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Johann Christoph PEPUSCH (1667-1752)
Venus and Adonis
Ciara Hendrick (Venus)
Philippa Hyde (Adonis)
Richard Edgar-Wilson (Mars)
The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen/Robert Rawson
rec. St Mary the Virgin, Bishopsbourne, Kent, UK, June 2015
RAMÉE RAM1502 [85.03]

Question number one is, how did this baroque orchestra get that wonderful name? Apparently it was a term applied to one of the earliest orchestral groups to give public performances in London. It was coined by one Ned Ward, a satirical writer and publican (!) of the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-centuries. Question number two is, who is Johann Christoph Pepusch? He was a German-born composer who spent most of his working life in England and was in fact an older contemporary of Handel and, indeed, associated with him for a short while. His main claim to fame is as the musical collaborator and arranger with writer John Gay on The Beggar's Opera. He arrived in England in 1700 and established a reputation as a composer of cantatas and concertos during the decade prior to Handel, who of course, then swept all before him.

The miniature opera seria Venus and Adonis, premiered in 1715, was Pepsuch’s 'attempt to give the Town a little good musick in a language they understand.' It seems that John Vanbrugh attempted a full season of Italian-style opera in 1708 at his theatre in the Haymarket. He presented translated pasticcios and engaged castrati who were unable to sing acceptably in English. This could well account for the words of one writer who referred dismissively to the 'Foreign Insult of th’ Italian squaling Tribe.' Pepusch himself was music director for Vanbrugh during this period and would have been well aware of the problems.

The detailed notes with this CD suggest that Pepusch succeeded handsomely and Venus and Adonis was a great success. It was performed quite frequently for about fifteen years until 1730. It certainly moves along at some speed and contains much first class music. It covers the whole gamut from laments to rapid recitatives to effects music (think Vivaldi) and is all in English. Of course it has to be added that this flurry of activity to re-establish opera in English failed because Handel's Rinaldo was given its first performance, in Italian, in 1711, and over the next three decades Handel's Italian operas, sung by imported foreign star singers, simply took over London's musical life.

The Harmonious Society of Tickle-Fiddle Gentlemen are joined by three main singers. Ciara Hendrick as Venus has a clean and attractive voice that is just occasionally a bit strained; Philippa Hyde has a lovely voice for Adonis and dies impressively at the end with her aria 'O! Welcome! Welcome! Gentle Death!' I have some reservations about the casting of Richard Edgar-Wilson as Mars. He has a tendency to sound a little strained above the stave but in the mid-range all is well and his attention to the meaning of the text is exemplary. His light tenor might seem unsuited to the character, though it must be admitted that Mars' intemperate ranting and his failure to forgive Venus is thoroughly ungodlike, so perhaps a lightweight interpretation is appropriate. We certainly are never going to get a comparative performance to help us find out. As for the orchestra, they are just magnificent. I recognise one or two names in the ensemble listing so I guess they are drawn from the common fund of wonderful baroque instrument experts that we have every right to be proud of in this country.

We are used to good CD recordings but this one seems to have it even more right than usual. Congratulations to technical guru Frédéric Briant for his efforts in producing a spacious and detailed sound in which the voices seem to be just out there in front of the listener. Also remarkable is the length of this disc. Eighty-five minutes is way over the norm, indeed I would have assumed it was impossible to get that much music on the carrier. Great notes, great packaging - a winner!

Dave Billinge



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