Entertaining, if a bit samey, AAM exploration of Baroque Carnival at Milton Court

United KingdomUnited Kingdom ’Tis Nature’s Voice – Scherzi Musicali: Academy of Ancient Music / Bojan Čičić (director / violin), Thomas Guthrie (production design). Milton Court, London, 21.4.2023. (CC)

Academy of Ancient Music in rehearsal for Scherzi Musicali © AAM

Farina Capriccio stravagante (1627)
Westhoff Violin Sonata in D minor (1694): Imitazione delle campane
Walther Hortulus Chelicus No.28: Serenata a un coro di violini (publ.1688)
Scheidt – Ludi musici I:21: Galliard battaglia à 5, SSW59 (pub.1620)
Schmelzer – Balletto à 4, ‘Die Fechtschule’ (1668/9?); Polnische Sackpfeiffen à 3 in G (Rost Codex, pub.1680s)
Biber Mensa sonora: Pars VI in G minor (1680); Battaglia à 10, C 61 (1673)

This really was something different, and totally in keeping with the sense of imagination and adventure the Academy of Ancient Music is exuding these days. Part of their ‘’Tis Nature’s Voice’ season 2022-23, this was an exploration of Baroque Carnival: peasant songs, dance tunes and imitation of sounds made by both man and beast are all part of this potpourri.

The Academy of Ancient Music’s way with Farina’s Capriccio stravagante often put me in mind of Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spass: they made a conscious decision to emphasise, for example, the repetitions on one note, almost suggesting a deliberate clumsiness (in contrast to, say, the rather more sanitised recording by the Accademia Strumentale Italiana under Alberto Rasi’s recording on the Stradivarius label).

Carlo Farina (c.1600-1639) was known to like to imitate animal sounds on his violin; like Biber, he was known for his virtuoso violin writing. The Capriccio stravagante takes a consort of violins and converts it into a full-spectrum instrument in its own right. Farina uses a veritable barrage of effects in his piece (which falls into 16 labelled sections): here we find a ‘lira,’ a ‘piferino’, ‘La trombetta,’ ‘Il clarino,’ ‘Il Flautino pian piano’; not to mention ‘Il Gatto’ and a Spanish guitar (‘La Chitarra Spagnola’). Wonderful to hear the AAM digging in, relishing the scrunchy moments when all goes deliberately topsy-turvy. Farina’s writing is very imaginative in general.

Johann Paul von Westhoff’s Imitazione delle campane, featured the sure virtuosity Bojan Čičić. Effectively an etude, Čičić is a master of the Baroque violin, and how it showed. This work has some level of familiarity in the catalogues, including a version by Daniel Hope (in an arrangement by Christian Badzura); here it had something of an interludial function between the Farina and Johann Jacob Walther’s Hortulus Chelicus No.28 (Serenata), 14 movements of utter joy but little depth. The Serenata is the final ‘chapter’ of the Hortulus Chelicus. Solo violin and continuo take on a plethora of modes – like the Farina, the ensemble becomes chameleon-like. The piece includes the most beautiful theorbo solo, deliciously rendered here by William Carter. Again, wit in music becomes somewhat subjective, and one began to wonder if a bit of meat might not go amiss amongst all these witty starters. Again, Čičić’s talents were multiply called for and once more, he excelled. The stately, delightful ‘Galliard battaglia,’ replete with violin exchanges and imitations, was the perfect close to the first half, though, Timothy Amherst really digging in on double bass. Scheidt provided the finest music of the first half (and, listening to his music as intended, it is easy to hear why it is so often transcribed for brass ensemble).

The second half brought music by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, his ‘balletto’ Die Fechtschule (The Fencing School). The piece might well have accompanied a choreographed fencing display in Vienna’s carnival season in 1668 or 1669, with the swordsmen dancing to the opening Arias I & II, having warmed up during the Sarabande and Courante and fought (albeit in stylised manner) in the ‘Fechtschule’ movement before the ‘Bader Aria’ (the ‘Bader’ is Austrian dialect for a barber-physician). There are high contrasts in this piece, from those oh-so-civilised dances to the actual scrap itself (where dissonance takes over). The music is certainly gestural (and rather repetitive although Armonico Tributo Austria’s recording on the Arcana label makes it sound less so than AAM live). Čičić’s skills were once more called for in the ’Fechtshule’ movement before the conciliatory, and rather lovely, ’Bader Aria’ stepped forth.

Apart from Scheidt, it is the name of Biber that is probably best known here. His music offered a high point of the Middle Baroque. His Mensa sonora (literally ‘sonorous table’) relates to its function as dinner music. Forms such as the Canario (Canary Dance, popular in the Renaissance) and Amener (a triple-time dance also found in the music of J. C. F. Fischer) and Trezzo hearken back to an earlier time. The music is spellbinding though (I have yet to hear a piece by Biber that isn’t) and offered the closest the concert came to real depth. The surprise of the ending came as just that, brilliantly effected by the players.

Schmelzer’s Polnische Sackpfeiffen (Polish Bagpipers) in G has attained a certain measure of popularity and is quite fun in its standalone form. No missing the bagpipe invocation in the drones (well projected here), and the music is blessed with a nice, folksy theme. Tempo changes were perfectly judged by the AAM’s players.

The true fun of the evening came in a choreographed performance of Biber’s Battaglia à 10. All credit to the members of the AAM ensemble for criss-crossing the stage while playing, and to Čičić for his authoritative shouts of ‘into formation’ and so forth. Violins performed from memory. Lots of foot-stomping as percussion, lots of controlled dissonance in the ‘Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor’ (roughly, ‘the debauched party with sundry humours’) and the most remarkable ‘Mars’, the solo violin against only double bass creating a lovely registral space filled in by the courtlier Presto that follows. The battle itself is the movement entitled ’Die Schlacht’. Less than a minute of buzzing, riotous energy that follows a scrumptious ‘Aria’. The work ends beautifully, with ‘Lamento der Verwundten Musquetirer,’ an Adagio with composed slides and which ended with all of the musicians lying on the Milton Court stage, ‘dead’. All credit to Thomas Guthrie’s stage realisation (I take it he was responsible for the excellent lighting throughout the evening, also). If you are looking for a recording, try Jordi Savall’s, with Le Concert des Nations on Alia Vox.

Entertaining, then. A bit samey, true, but offering pointers to further listening at all points (the Savall Biber referenced above, for example, includes that composer’s fabulous Missa Salisburgensis à 53, well worthy of exploration).

The AAM’s ’Tis Nature’s Voice series continues with Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo (Cambridge, May 10; Milton Court, May 11) and Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, ‘The Beauty of the Romantic Style’, on June 30 at the Barbican.

Colin Clarke

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