The Georgian Concert Society: CANZONA presents Venetian Passions Back

The Georgian Concert Society continues to host their 2016–17 Season in St Andrew’s and St. George’s West Church. This building holds the distinction of being the first church built in Edinburgh’s historical New Town and has an unusual oval shape. Designed by the then Chief Army Engineer for Scotland, Andrew Frazer, it opened in 1784 with a distinctive spire being added three years later. The venue remains a prominent feature on the Edinburgh skyline.

Following a welcome on behalf of the Committee, an update was given on the progress of the St. Cecilia Redevelopment Project. The long-standing home of the Georgian Concert Society, St. Cecilia’s Hall (Est. 1763), is the UK’s second-oldest concert hall, and is currently undergoing a Lottery-funded restoration project overseen by the University of Edinburgh. This aims at preserving the hall’s remarkable heritage, whilst also allowing more gallery space for displaying its Collection of Historical Musical Instruments. A reopening is eagerly anticipated and the Society hopes to resume concerts there sometime next season.

The programme from the Society’s recent concert by period instrument ensemble CANZONA consisted of music believed to have been heard in seventeenth-century Venice. All composers were either local musicians who worked in the city itself, or musicians whose music was available through the city’s publishing houses. This enabled those active in other Italian cities to access the Venetian market where there was great demand for new music. The artistic driving force behind this movement was the Seconda prattica style, noted for being freer and far less constrictive than older, more prescribed styles. Composers were becoming more inclined towards developing an individual musical voice. Canzon Prima à 4 Sopra Rugier by Girolamo Frescobaldi opened the concert, demonstrating an older style of methodical polyphonic composition. This was immediately contrasted with the more rhythmic motives of Giovanni Battista Fontana’s Sonata Sesta decima (Tre Violini).

One of the most remarkable features of CANZONA’s performance was the players’ versatility as multi-instrumentalists. Each player took time to introduce their specialist instrument and its peculiar qualities with entertaining and informative snippets. The ensemble’s director, Theresa Caudle, switched between violin and cornett for several pieces. Emily White proved a match on violin, yet provided a more mellow sonority on sackbut. Keyboard player Alastair Ross complemented the character of each piece by alternating between chamber organ and harpsichord, framing the works’ ceremonial, sacred or secular intentions. Oliver Webber proved a strong lead on violin, especially in Marco Uccellini’s Sonata quinta for Violin and Harpsichord, while Jeremy West demonstrated the coronet, a much-misunderstood instrument, to its full capabilities.

The result of such varied instrumentation was clarity of musical line. There was a rich sound from the ensemble, but the timbral voicing allowed each line to be clearly differentiated by the ear. An ever-shifting ensemble in size and instrumentation, this maintained the listeners’ interest throughout the evening. One of the most surprising pairings was the mellow contrast between violin and sackbut in Dario Castello’s Sonata Duodecima (Duo violini é trombone). An unlikely pairing, solo violin and trombone would still be considered an ‘avant-garde’ combination today. It further highlighted the common practice of the seventeenth century, when instrumentation was less prescribed, open to the player’s discretion or whatever happened to be at hand.

The Seconda prattica style was noted for employing more dramatic musical features, particularly in their uses of contrasting textures, harmonic progressions, and design of melodic themes. Virtuosic demands such as ornamentation, string double-stopping, use of instrumental range, dynamics and exploration of key relations came to define a composer’s individualistic voice. One feature, which was briefly alluded to during Castello’s Sonata Decima settima (In ecco per Doi Cornetti e due Violini) was the use of a performance space as a musical device. Instruments called and answered in echo and the performers heightened the effect by spreading out over the hall. This added a further dimension to the ensemble’s playing and further examples would have been welcome. Certainly the experimental idioms of the period benefited from the intimacy of just five players. Although larger, expansive works for double or even triple choirs evoke the grandeur of Venetian architecture, such density of scale cannot match the balance achieved by CANZONA.

The innovative spark demonstrated by the evening’s musical selection would most likely have had a profound effect on younger composers of Venice. It is likely that Arcangelo Corelli or Antonio Vivaldi would have been immersed in the music of this new style, and it was influential for musical developments of the early eighteenth century.

The first performance of the Georgian Concert Society 2016 – 17 Season took place on 15th October 2016 at St. Andrew’s and St. George’s West, Edinburgh.