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Review of Cambridge Early Music with principal players from Orpheus Brittanicus

Cambridge Early Music’s new year concerts got off to a wonderful start on Friday evening in St Catherine’s College Chapel with three of the principal players of the ensemble Orpheus Brittanicus performing solos, duos and trios from Baroque composers, Handel, JS Bach and Telemann.

Theresa Caudle (violin), Henrik Persson (viola da gamba) and Andrew Arthur (harpsichord) delivered amazing performances throughout the concert which made up for its comparative brevity in the sheer quality of its artists’ accomplishments.

Orpheus Britannicus
Orpheus Britannicus

Handel’s Sonata in E Major for Violin & Continuo Op.1., no. 12 HWV 373 comprised four movements; a soulful Adagio, a lively melodic Allegro, a sorrowful Largo and strident Allegro.

It is thought that Handel wrote his sonatas for the instruction of professional members of his opera company, but as a point of departure for Friday evening’s concert Sonata no. 12 opened the door to some innovative music which was explained by harpsichordist Andrew Arthur, Music Director at Trinity Hall.

The sonata we had just heard, he told us, followed a tradition with harpsichord and Viola da gamba providing bass line for the violin. This, however, would be the last time during the evening where the three players would perform to this pattern. From this point onwards the harpsichord would be an equal partner with both violin and viola da gamba.

And indeed in Bach’s Sonata in E Major (1 of 6) for Violin and Obligato Harpsichord, BWV 1016, it was clear how Bach was developing the harpsichord as a solo instrument. Together both harpsichord and viola da gamba would no longer perform as bass line for the violin.

After an opening Adagio, a slow exquisite piece, came a jaunty, dance-like melody that commenced with the harpsichord before the violin came in. An expressive ‘Adagio ma non tanto was followed by a final Allegro with vigorous playing showcasing both instruments in separate prominent expositions.

The harpsichord itself took centre stage as Andrew Arthur performed Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B Minor for solo keyboard from Book 1 of The Well Tempered Clavier BWV 869. A slow steady pace in the Prelude is followed by an equally slow fugue to which the mind of the listener is invited to stray at large while sharing in Bach’s deeply intimate self-expression. Andrew Arthur’s performance was ideally matched to the composer’s intentions.

The final Bach piece of the evening was his Sonata in G Major for Viola da gamba & Obligato Harpsichord, BWV 1027 which demonstrated what a master of polyphony he was. The opening Adagio began with a tune perhaps reminiscent of Bach’s ‘Wachet auf’ (BWV 140), while the Allegro ma non tanto again had a sprightly dancing rhythm. Both movements were followed by an Andante at steady pace and a cheerful Allegro Moderato.

The viola da gamba in this sonata was anything but a continuo bass line instrument. In the hands of a virtuoso instrumentalist such as Henrik Persson it would be one of the most expressive instruments in any orchestra. His delivery was truly astonishing and it was fascinating to watch the dextrous fingering which produced such sounds.

At the conclusion of the piece Henrik told us that the Edward Lewis instrument he was playing (dated 1703) was one of only 3 in England (2 of which were unplayable) and of only 12 extant in the entire world, and that he was privileged to play one of them. It was indeed a beautiful creation, highly decorated on wood which itself carried a very old patina.

Before the final piece (which in a sense returned us to the format of the opening one) Telemann’s Sonata in E Major for Violin, Viola da gamba & Continuo, TWV 42:E7, Theresa Caudle thought that the audience might be interested too in the violin she was playing (so beautifully), and indeed we were.

This instrument turned out to be even older than the viola da gamba and was the creation of Edward Pamphilon, head of a family of violin makers in Essex. Theresa’s violin was dated 1685. She wondered in fact whether at some stage of their long history her violin and Henrik’s viola might have perhaps performed together before. A truly fascinating speculation.

Telemann’s sonata in four movements, Siciliana (a slow Sicilian dance), a lively Presto, steady Andante and melodic Vivace, brought this enchanting concert to an end. We had heard a superb programme of music from 3 great composers – Telemann, a friend of Handel, was godfather to Bach’s son CPE Bach, and like both Bach and Handel was a prolific composer – and we had heard it courtesy of three of the most talented musicians specialising in baroque music today.


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