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Concerti Curiosi

Charivari Agréable, Kah-Ming Ng (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: August 2010
St Andrew's Church, Toddington, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Hunter
Engineered by Adrian Hunter
Release date: March 2011
Total duration: 62 minutes 20 seconds

'This curious conglomeration of concertos is a celebration of contrasts'. Thus begins Kah-Ming Ng's introduction to this collection of works from the eighteenth century. Although none of the composers featured may be familiar, each work has been picked for it's fine technical skill and illuminating sound, taking inspiration from the eighteenth century definition of 'curious'' as being 'rare, excellent and fine'. Includes works by Paradis, Reichenauer, Berlin, Pepusch, Hertel, Croft and Baldassari. Charivari Agréable have established themselves as one of the Uks leading early music ensembles—in 2010 they collaborated with The King's Singers on an album of Pachelbel's Vespers, currently their best-selling album on Signum, after it featured heavily on BBC Radio 3.


'The recorded sound mixes bloom and transparency perfectly, and if Charivari prefer to emphasise the intimacy of their playing at the expense of sonic energy, that presumably is their choice. Perhaps none of these concerto rarities will set the pulse racing but, lovingly unearthed by this enterprising little orchestra, they do indeed provide much to interest the curious-at-heart' (Gramophone)

'Concerti Curiosi builds on the popularity of Charivari Agréable's recent recording of "Pachelbel's Vespers", the period ensemble here turning its attention to assembling a range of concerti by lesser-known composers of the Baroque era. The highlight is Pietro Domenico Paradies' aptly-titled A Favourite Concerto, a delightful harpsichord piece that affords the ensemble's director Kah-Ming Ng full rein to display his keyboard prowess. Soloist Jamie Savan is similarly dazzling on the two cornett concerti, by Pietro Baldassari and polymath Johan Daniel Berlin, of which the latter's Sinfonia à 5 offers an intriguing blending of the cornett's neat, upright tone with the droney textures of strings and harpsichord' (The Independent)

'As its name suggests, this is a real cabinet of curiosities—rarely heard but charming concerti by the smaller stars of the baroque firmament, played with energy and flair by the multi-talented soloists of the Oxford-ased Charivari Agréable (or 'pleasant tumult'). Composer Pietro Domenico Paradies’ A Favourite Concerto provides a fine vehicle for director Kah-Ming Ng to impress at the harpsichord, but it is Jamie Savan’s cool, straight tone on the cornett that stands out, both in Pietro Baldassari’s Sonata for cornett and strings and in Johan Daniel Berlin’s Sinfonia à 5' (The Times)

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This curious conglomeration of concertos is a celebration of contrasts. It is Charivari Agréable’s 20th a;lbum, and thus represents a milestone for a young ensemble. In keeping with its contrarian ethos, it seems apposite to devise a recital that embraces two seemingly opposing concepts. They are ‘individualism’ (i.e. independence from the conformity of a collective) and ‘playing in concert’ [from the Latin concertare, meaning ‘to work together’].

The nascent concerto was also called sinfonia (differentiated perhaps by a stronger contrapuntal flavour) or sonata (especially the Bolognese trumpet sonata), and some—such as the concerto grosso and the ripieno concerto—were quite egalitarian. But inevitably some parts became more equal than others. This procedure involves the elevation of one—traditionally violin—part via exuberant displays of prodigious prowess. These episodes of domination are then interspersed and framed by a recurring motto (or ritornello) played by the rest. With the right resources theconcerto could be adapted for a multitude of purposes, from the personal and pedagogic to those of publication and patronage. Avenues for performance abounded at court, in church (during mass), in the musically ambitious charitable institutions (ospedali) and academies, and (as entr’actes) in operas.

The first solo concertos were putatively codified in 1711 by Antonio Vivaldi, although their genesis can be traced to a generation before. Published in Amsterdam as his opus 3, the L’estro armonico concertos spread across Europe with the ferocity of a pandemic, simultaneously serving as blueprints for the writing of (solo and multiple) concertos and re-defining the already-fashionable Italian style. Vivaldi’s models soon became the sine qua non for channelling the virtuosic aspirations of the performer-composer. He led by example, occasioning in 1715 a nobleman on his Grand Tour Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach (later to be mayor of Frankfurt) to be ‘astonished … at a cadenza that really frightened me … although I cannot say that it delighted me, for it was more skilfully executed than it was pleasant to hear’.

