The Dunedin Consort presented Armonico Tributo at four venues within five days – Kendal on the 17th October, Edinburgh on the 19th, Aberdeen on the 20th, and Glasgow on the 21st October. Their final concert was also the opening concert of the Glasgow Cathedral Festival (GCF), promising to ‘showcase the cream of Scottish talent’ (Glasgow Cathedral Festival, 2018). Dunedin have certainly proved themselves of this moniker time and again since their founding. The GCF has been running since 2016, providing a chance for art and music to be presented by both well-established and new groups and artists, within the spectacular surroundings of Glasgow Cathedral.
This relatively intimate concert was billed as an ‘intimate instrumental programme’ that explored ‘some of the most compelling string repertoire from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries’. The Sinfonia, by Francesco Navara, gave an Italian flavour to the opening proceedings. Little is known about Navara; in fact, the only source for two of his sinfonias gives a date of 1697, and names him as Master of Music at the court of Mantua. This Sinfonia à 5 in C Major also bears the dedication – ‘Fatta per la Signora Cati’ (‘made for the Lady Cati’). Each movement was short, presenting a single idea succinctly, and ending before any overstayed their welcome. The first Allegro in particular allowed each player to have a moment in the spotlight, as the theme was passed back and forth.
We then enjoyed the first of two sonatas from George Muffat’s Armonico Tributo, from which the concert took its name. Muffat was of Scottish decent, though he was born in Savoy in 1653. He studied with the famed Jean-Baptiste Lully in Paris before continuing his studies in Italy. It was here he composed the five sonatas of Armonico Tributo. Indeed, Muffat acknowledged the help of the great Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) in the preface of his work, noting that a few of the movements were played in Corelli’s home. Starting with a Grave movement that then turned Allegro, this sonata presented vivid contrasts between slow graceful passages and lively bright areas, with occasional touches of chromaticism sprinkled throughout.
The third piece of the night was the first of two by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, his Sonata Representativa. Biber is well-known for his virtuosic compositions for violin, and this piece is no exception. The piece musically depicted a variety of animals, bringing across the character of each animal in amusing ways. The ‘frog’ suitably croaked, and the cat gave plaintive meows of glissandi. The bass instruments even had a moment to shine in the Musketeer’s March, which, whilst making little sense in terms of the animals being presented, still showed off Biber’s skill in characterisation, with a thumping militaristic march in the bass instruments that held more of my attention than the virtuosic finger acrobatics of the violin.
The first half was finished off with selections from Johann Rosenmüller’s Sonate e Sinfonie da Camera, of ca. 1660. Having been exiled from Leipzig due to accusations of sodomy, Rosenmüller found himself in Venice, as resident composer at the Ospedale della Pietà, and has perhaps been unjustly overshadowed by one of his successors at that post, the great Antonio Vivaldi. Though he is better known for his dance suites, this sonata mixed the calm serenity of Italian musical styles reminiscent of Corelli’s slow movements with complex counterpoint.
The second half was introduced by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s Fechtschule or ‘Fencing School’, music for the court ballet in Vienna depicting a fencing contest. Again, we had a certain pictorial feel to this piece, beginning with an aggressive starting movement. However, the next three movements seemed remarkably still for a fight, before the fifth and final movement, ‘Bader Aria’, or ‘Surgeon Aria’, finally presented a fight in full swing. I was sufficiently convinced that one of the fencers required medical attention!
We then returned to Biber and Muffat. Biber’s Balletti Lamentabile à 4 of 1670 provided a melancholic air in contrast to Schmelzer’s Fechtschule. Whilst it is unknown for what precise occasion this piece was composed, it has been suggested to be an almost mocking farewell to the carnival season, ‘a sort of Pancake Tuesday ballet’ as John Hiley’s programme notes put it (Hiley, 2018). Whether mocking or not, it certainly provided a sombre note to the concert, and even the fast movements could not shake the sense of sadness that pervaded the whole piece.
Finally, Muffat’s grandiose conclusion to the Armonico Tributo was presented with great aplomb. The 5th and last Sonata is a constant passacaglia in its ending, presenting 25(!) variations upon a ground bass, over which the other instruments present varying changes to texture and pace. This was a return to the overarching theme of the concert, with contrasted lilting joyful music with more sombre movements.
Overall, the group worked well together; whilst it is common that the first violin often gets all the spotlight, these pieces were well chosen to allow the other players moments to shine, with the cello and harpsichord rising out of the bottom to provide rhythmical interest, and the violas and 2nd violin getting their melodic moments. Ultimately, a wonderful night of late 17th-century music for strings, with a capable performance from the Dunedin Consort as always, and a promising opening to this year’s Glasgow Cathedral Festival.
Glasgow Cathedral Festival, 2018, Home. [online] Available at: https://www.gcfestival.com/ [Accessed 23 October 2018].
John Hiley, 2018, Armonico Tributo: Programme. [online] Available at: https://www.dunedin-consort.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/1810-Armonico-Tributo-programme.pdf [Accessed 23 October 2018].