London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham
Signum Classics SIGCD428
An enjoyable and well-thought-out idea for a disc, though despite the sleeve’s capital letters, the most interesting (i. e. unusual) music is by Thomas Arne and John Hebden – a charming and quintessentially English pastoral duet by the former, and an equally charming and tuneful string concerto by the latter, (with a foot-tapping triple-time conclusion.) It is also good to hear two of Handel’s rarely-performed English songs, The Advice and The Melancholy Nymph, especially when as well and gracefully performed as here, by Sophie Bevan and Charles MacDougall, respectively.
The lion’s share of the recital is devoted to Handel – the merry sinfonia from Acis and Galatea is an appropriately pastoral opening to our evening under the trees, with a cleverly improvised organ link from its interrupted cadence to the Organ Concerto op. 4 no. 2, deliciously played by Daniel Moult and springily accompanied by London Early Opera’s fine band, under the expert baton of Bridget Cunningham. Kirsty Hopkins is a suitably lovelorn Galatea, next, with a bird-call supplying warbling gilt to Handel’s orchestral lily. Following the Arne pastoral mentioned above, is the solemn and sublime Dead March from Saul (which is definitely known to have been performed regularly at the Gardens), then, after the two Handel continuo songs, the Hebden concerto. Our evening’s recital is (somewhat meagrely, at 48:18) concluded by the lovely ‘As steals the morn’ duet from L’Allegro, engagingly sung by Eleanor Dennis and Greg Tassel, who shone previously in the Arne Pastoral.
In some ways the real highlight of this issue is David Coke’s extended and scholarly history of the Gardens themselves, putting the music into its remarkable social context, worlds away from Handel’s usual opera house and church surroundings. I look forward to hearing more from this interesting project.
We received a second review of this recording, this one even more favourable (the stars show the average of the two reviewer’s ratings):
This is the first of two CDs, with the second to follow fairly soon. The repertoire comes mostly from Handel, plus one Arne piece (Colin and Phoebe for STB) which sounds a bit hefty for a pastoral and the first of John Hebden’s only set of string concertos, which is well worth hearing.
The booklet (36 pages full of information, all in English) gives a thorough account of the musical aspect of Vauxhall. It began as The New Spring Gardens around 1660; the addition of music appeared through Jonathan Tyers, who took over the Gardens around 1730 and was very involved in the music until his death in 1767. The music organisation was primarily through Handel and Arne: perhaps a third volume could be Arne at Vauxhall. On the whole, the music is easy-going, but Handel knew well how to balance it. One item seemed odd – ‘The Dead March’ from Saul. The oratorio was first performed on 16 January 1739 and appeared in the Vauxhall Gardens four months later, and was regularly played. I wonder when it was first performed at a funeral. The list of players does not specify large kettle drums, but I was surprised by the variety of sounds, which seem odd to me. I was disappointed by “As steals the morn”: parts I & II have L’Allegro and Il Penseroso in alternation, but part 3 is entirely Il Moderato – a bit of a cheek from Jennens, whose literary skill is way below Milton, but there is some mitigation in elements of Act V of The Tempest. In most respects, this is an excellent programme – short, but I prefer that to running on for too long! The singers and players are fine, though I’d favour the violins as either one or three for the first and second groups. As a whole, the items are suitably varied, and the music is mixed between the familiar and the less so.