be enthusiastically taken up these days.

The Sonata which opens Cantata 31 has great ceremonial weight at the start and end with lots of oboe, trumpet and drum sonorities. In between Parrott keeps things more transparently bubbling and exuberant to honour the intricate contrapuntal texture and clarify the imitation between the instruments, for instance the first trumpet descant figure (tr. 14 0:16) echoed in turn by first and second violins. By contrast serenity is the abiding impression obtained from the opening of Part 2 of the Christmas Oratorio, Bach’s Pastoral Symphony. Parrott’s fine blend of flutes and violins creates a smooth expanse and ethereal aura but this alternates with the more pungent, rustic yet still warm, sound of period oboes which bring earthiness and a feel of animal presence to the landscape.

A comparable but distinctively different contrast of textures is heard in the Sonatina which opens the funeral Cantata 106, the ‘Actus tragicus’. Two bass viols and continuo create an atmosphere of dignity and warmth of remembrance over which two recorders provide a decorous lament invaded with glints of poignancy because of the leaps in the melody.

Voices now make a sole appearance on this CD for the chorale from Cantata 147, in English known as ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’, one voice to a part resulting in clarity of texture and balance with oboes and strings’ accompaniment. Parrott makes it go with more of a swing than usual, only calming a touch at the end, yet the celebratory manner is appropriate to the text and the chorale itself glows with inner conviction.

In keeping with the opening, Parrott closes the CD with a flourish, in this case with Cantata 174’s Sinfonia. This is a re-run of the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto 3 with extras in the form of independent descant parts for 2 hunting horns plus 2 oboes and a tenor oboe brought in to reinforce the strings and vary the timbre. In his recording published in 1987 Nikolaus Harnoncourt argues this expansion should result in a slower tempo. His timing is 6:10 (Teldec 4509-91763-2). Parrott here would appear not to agree, as his timing of 5:45 is the same as The English Concert/Trevor Pinnock 1982 recording of the strings only original (Archiv 471 720-2). I’m not convinced the Sinfonia sounds more effective slower: though the elements are more distinct the exoticism seems somewhat tamed. Parrott’s strings are lighter in articulation than Harnoncourt’s and the horns fit in cheerily enough, as does the oboes underpinning which nevertheless adds to the tension as the imitative figurations descend to the cellos (from tr. 18 4:41). It’s all very jolly, rather like a fantasy marriage between Brandenburg Concerto 3 and Brandenburg Concerto 1.

As with all excerpts that make their mark, you’d like to hear more of the works from which they have been wrested. Personally I feel the selection here is a good mix of favourite pieces and some which deserve to be better known all in performances of consistently high quality.

Michael Greenhalgh



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