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An excess of pleasure

Palladians Detailed performer information
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Recording details: November 1992
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Lindsey Pell
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: February 2016
Total duration: 65 minutes 43 seconds

This 1993 debut recording from the 'original' Palladians—Rachel Podger, Pamela Thorby, William Carter and Joanna Levine—is centred on seventeenth-century English music and the music of the Italians who lived and worked in England or whose pieces were sold and played there at this time. The sheer variety of composers and styles together with the ability of each player to bring these dancing melodies to life makes listening to this album full of pleasure, as its title suggests.


‘This is playing of a high order in terms of both technique and imaginative power’ (Gramophone)

‘Basses serve to unify the whole programme, each variation capping the virtuosity of the last. The effect, from such minimal resource, is breathtaking’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

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From its birth in early seventeenth-century Italy, the instrumental combination for two melody instruments above a supporting basso continuo rose to become one of the central musical forms of the Baroque period. It offers great opportunities for dramatic expression and virtuosity as well as a wonderful sense of intimacy.

While the most common treble pairing was two violins, the violin and recorder were also used, even though the resulting liveliness of colour was apparently not to everyone’s taste. The Florentine monk Severo Bonini noted sourly that sonatas played in church by violin, recorder, theorbo and violone: ‘stir up unbridled youth…to merriment and lust and profane the house and temple of God against all propriety’. In a jaded twentieth century we can only aspire to a similar effect on our audiences!

For this recording we have chosen English music and the music of Italians who lived and worked in England or whose pieces were sold and played there. Most are composed over a repeated bass or chord progression called a ground.

Marco Uccellini’s Aria quinta sopra la Bergamasca is written on one of the oldest and simplest of all grounds, the I–IV–V–I pattern, so common in all Western folk music. The recorder and violin are put through their paces in a free-wheeling display and although Uccellini never travelled to England he almost seems to quote ‘An English Country Garden’ at one point.

Nicola Matteis did travel to England from Italy, ‘afoot with his violin on his back’. He played both violin and guitar and his sensational performances on the former, created a furore in London in the 1670s where the violin had been little played since the Civil War. Roger North, in his old age, sketched Matteis’ career in a memoire of musical life: ‘He was very poor, but inexpugnably proud, and hardly prevailed with to play to anybody. At length…good councell and starving brought the man over, and he became the most debonaire and easy person living; he came to little meetings and did just what they would have him.’

The first set of Matteis consists of two works which Matteis probably played in his own performances; a serene lullaby in double stops and an extended set of variations on the ciaconna, a traditional guitar dance. Hearing such music it is easy to imagine Matteis sweeping English audiences off their feet, and in fact an entry in John Evelyn’s diary of 9 November 1674 seems almost to be describing these pieces:

I heard that stupendious Violin Signor Nicholas (with other rare Musitians) whom certainly never mortal man Exceeded on that Instrument; he had a stroak so sweete, and made it speake like the Voice of a man; and when he pleased, like a Consort of several Instruments…here was also that rare Lutinist Dr Wallgrave; but nothing approach’d the violin in ravaishing things on a ground as astonish’d us all.

North concludes Matteis’ story with moralistic relish:

He took a large hous and a thing called a wife and pretended to entertain, which by the nicety of his wine showed he was no detter to his genius. Excess of pleasure threw him into a dropsie, and he became very poor; he made his condition known to his friends, but would take no bounty, but upon his obligaton, such was his price, to repay it. He came at last to loos both his invention and hand, and in a miserable state of body pure and mind, dyed.

The Broken Consort in D contains some of Matthew Locke’s most angular and eccentric but inspired writing. A passionate and complex pavan is followed by a series of dances including a galliard of great nervous energy and a whirlwind saraband.

Christopher Simpson was one of the great viol virtuosos and his work The Division Viol is a goldmine of information and music for musicians today. This carefree set of variations on the folksong ‘John Come Kiss Me Now’, is not from The Division Viol but from a manuscript edited by Mark Levy. He has generously allowed us to record it here for the first time.

John Blow’s Sonata in A major is perhaps one of the first English works with that title. A broad and lovely opening movement is followed by a gracious largo which shares a melody with Blow’s anthem, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’. The concluding Brisk is drawn to a close by an arresting slow coda full of wonderful perplexing dissonances.

With Biagio Marini’s Sonata sopra ‘Fuggi dolente core’ we enter a very different world; that of the Italian intellectual academy. A brilliant description of a performance of a similar work is given in Kircher’s Itinerarium exstaticum (Rome, 1656):

They began the composition which was for two small violins and the kind of lute known as a theorbo, with such agreeable harmony and extraordinary combinations of intervals, that I cannot recall having heard the like before…and next, as they descended…from high to low they became gradually more gentle, thus affecting the senses of the listeners with similar langour…sometimes with wounds of sorrowful disdain, they drew forth a mood of melancholy and sorow as if engaged in a tragic event…Little by little they began to pass into more rapid and urgent figuration, joyful and dancing, until I was close to becoming overwhelmed with the violence of my mood. And finally, with a slackened impulse, I was brought to a calmer frame of mind inclined to compassion, divine love, and denial of worldly things, by such extraordinary grace and noble dignity that I am convinced that the heroes of old…never attained such skill.

The five course guitar became popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth century particularly in England where Charles ll was an enthusiastic amateur player. This anonymous ‘Ciaconna’ is a gentler version of the dance which Matteis used for his violin variations.

Francesco Geminiani was famous not only as a violin virtuoso and composer but also as a teacher. These graceful arrangements of Scots folk tunes are from his Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick. The plaintive ‘Auld Bob Morrice’ is followed by a dignified lament and an exuberant jig with virtuoso divisions.

Our next group of pieces by Matteis is from his fourth book which includes an optional second treble part. We have followed his custom (as observed by North), ‘Out of those books he used, by taking here and there, (to) make out admirable sonnatas’. In our ‘sonnata’ a lyrical andamento over a slowly moving bass is followed by a spirited dance-like aria. An ltalianate adagio then introduces a fiery and virtuosic set of divisions over a long stalking ground bass.

Purcell’s ‘Two in one upon a Ground’; a melancholy canon over a ground, seems to have been written with completely effortless mastery. It is amusing to note Purcell’s own opinion that ‘Composing upon a Ground is a very easie thing to do and requires but little Judgement’.

Our final piece is described by Matteis in his fourth book, as ‘A pretty Hard Ground after the Scotch Humour’. It is played twice, first as a recorder solo accompanied by guitar and violone, and then again with the ingenious counterpoint Matteis wrote for the second treble.

William Carter © 2016

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