Italy was a net exporter of violin virtuosos—and violins, for that matter—who exhibited untrammelled impulsiveness in their performance. They were enthusiastically welcomed like gladiatorial heroes, especially by Europe’s burgeoning merchant class, as concerts gravitated away from the court to the public arena of subscription concerts. Their success is sourly noted by Johann Mattheson, who, perhaps betraying a smidgen of xenophobia, enjoined his countrymen in 1713 to do better than the Italians who otherwise would ‘make all the money and return home’. Indeed many were not enamoured of the southerners’ hot-blooded musical excesses. The French essayist Jean Laurent Le Cerf de la Viéville criticized composers who were ‘ardent imitators of the Italian manner’ for seeking ‘bizarre effects’. Weaned on the sobriety of the Corellian style, England’s reverse snobbery is best voiced by the musical historian Roger North c.1726, who sniffed at the ‘many persons that doe not well distinguish between real good and evill, but are hurryed away by caprice, as in a whirlewind, and in naming Vivaldi (tho’ he hath his fellows) I have instanced enough’. Many observers were particularly exercised by the combination of tasteless flashiness and the vapid depiction of nature. Fuelling the rancour was the composer Charles Avison, for whom those ‘of the lowest class are Vivaldi, Tessarini, Alberti and Locatelli, whose Compositions, being equally defective in various Harmony and true Invention, are only a fit Amusement for Children’.

Happily none of the concertos in this disc fits that description. They are not of the ilk of, say, Pietro Antonio Locatelli’s fiendish concerto op 3/12 from his seminal L’arte del violino (1733), subtitled Il Labirinto Armonico: facilis aditus, difficilis exitus. Rather, they are facilis auditus, difficilis exsecutus. As a collection, they arouse curiosity, not just in the usual sense of ‘exciting attention’. By ‘curious’ we mean to invoke the alternative definitions by Nathaniel Bailey in his Dictionarium Britannicum (rev. edn 1736), in which is enumerated such adjectives as rare, excellent, fine, and neat (meaning clever). Indeed the easy charm of the works on this disc belies both the consummate writing and the technical demands required to execute them.

Nonetheless, the debt they owe to Vivaldi is writ large upon their scores. This is evident in Reichenauer’s oboe concerto, which, with the descending scales in the opening motif, recalls the one in the eighth concerto from Vivaldi’s L’estro Armonico. Unsurprisingly Reichenauer was in the employ of the Bohemian count and imperial chamberlain Wenzel [Václav] von Morzin, who was the dedicatee of Vivaldi’s opus 8 concertos entitled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione. This set of twelve, beginning with the now-ubiquitous Four Seasons, contains two concertos suited for performance on the oboe. When they were published in 1725 Reichenauer had stepped into the shoes of the previous Kapellmeister Johann Friedrich Fasch in one of Europe’s most celebrated court ensembles. This Virtuosissima Orchestra had earned the highest praise from Vivaldi, the count’s maestro di musica in Italia, which title is a sinecure for furnishing the court with music on a mail-order basis.

Ingratiating his way up the ladder of patronage, Vivaldi dedicated his next opus to von Morzin’s sovereign, the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. The imaginatively titled La Cetra was published in 1727, the year in which Vivaldi’s exact contemporary Croft died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey close to fellow organist Henry Purcell, on whose music he modelled much of his choral works. Croft’s overtly Italianate composition on this disc calls to mind Giuseppe Torelli’s sonata for four violins, which was performed orchestrally in 1710 in Edinburgh. This might have been the impetus behind Croft’s work for four violins, hot on the heels of Vivaldi’s concertos for four violins from the L’estro armonico of 1711. There is a difference though: Croft’s sonata belongs to the genre of the 2x2+b.c. sonata. Instrumental collections published in 1698 and 1699 contain numerous sonatas for two pairs of melody instruments and basso continuo by Gottfried Finger and Johann Gottfried Keller, both of whom were active in London around the turn of the century. This genre of writing remained in vogue for generations, as is evinced in Pepusch’s six concerts [sic] for two pairs of trebles op. 8 (c.1717–18).

Croft was awarded the doctoral degree of DMus from Oxford University in 1713 along with Pepusch, whom, despite his limited contribution, posterity has unfairly shackled to John Gay’s satire The Beggar’s Opera. Adding insult to injury his reputation was posthumously sullied by the historian Sir John Hawkins in his General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776) with the wholly unjustified observation of Pepusch to have been ‘a learned but dry composer, apparently deficient in the powers of invention’. Even before his elevation as an academic heavyweight, Pepusch had enjoyed a reputation not just as a theatre musician and a published composer of many instrumental sets but also as a sought-after performer in and an impresario of public and private concerts. When in 1712 Johann Friedrich Armand von Uffenbach went to Strasbourg to study, he took along a few of Pepusch’s ‘especially strong pieces’ [besonders starke Stücke].

