Wonderful music-making: Richard Egarr and Friends at Edinburgh was a joy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2022 [11] – Music for three violins with Richard Egarr and Friends: Richard Egarr (Harpsichord), Bojan Čičić, Rachell Ellen Wong, Ruiqi Ren (violins), Alex McCartney (theorbo), Jonathan Rees (viola da gamba). Queen’s Hall, 24.8.2022. (SRT)

Richard Egarr and Friends at Queen’s Hall © Ryan Buchanan

Gabrieli – Sonata XXI con tre violini (1615)
Fontana –
Sonata 16 (1641) for 3 violins
Rossi –
Toccata Settima (harpsichord)
Marini –
Sonata in ecco (1629)
Purcell –
Fantasia: Three Parts on a Ground, Z.731
Lully –
Salve Regina ‘Petit motet for 3 sopranos’
Froberger –
Lamentation faite sur la mort très doloureuse de Sa Majesté Imperiale, Ferdinand le troisième
Schmelzer –
Sonata for 3 violins
Buonamente –
Sonata secondo for 3 violins (1636)
Pachelbel –
Canon and Gigue

I have to confess that I didn’t make my way into this concert overflowing with anticipation. Maybe it was the terrible weather outside, maybe it is festival fatigue in the EIF’s final week, but the prospect of a full concert of Baroque violin sonatas didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

I was wrong to feel that way, though. This concert was a joy; not only wonderful music-making, but a thorough introduction to a period of music about which I knew little, and that was mostly thanks to the man at the harpsichord.

Richard Egarr isn’t just a great musician; he is also a brilliant communicator. During his regular visits to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, he regularly talks to the audience about his ideas behind the programme, and his spoken introductions to each of this morning’s pieces made a world of difference in bringing an under-explored corner of European music to life. Egarr constructed this programme as music written in the seventeenth century for three violins, ranging across Europe from Italy and Austria to France and England. This was a period where the violin was coming into its own as a solo instrument, and when the sonata was finding its place as a musical form, instrumental music holding its own independently against vocal music. So, this programme provided a window into the growth of both an instrument and a genre at a key point in their development.

Egarr couldn’t do this alone, of course, hence the concert’s title ‘Richard Egarr and Friends’. His three violinists, Bojan Čičić, Rachell Ellen Wong and Ruiqi Ren, conjured up a gorgeously sweet sound as they played together. There was a wonderful cantabile quality to the whole concert, like the overlapping of three sopranos in a sung piece, and indeed the item by Lully was a transcription of exactly that.

Elsewhere, however, they conjured up a gorgeous, improvisatory quality in the sonata by Gabrieli, and a mysterious beauty in Purcell’s Three Parts on a Ground, the multiple layers of counterpoints operating in tandem with one another. Alex McCartney’s long-necked theorbo and Jonathan Rees’s viola da gamba provided strong continuo that crackled with its own sense of creating the music fresh in the moment.

Revelations and new names flowed thick and fast, such as Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s sonata that was full of bright, breezy optimistic music and fiendishly challenging counterpoint. Egarr played two solo items on his harpsichord to illustrate how, before the era of equal temperament, tuning really mattered when a composer was choosing his soundworld. He described Rossi’s fiendish toccata as the musical equivalent of a bad headache where the painkillers didn’t arrive until the final note.

After such education and enlightenment, the concert ended with the familiar made strange; Pachelbel’s Canon rippling with ornamentations and played with such flair that it could never sound exactly the same twice. He then saved his most delicious surprise for the encore, his own arrangement of ‘Three Little Maids’ from The Mikado. Take it from me: you haven’t heard anything until you have heard Sullivan’s nonsense played on three baroque violins.

Simon Thompson

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen again on BBC Sounds until 22nd September 2022. The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Monday 29th August at a variety of venues across the city. Click here for details.

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