The Scottish Baroque Ensemble in Concert
Tomaso ALBINONI (1671-1750)
Adagio in G minor [7:36]
Canon in D [6:42]
Airs and Dances of
Renaissance Scotland (arr. Kenneth Elliott) [18:23]
Sonata No.5 in G [6:04]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
in G minor [8:17]
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Trio Sonata in C
minor, HWV386a [13:29]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
12 Divertimenti [17:16]
Scottish Baroque Ensemble/Leonard Friedman
rec. 1976, St Mary’s Church, Haddington, Scotland and Hopetoun House,
CRD 3419 [69:57]
There is little to commend the performances of either of the “pop” pieces here. Not only have Albinoni’s Adagio and Pachelbel’s Canon been recorded off the face of the earth in equally smooth and uneventful performances, but scholarship over the past 40 years has forced us to re-think these works and assess them in a very different way. The best thing that can be said is that these are reminders of an earlier age when it was sufficient to regard this music as merely beautiful, refined and best heard placed within a protective veil of opacity.
It’s a totally different story with the remainder of this programme. For a start the recording location – Hopetoun House – is far more acoustically generous and enticing than the somewhat closed feel of the East Lothian church used for the Albinoni and Pachelbel. Then the Scottish Baroque Ensemble seems to have been far more assertive and stylistically conscious in these performances, even if many of the arrangements seem disconcertingly out of keeping with our present perceptions of stylistic authenticity.
It was the late Kenneth Elliott, a leading academic in the field of 16th century Scottish music, who took a number of pieces from the music of the court of James VI of Scotland and arranged them as a suite for strings very much in the manner of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. The parallels are very strong indeed, and with the nimble, syncopated rhythms of the Galliard and the broad, sweeping stateliness of the Pavan he gives Warlock’s music a real run for its money. This certainly deserves to be heard for, beyond its obvious attractiveness as a piece of string music, it draws attention to an almost wholly forgotten area of the British musical legacy; the courtly music of pre-Union Scotland. No hint here of barren mountains and heather clad lochs, but strong flavours of the French court reminding us how closely the Scottish and the French courts were connected in those pre-Brexit days when, as now, the government in London was deeply mistrusted by the government in Edinburgh.
The departure of King James VI to take up the throne in London in 1603 marked the end of the Scottish court and the disbanding of its musical institution, and little more was heard from Scottish composers for the next century or so. Then, in 1728, the Edinburgh Musical Society came into existence with the aim of reviving musical life amongst the gentry of the city, and it started to attract Scottish players who had some training as composers. One such was the Glasgow-born violinist William McGibbon, who trained in both London and Italy and, like so many of his contemporaries, attempted to imitate the style of Corelli in his orchestral music. In 1963 Kenneth Elliott unearthed McGibbon’s set of six Sonatas for two violins (or flutes) and continuo which had been published in Edinburgh in 1734, and arranged the fifth of these for large orchestra. That is the arrangement heard on this disc, and despite a slightly overblown feel, this is such a tantalising glimpse of the music of this forgotten composer, that one wonders why it is that, even today, nobody has - so far as I know - put the other of McGibbon’s sonatas on to disc in a more authentically-driven performance.
The remainder of the programme moves away from Scotland and arrives, first of all, in London. A beautifully shaped account of the Purcell Chaconne has stood the test of time to sound as convincing here as it did when the recording was first made. Purcell scholarship may again have moved on and taken performance with it, but there is an integrity about the Scottish Baroque Ensemble’s playing which transcends matters of fashion. Even more alluring is the enticing account of Handel’s C minor Trio Sonata. Possibly a little self-indulgent in the slower movements but wanting for nothing in terms of clarity of articulation and thought in the faster ones, this also highlights the fine quality of the original recording and the effectiveness of its digital transfer, with a most vivid stereo spread in the allegro movements where the two solo violins chase each other around at opposite sides of the aural spectrum.
The 12 Divertimenti by Haydn included here are from the very early set of 24 composed around 1765 for two baryons and bass, again arranged in a version for string orchestra. With the opulent recorded sound and the very smooth, blended tone of the Scottish Baroque Ensemble as it was in 1976, Haydn’s music takes on a distinctly romantic sheen; at first hearing, you could easily confuse this for any number of English works for string orchestra from the start of the last century. Nevertheless Leonard Friedman has taken great care in moulding these delightful miniatures – few much more than a minute in length – and gets everything nicely into proportion. I like the rustic quality of No.9, and the wonderful breath of fresh air that sweeps in with number 7, but every one of them is a gem in these clearly very affectionate performances.