United Kingdom Handel, Corelli, Lully, Muffat, Scarlatti, Avison, Geminiani: Devon Baroque / Persephone Gibbs (director), Great Hall, Dartington, 24.1. 2016 (PRB)
George Frideric Handel: Concerto Grosso Op 6 No 9 in G
Archangelo Corelli: Concerto Grosso Op 6 No 10 in C
Jean-Baptiste Lully: Dances from ‘Atys’
George Muffat: Concerto Grosso ‘Delerium Amoris’
Domenico Scarlatti: Harpsichord Sonatas in G minor (K31) and A minor (K7)
Charles Avison: Concerto done from Scarlatti’s Lessons: No 9 in C
Francesco Geminiani: Variations on ‘La Folia’ (after Corelli)
Devon Baroque has been setting the standard for innovative, exciting approaches to Baroque music, performed on original instruments and using contemporary playing practices, since the autumn of 1999, when a group of professional string players invited Margaret Faultless to the county to direct a workshop devoted to the performance-style of the period.
In the intervening years there have been changes both in personnel and leadership. Faultless, in great demand both as an academic, and highly-sought-after violinist, relinquished her role in 2012 as the ensemble’s first artistic director, but Devon Baroque was extremely fortunate to secure the appointment of Persephone Gibbs earlier this year.
American-born Gibbs, who had initially led the ensemble from the violin for two years, is no stranger to players or audiences alike, but now in the position of artistic director, she is able to bring her wealth of knowledge, skill, outstanding playing ability and engaging disposition to the table.
For their first concert of 2016, there has been a further appointment, which now sees current harpsichordist Andrew Wilson-Dickson as Joint Director with Gibbs. The wording is significant, since in terms of all matters artistic within the performance, nothing has changed. But seasoned-Baroque specialist Wilson-Dickson not only brings a raft of experience to the ensemble, but is also more readily able to help deal with issues on a day-to-day basis. In terms of any additional ‘direction’ in performance, this was limited to an occasional discrete and helpful beat, for example on this occasion to the guitarist, when Gibbs was unsighted or taceting momentarily. In fact this working relationship was always in place before finally being formalised, and can bring only further benefit to the ensemble.
Over the years Devon Baroque has always come up with interesting and varied programmes, usually with a well-defined theme. When they decided on the title ‘Musiciens sans Frontières’ for this concert some while back, they could hardly have known just how sensitive the subject would become again, given that in Baroque times there was still a relaxed attitude to border crossing, and musicians were always able to travel freely to seek out work. The orchestra – this time in all-string rig-up – got things off to a superb start with Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F, Op 6 No 9, a charming work recycled from a small chamber piece, and which the composer clearly had a soft spot for, later arranging it as an organ concerto.
The next work – Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in C, Op 6 No 10 – was very much in the same mould, where a number of movements, contrasting in tempo and often representative of different dance-forms of the period are assembled together. The art of a successful performance is to maintain the apparent disparity between the individual components, while simultaneously forming then into a homogenous entity – something which Gibbs and her players achieved seamlessly. Equally there is a need to underline the contrast between a small group of some three or so players (concertino), and the larger group remaining (ripieno). Here, once more, the interplay, both musical and visual between Gibbs, outstanding young cellist Gavin Kibble, and second-violinist Sharon Lindo in particular, was just one of the concert’s many highlights, and featured later in the programme, too.
From here, Gibbs and crew took the packed audience on a European tour which next went to France, by way of Lully’s Dances from ‘Atys’. As Wilson-Dickson points out in his excellent, and eminently readable programme-notes, whereas the Italians took to the concerto grosso form with relish, with all its opportunities for virtuosity and improvisation, and where middle parts in the texture were important, the French went their own way, almost diametrically opposite, and essentially under the sole control of Lully at the Sun King’s court at Versailles. Lully’s contribution to the programme, therefore, consists of a number of dance-tunes, airs, and the overture to ‘Atys’, an opera, though which the French preferred to call a ‘Tragédie Lyrique’. In terms of instrumentation, it also provided an opportunity for Steve Gordon to swap from theorbo to baroque guitar, and for regular violone player Jan Spencer to take up his ‘basse de violon’ – having a strong resemblance to a cello, but genetically unrelated.
The next piece, Muffat’s Concerto Grosso ‘Delerium Amoris’ appropriately combines French Dances, but within the Italian concerto grosso framework, as befits a composer born in France, but who also admired and met Corelli in Rome. Once again Devon Baroque had done their homework, and were able to portray most effectively this stylistic amalgam in a most entertaining fashion.
Charles Avison was an English composer who chose to remain in the North East, in his native Newcastle, which proved a twin-edged sword, in terms of his lasting reputation. While a move down to London could have done his reputation a power of good, it would have been at a time when Handel was in his absolute heyday, and was very much the ‘Englishman of the moment’. Avison’s Concerto done from Scarlatti’s Lessons: No 9 in C is based on two keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, which Wilson-Dickson first played to the audience. Avison’s arrangement not only captures the essence of the original harpsichord pieces, but emphasises, especially with the once-more change to baroque guitar, the real Spanish flavour of the writing – Italian-born Scarlatti spent much time on the Iberian peninsula – and all seen through ‘Geordie’ eyes (a regional nickname for someone from Newcastle, and the larger Tyneside region). Yet again Gibbs and players proved more than equal to the stylistic vicissitudes of this musical threesome, investing the performance with much good humour along the way.
Traditional melody ‘La Follia’ has been popular in Europe for centuries, and many composers have fashioned their own sets of variations on it. Geminiani’s Variations provided not only an excellent finale from the point of view of sheer entertainment, but historically, since the Italian composer had lessons from Scarlatti’s father Alessandro and Corelli himself, later moved to London when Handel was flourishing, and also taught Avison, thus coming full circle. In fact Geminiani’s Variations are essentially a musical transformation of Corelli’s violin sonata on the same theme, and thus preserve the brilliant solo part, which Gibbs despatched with the greatest panache and easy virtuosity.
This was yet another programme of the highest quality from Devon Baroque, one that thoroughly entertained, while musically ticking all the boxes too. It is a privilege to hear such playing, as it might have been heard at the time, but even more importantly to see every single player enjoying themselves in an ambiance that really encourages them to give freely of their very best. The superb Dartington setting and acoustic plays its part here, too, of course.
If I could have changed just one thing, it was just that the fascinating ongoing anecdotal commentaries from Gibbs and others were all that was needed to precede each item. Everyone present, I suspect, would have preferred five minutes’ more playing from the orchestra, instead of them staying on stage while Wilson-Dickson played both Scarlatti sonatas in their entirety, and where, perhaps, a shorter section from each could have made exactly the same point.
It was, however, a lovely touch to see Wilson-Dickson using an iPad on his harpsichord reading-desk, controlling page-turns with the touch of the foot. Devon Baroque prides itself on the use of contemporary playing practices, so could Wilson-Dickson simply be taking ‘realising the continuo part’ to the next level, I wonder?
Philip R Buttall