Handel’s Social Network: The Burlington Circle Back

The 1901 Arts Club provided the perfect setting for Baroque Encounter’s third and final performance of their current ‘mini-tour’, a musical exploration of George Frideric Handel’s involvement with the Burlington Circle. A unique performance space that cultivates the feel of a private living room, the Arts Club has thrived upon inspiration from European Salon Culture with aims to ‘foster conversation, collaboration, and the exchange of ideas in an intimate setting’. The room was filled to its capacity of forty-five, with a pleasant mixture of local regular attenders and followers of Baroque Encounter. Pre- and post-performance complimentary drinks in the bar and on the terrace generated conversation between audience members and musicians, creating a friendly, informal atmosphere for the evening.

The intimate performance situation of this event parallels, to an extent, the contemporaneous performance experiences of Handel and his networks, upon which great emphasis was placed throughout the evening. Richard Boyle, the third earl of Burlington, was an enthusiastic patron of the arts, supporting the likes of Alexander Pope, John Gay, William Hogarth and, of course, Handel. Baroque Encounter’s countertenor Glenn Kesby, who informally narrated the majority of the evening’s performance, suggested that Burlington, then a young nobleman, ‘collected’ his beneficiaries, likening this to eighteenth-century collection culture. Indeed, Burlington’s town house in Piccadilly became renowned as a centre for like-minded literary and artistic individuals. Handel himself was given an apartment at Burlington House upon his settling in London in 1712, and private musical concerts were regularly held there. Certainly, sitting in the cosy performance space at the 1901 Arts Club, on the hottest day of the year so far, it was easy to let the imagination wander to a candlelit, eighteenth-century soirée. Kesby’s commentary also maintained a level of intimacy throughout the performance, ‘breaking the ice’ for any listeners unfamiliar with such a small performance venue. 

The concept of the eighteenth-century ‘social network’ is currently an attractive theme for performers and audiences alike. Baroque Encounter’s programme notes highlight the ‘enviable network of contacts’ Handel would have been introduced to through Burlington. Arguably, this risks misrepresenting the complex nature of such contact in the early eighteenth century. The ideal of transcending the rigid social boundaries of a bygone era – positing a more-than-professional relationship between Handel, a working musician newly resident in the city, and Burlington, his patron – is appealing, but may be an oversimplification.

Needless to say, the evening’s music was of an incredibly high standard, with countertenor Kesby, keyboardist Claire Williams, recorder player Lauren Brant, and guest performer David Beaney alternating between the recorder and flute. Kesby’s resonant countertenor really succeeded in bringing the various vocal pieces to life: his performance was at once technically excellent and sensitive to the character of the music, employing a great range of different timbres. Prime examples of this were the last two arias of the first half. Handel’s ‘Ombra cara’ from Radamisto was full of emotion, in which Kesby fully captured Radamisto’s despair. This was contrasted completely with the high, virtuosic character of ‘Sento la gioia’ from Amadigi.

A personal highlight of the concert was the superb recorder playing of Brant and Beaney, who also perform together regularly as the duo Flautotonic. The quality of their ensemble first came to my notice during their bird-song imitations in Handel’s ‘Augelletti, che cantate’ from Rinaldo.  However, I felt that, even though not exactly fitting with the ‘social network’ theme, Handel’s Trio Sonata in F major in the first half, and Sammartini’s Trio Sonata in D minor in the second half of the concert stole the show. There was not a single moment where they were not totally matched in expressivity, tone quality and technique, truly giving the impression of performing ‘as one’. This was especially impressive in the final Allegro of the Sammartini sonata, which exhibited these performers’ technical mastery well.

The programme note to the Handel trio sonata advised the audience to listen carefully for familiar themes and motifs that ‘Handel must have been particularly fond of… as they reappear in a variety of later pieces’. Beaney added to this in his short, spoken introduction, in which he talked of the composer ‘recycling’ material. However, perhaps these recognisable themes and motifs prove an aesthetic of intertextuality rather than a direct borrowing. Contemporary audiences would have come to recognise, enjoy and expect to hear this familiarity within music. This is another example of how nuances of the past can become misrepresented when attempting to make concepts accessible to a modern day audience. 

Claire Williams’s performance on the piano was also excellent although, in such a small space, the piano did not lend itself so well to the character of the group as a harpsichord might have done; when accompanying the recorders, too, it sometimes felt rather heavy. However, this was certainly more to do with the piano and the venue acoustic than with Williams’s playing. In her solo piece, Maurice Greene’s Andante and Aire in A major for solo keyboard, Williams did an excellent job of working with the piano’s limitations, to make it sound ‘harpsichord like’. 

This was a highly enjoyable evening, and a particularly fitting way for Baroque Encounter to celebrate their tenth anniversary of performing together, an occasion marked with prosecco, canapés… and cake following the performance! I would highly recommend both seeing Baroque Encounter in concert and experiencing the atmosphere of the 1901 Arts Club.    

Baroque Encounter performed at the 1901 Arts Club on July 17th 2014. The full programme included:

G. F. Handel :

‘Sussurrate, onde vezzose’, Amadigi di Gaula       

‘Augelletti, che cantate’, Rinaldo             

Birthday ode for Queen Anne                             

Te Deum (‘Queen Caroline’)                                 

Trio sonata in F Major                                       

‘Ombra cara’, Radamisto                         

‘Secto la gioia’, Amadigi di Gaula,                       

G. Bononcini :             

‘Io vi chiedo’ (cantata aria)

G. B. Sammartini :      

Trio Sonata in D minor

M. Greene :

Andante and Aire in A Major

‘Orpheus with his lute’, Henry VIII

A. Ariosti :

Il Naufragio