The arrival in London in 1714 of the two Francescos—Veracini and Geminiani—may have prompted Pepusch to try his hand at the fashionable genre of the concerto. Veracini, cast as a solo performer between the acts of operas, was an audience-puller at the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket (re-named the King’s Theatre in that year on the accession of George I). Geminiani was rumoured to have left Naples under a cloud; apparently he had been demoted from violin to viola for not being able to play in time (thereby possibly initiating the institution of the viola joke). But by asserting his pedigree as Corelli’s pupil, Geminiani would have been poised to cash in on England’s Corelli obsession and lack of good indigenous violinists. Pepusch’s own musical language had been honed by immersion in Italian opera, and thus was perfectly suited to the writing of concertos. But his nominally entitled ‘Concerto for four violins’ is no such thing. It is a solo concerto outright.

His undeserved neglect notwithstanding, Pepusch’s importance lies in his founding of the Academy of Ancient Musick and remaining as the guiding spirit of this concert club, and, post-retirement from composition c.1729, being a musical bibliophile. It is to him that we owe the preservation of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. He enjoyed great longevity, dying in his mid-eighties, and was eulogized ‘for his learning as well as fine composition and skill in musick’.

Another octogenarian who received considerable acclaim in England was Paradies [anglicized from Paradisi]. But unlike Pepusch, Paradies’ repeated attempts at writing for the stage, firstly in Venice, then in London (where he emigrated in 1746), were all poorly received. Charles Burney in his General History of Music (1776–89) derided Paradies’ arias as ‘ill-phrased’ and wanting ‘estro or grace’. It was, however, as a harpsichord composer and a teacher of composition that he ultimately triumphed. The publication in 1754 of his dozen Sonate di gravicembalo brought him international plaudits. This collection was reprinted several times in London, Paris, and Amsterdam, and its widespread popularity exalted Paradies to the pantheon of living keyboard divinities. Leopold Mozart, whilst on tour with Wolfgang Amadeus, wrote home to Salzburg in December 1774 instructing that ‘Nannerl should practise the Clavier most diligently, especially the sonatas of Paradisi and Bach’.

The delicate expertise displayed in the crafting of Paradies’ sonatas also comes through in his harpsichord concerto. Its joyous, yet restrained, virtuosity is evocative of the more graceful aspects of the keyboard idiom of Domenico Scarlatti, the maverick harpsichordist from his hometown of Naples. Paradies’ epithet ‘favourite’ hints at prior public popularity. His publishing it in 1768, so late in his career, must surely represent a last-ditch attempt at milking his reputation. Two years later he left for Venice to spend his remaining two decades.

Resting on his laurels was all that his contemporary and fellow Neapolitan, the castrato Farinelli, could do, when bundled off after the death of his patron King Ferdinand VI of Spain. Ensconced in his villa in Bologna surrounded by the trappings of international success, including collections of art, music and musical instruments, Farinelli lapped up the homage of nobility and musicians. Among these was one Baldassari, who in 1768 revealed his intention to dedicate 12 psalms to Farinelli. These would have been his swan song, much like the Paradies concerto of the same year, for, Baldassari—yet another octogenarian—was then in his dotage.

Little of Baldassari’s oeuvre remains extant. Most of it would have been sacred music written during his protracted tenure of over half a century as maestro di cappella of the Oratorio di San Filippo Neri in Brescia. What little that has survived shows some stylistic affinity with the strict adherence to polyphony as championed by the prestigious Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna. The papal state’s ‘second city’ (after Rome), with its magnificent basilica of San Petronio, is one of the cradles of the concerto.

Bologna is also home to the Concerto Palatino della Signoria, Italy’s most famous wind band, which evolved from the civic use of municipal wind players in the thirteenth century, and which lasted until 1779. For festal occasions, members of the Concerto Palatino—players of the cornett, trumpet and sackbut—were roped in to bolster the ranks of San Petronio’s cappella musicale. Through this symbiosis, the cappella’s directors and musicians realized the potential for the combination of trumpet with strings. These trumpet sonatas became seminal to the development of the baroque concerto. It is perhaps with this tradition in mind, rather than through any antiquarian aberration, that Baldassari was inspired to write for the cornet.

The same cannot be said of the Prussian Berlin’s curious choice of an instrument which by the mid-eighteenth century was hanging on to dear life in the shadow of its heyday. His other two sinfonias, perfectly regular and also in the key of D major, employ clarinets and flutes typical of rococo or early-classical symphonies. Given that cornett and sackbut ensembles remained active in Germany into the 19th century, it might have been a visiting fellow countryman cornettist who kindled such eccentricity in Berlin. This was the same sentiment that drove him to write a concerto for the cembalo da gamba verticale. Such whims often overtake composers: Pepusch composed a concerto for the flageolet, an instrument which, in England, inexplicably enjoyed popularity disproportionate to its feasibility.

