The final concert in the 2016/17 season of the Georgian Concert Society saw a rare visit to Scotland by the highly-acclaimed harpsichordist and pioneer of historical performance, Trevor Pinnock. He brought his own French, double-manual harpsichord decorated with vibrant red and blue with a gold gilt border. Tonight, he was collaborating with Edinburgh-born gamba player Jonathan Manson who has a large following of ‘home support’ as well as being a leading player internationally.
The works featured in tonight’s programme were all originally composed for royalty and benefactors of noble birth. Musicians competed for highly sought-after positions in wealthy and influential households across Europe. Composers had to be active as skilled performers, and ensemble managers. They were expected to compose a wide range of music for social occasions and religious observance. Each new composition was a potential job maker (or breaker!) and the best employers expected daring innovation in the hope of setting fashionable new trends. This encouraged music of the highest quality and craftsmanship. The combination of viola da gamba and keyboard was a popular choice. Socially, the gamba was perceived to be ‘the gentleman’s instrument’ and was commonly played by the nobility, with varying degrees of success and ability. Nonetheless tonight’s programme showcased some of the most virtuosic writing for the instrument, most likely intended for fully-competent court musicians, alongside uniquely French works for solo harpsichord.
Throughout all three of the J.S. Bach Sonatas, BWV 1027-1029, the instrument is treated with equal importance to the harpsichord. The first of these, Sonata in G major, also exists as a separate work for two flutes and continuo, BWV 1039. Although the work is closely related to dance music with similarities of tempo and measure, the performance was not heavy or lumbering in its line. A thick obbligato keyboard part in ‘Allegro’ movements provided harmonic support and rhythmic drive. In the slower movements – the ‘Adagio’ and ‘Andante’ – Manson’s gamba playing had ghostly, spectral presence within the texture, binding the harmony together with sustained notes.
Louis Couperin was a member of the famous Couperin family of composer-musicians and uncle to the noted François. His 4 pièces de clavecin in F major is a short suite of dance movements – ‘Allemande’, ‘Gigue’ and ‘Chaconne’ – preceded by an unmeasured ‘Prelude’. This was a method of controlled improvisation, favoured by Couperin, where a performer had rhythmic freedom over a given chord progression. The result is an original realisation that remained contained within the overall form and style of the suite. Pinnock’s improvisation had a feeling of density with thick chords. Punctuated by rhythmic and textural space, it proved a well-considered and balanced extemporization.
The harpsichord shares a leading role with the soloist in Bach’s Sonata in D major, yet the gamba’s distinct timbre radiates through on sustained melodic notes. Seven strings allow the instrument to have a distinctive voice in every register, highlighting its potential as both a leading and accompanying instrument. This sonata’s final movement makes a feature of the instrument’s lowest register. Saving this deeper tone for the final movement is a surprising statement and highlights Bach’s skill as a dramatically-aware composer.
Returning to the French repertoire, the choice of Marin Marais’s La Petite Bru was a refreshing change from the later style of Bach. Although an earlier composer, his writing for gamba presents its own challenges and is far stricter in tempo due to an even closer relationship to dance forms. Manson’s bright playing was underlined by the somewhat lighter harpsichord accompaniment. Variations and repetitions in this style allow for more obvious contrasts in expressive intent, articulation and ornamentation. The slower movements had a poignant and searching theme from the gamba. Manson played to this ever-shifting emphasis within the phrase with much sensitivity.
Rameau’s Gavotte et doubles for solo harpsichord is a show piece. Comparable to the chaconne form, the use of theme and variation allows composers to explore their skill with texture, counterpoint and harmony. Equally, it allows a harpsichordist to demonstrate both their technique and the capabilities of their instrument, allowing for interpretive gestures between manuals and ranks. The gavotte melody employed as the theme in this work by Rameau has a rather complex character. Using several compositional devices, he conveys much energy and expressional possibility throughout the set of variations. Unusually, the work ends with a melancholy and contemplative restatement of the theme rather than a triumphant finale.#
The darkest in sonority of the three sonatas, Bach’s Sonata in G-minor managed to maintain an element of humour, with imitative trills and ornaments thrown between the instrumentalists. This ‘witty banter’ gave propulsion to the musical lines, lifting the pace of the ‘Vivace’ and ‘Allegro’ movements. The first movement was highly reminiscent of the Brandenburg Concerto, No. 3, having similar characteristics in rhythmic motives. However, the emotional centre of the work was the ‘Adagio’. Sparser in texture, it held a sobering depth of emotional intensity. Its placement within the sonata, and indeed within the overall programme, seemed to clear the air from the potent lines that had resonated all evening. Cleverly, this drew in the listener before the final sprint with lines shared evenly between the instruments.
If there was one element of Pinnock and Manson’s performances that was clearly conveyed, it was their sense of control and composure throughout. Though they performed densely contrapuntal works, the atmosphere was not overlaboured or overly flamboyant. Far from effortless, a high level of consideration and commitment shone through their playing. Whilst a solo suite for viola da gamba might have provided a refreshing variation from the harpsichord, the presented programme was very convincing in its design. Contrasting French composers with the Bach Sonatas highlights the dance-like similarities between the works, but also the originality of Bach’s distinctive compositional voice and daring innovations. It was a concert with universal appeal.
The sixth and final performance of the Georgian Concert Society season took place on 25th March at St. Andrew’s and St. George’s West, Edinburgh.