Pamela Thorby - recorders
Rachel Podger - violin
Susanne Heinrich - viola da gamba
William Carter - theorbo, guitar
A Choice Collection
By the time of the Restoration, London had become one of the largest and richest cities in the world. Its wealth acted as a magnet upon musicians from all over the Europe, particularly war torn and economically devastated Germany and Italy. Perhaps as a response to the austerities of the commonwealth the English seized on music with a fresh enthusiasm and in this they were abetted by their new monarch. Charles II loved music, particularly (to the dismay of some) that in the French style which he had enjoyed during his exile. He quickly established an orchestra like that at the French court and used it lavishly, although apparently his attitude towards payment could be quite casual! These factors combined to create a fascinating mix of styles and it seems very worthwhile to us to present the musical riches of Purcell's London.
We begin with music by the irascible and occasionally dogmatic Matthew Locke. Contemporary writings show that he could be very difficult on occasion but there is a radiance and humanity in much of his music which is even more compelling proof of a good heart. (In this respect one can only compare him to two other "difficult" composers; Handel and Beethoven). The suites of the Broken Consort were written when Locke directed Charles II's private chamber music. Perhaps hearing this challenging music (the opening fantazie at one point moved through 13 keys in 11 bars) we can imagine the Kings predicament as loyalty to his faithful servant vied with his "utter detestation of fancys". Charles seems to have cut the Gordian Knot by doing away with the private music altogether and involving Locke with the new orchestra of 24 violins and the Chapel Royal, where he continued to write in his own inspired but complex style and to vent his wrath on less capable fellow musicians. Witness his response to a botched premier in the Chapel Royal, the music of which he published as "Modern Church Musick Preaccus'd, Censur'd and Obstructed in its performance before his Majesty". Whatever the case then, his music speaks to us now as freshly as if it had been composed yesterday.
The recorder had been established in England since at least the middle ages (two famous payers were Henry VIII and Hamlet; the latter found playing, "as easy as lying") but was enjoyed with the new relish when the French virtuoso Paisable brought the 3 piece baroque design from Paris in the 1670's. We were delighted to learn that Paisable often performed trio-sonatas with the violinist Gaspero Visconti. Imagine our dismay thought, when upon tracking down the sole surviving copy of their showpiece "That incomparable Sonata... performed at court and often at the theatre" we found the recorder part to be missing! The brilliant variations on "Old Simon the King" show how quickly and completely English players mastered the updated instrument.
Another virtuoso set of variations is by Henry Butler, the private viol player to Philip IV of Spain. Known as "a most fantastical man" his setting of the Irish folksong "Callino Casturame" has the imaginative idea of only presenting the tune at the very end of the piece.
We also include music by that other "most fantastical man" Nicola Matteis. Roger North, a contemporary essayist was enthralled by his performances on the violin: "I remember no Italians till Nicola came, and he lay obscurely in the city; by the favour of a merchant whom he had converted to his profit; his circumstances were low, and it was say'd that he travelled thro' Germany on foot with his violin under a full coat at his back. But his pride and arrogance was incomparable, and if he had not found that easy merchant, he had starved before he could have bin known. He was brought to play afore the King and divers great person, in order to be pensioned, but his manner did not take. Sr R. Lestrage, an exquisite violist, Sr Wm Waldgrave, that did wonders upon the archlieute, and Mr Bridgman, that dealt a thro-base upon an harpsichord, found him out to be a superlative genius, But they were forced with all their eloquence to charme him into a complaisance with the English humour, which was to be easy; free, and familiar, and to let gentlemen, not the best hands, have his company in consorts."
With his new manners the way was clear for him to create a sensation with his virtuosity as an entry in John Evelyn's diary shows: "Nothing approch'd the violin in Nicholas' hand: he seem'd to be spiritato'd and played us all" North records his later career as though it were a moral fable: "He began to feel himself grow rich, and then of course luxurious. He took a great house, and lived as one that was marryed, had a child... contracted bad diseased... excess of pleasure threw him into a dropsyes, and so he became poor. And dyed miserable."
Because so many English works are composer over a ground bass, it seems appropriate to give lutenist Thomas Mace's description of the form: ‘The Ground is a set Number of Slow Notes, very Grave, and Stately; which, (after it is express'd Once, or Twice, very Plainly) then he that hath Good Brains, and a Good Hand, undertakes to play several divisions upon it, Time after Time, till he has shew'd his Bravery; both of Invention, and Hand". The grounds of Blow and Bannister test both treble instruments, while of the two for solo violin, that of Matteis specifically tests bravery of invention by breaking off in mid-flow with the casual challenge, "Divisione ad libitum". Baltzar's set on the song "John come kiss me now" is at least completely composed but makes formidable challenges to "Bravery of Hand".
We conclude with more Locke in a suite which contains his most audaciously syncopated saraband. On hearing it one wonders not only if the young Stravinsky studied Locke's music but if somehow the reverse could have happened.
"King Charles II was a professed lover of musick, but of this kind (French dance music) only; had an utter destination of fancys. He would not allow the matter to be disputed... but run all downe by saying, Have not I ears? He could not bear any musick to which he could not keep the time, and that he constantly did to all that was presented to him, and for the most part heard it standing."
- ROGER NORTH
"For some saucy words spoken to his Majesty (viz. when he called for the Italian violins, he made answer that he better have the English) he was turned out of his place...."
- ANTHONY À WOOD ON JOHN BANNISTER
"One Baltazar a Swede,... came over, and showed so much mastery upon that instrument, that gentlemen, following also the humour of the Court, fell in pesle mesle, and soon thrust out the treble viol... Baltazar had a hand as swift as any; and used the double notes very much; but altogether his playing... was like his country; rough and harsh."
- ROGER NORTH
"When an assembly for musick was, as divers were, appointed, and he onely to entertain the company; having his ministers, Waldegrave, Lestrange, and Bridgman about him, and flaming as I have seen him, in a good humour he hath held the company by the ears with that force and variety for more than an hour together, that there was scarce a whisper in the room, tho' filled with company."
- ROGER NORTH ON MATTEIS
"A place in York Buildings was built express and equipt for musick... I observed well the musick here, and altho' the best masters... shewed their gifts, yet I cannot say... that the entertainment was good; because it consisted of broken incoherent parts; now a consort, then a lutinist, then a violino solo, then flutes, then a song, and so peice after piece, the time sliding away; while the masters blundered and swore in shifting place..."
- ROGER NORTH
William Carter, London 1995