Berlin’s connection with the cornett, however, goes deeper than might be expected. At the age of sixteen he went to Copenhagen to serve the customary seven-year apprenticeship with Andreas Berg, who, as the city’s Stadtpfeifer [town wait, or wind musician], would have been familiar with the cornett. In 1744 Berlin published his Musikalske elementer, the first Danish-Norwegian musical primer. It contains rudiments on music notation and the playing of string and wind instruments, including the cornett. His repeated exhortations not to play with puffed cheeks—for reasons technical and superficial, viz. appearing ‘unsightly and unseemly’—would have applied equally to the surprisingly absent chapters on the trumpet or the horn. Thankfully these two brass instruments are catered for in a Norwegian music textbook by Lorents Nicolaj Berg, an ‘instrumentalist in royal service in Christiansand’ who died in the same year as Berlin. There is, unexpectedly, a chapter on the cornett, an instrument ‘not well-known except among musicians’. Berg wrote that he had only ever heard one good cornettist in person. This was a musician-journeyman, who, like Berg, was then working with Copenhagen’s city musicians. But by 1782, when his Første Prøve for Begyndere udi Instrumental-Kunsten was published, Berg had quite given up on the cornett, for ‘only rarely does a music lover find pleasure in bothering himself with this chest-bursting crooked horn on which one plays nothing else but psalms, chorales, and other slow pieces’.

Evidently possessed of exceptional gifts and anenquiring mind, Berlin carved out in Trondheim a distinguished career that surpassed the imaginings and abilities of mere mortals. Besides being the city’s cathedral organist, he developed a Klavier with a pedal (thus pre-dating the music theorist Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg’s date of 1756 for its invention), built the previously-mentioned ‘keyboard viola da gamba’, and published books and papers on subjects ranging from music theory to meteorology and astronomy. He was a founder-member of the Royal Norwegian Scientific Association, worked as an architect and cartographer, headed the city’s fire-service, and led the inspection of the city waterworks. He claimed to be the proud recipient of a book by the polymath musician Johann Mattheson, who gave it to him directly: it takes one to know one. For such a busy life, it is perhaps understandable that Berlin can be credited with only thirty musical compositions, most of which are lost. But more’s the pity that he should pay scant regard to documenting his eventful existence.

In contrast three (editions of) autobiographies number among Hertel’s vast output, albeit mostly unpublished, which is bookended by literary works: his earliest writings, penned in his twenties, were on thoroughbass realization and music theory. Hertel boasts an impressive musical lineage: his grandfather Jacob Christian was Kapellmeister in Oettingen and later Merseburg; his father Johann Christian was one of the best viola da gamba players of his time, touring with the Eisenach court orchestra, of which he later became, as violinist, the concert master and musical director. As harpsichordist Johann Wilhelm accompanied his father on concert tours, and followed him to work at the Strelitz court. When his father’s eyesight began to fail in the autumn of 1750, Wilhelm assumed the old man’s responsibilities as orchestra leader. This stint lasted barely two years, for the Mecklenburg-Strelitz Hofkapelle was soon dissolved after the death of duke Adolf Friedrich III (whose niece Sophie Charlotte was later to become the queen of George III of Great Britain). And when Wilhelm’s father died two years after that, it was time to move on. The late duke’s sister in Schwerin Gustave Caroline, wife of duke Christian Ludwig II from the senior branch of the Mecklenburg house, gladly welcomed Hertel; the Schwerin ducal household had many keen amateur musicians.

In no time Hertel attained distinction in his own right, first as a violinist, then as a composer of some 50 instrumental concertos, over 40 symphonies, 30-odd harpsichord sonatas, and, above all, copious amounts of vocal music mainly sacred, but also secular). They bear the influence of the musicians at the court of King Frederick the Great, and, like Paradies’ and Berlin’s music, are primarily in the galant style that straddles the baroque and classical periods. These works were mostly intended for the Schwerin court, which orchestra had on its payroll the famous trumpet virtuoso Johann Georg Hoese. There Hertel first served as keyboardist, then as court and chapel composer, with the duties of a Kapellmeister in all but name. His lifelong dedication to the house of Mecklenburg was rewarded with a promotion to the privy council of Christian Ludwig’s daughter, princess Ulrike Sophie, a dedicated patroness of the arts. But his highest reward was the high esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries. The music lexicographer Ernst Ludwig Gerber described Hertel in his indispensable Historisch-biographisches Lexicon der Tonkünstler (1790) as ‘most tasteful’ [geschmackvollesten]—a portrayal which, it is hoped, also encompasses our celebratory recording.

Kah-Ming Ng © 2011

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