Friday, 8 November 2013

Baroque sonatas, Sweelinck Ensemble, St Anne's Music Society

It has been a good six months now since the St Anne's Music Society (in tandem with the Lutheran church in the City) moved from its base in Gresham St. to St. Mary-at-hill behind Monument Station. The larger, lighter, less symmetric Wren box was the original home for Peter Lea-Cox's Bach cantatas project, upon which the Sweelinck Ensemble's assumption of music making at the monthly Lutheran Bach Vespers has been founded. The pedigree has been in place (see this previous view of a lunchtime performance) but how have the current incumbents taken to the new space and acoustic?

Well, this lunchtime concert of Austrian-centric Baroque sonatas is as good a bellweather as any for assessing whether the ensemble has settled. On the basis of a programme that included four diverse sonatas by Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, two exotic, ravishing essays in the form by Pandolfi and a Bach's IIIrd Sonata (after BWV 527) it is clear that the group are relishing the change.

The Sweelinck Ensemble have always played with fine tuning and ensemble (really, a sine qua non for a dedicated period instrument chamber ensemble) but feature a generous sonority and cultured musical gesture within that. The wider space of St Mary-at-hill accomodates this, especially in this programme of Italian inflected music. We were pointedly told of the providence of the harpsichord, a 1979 Christopher Nobbs replica of a German harpsichord of italian design modelled on one held in the Courtauld Institute, which has a broad, present, warm sonority rather like that of a large strung instrument. It's ideal for accompanying the quasi-recitativo sections, especially of the Pandolfi. In addition, Peter McCarthy spoke of his violone, a large, snake-for-F-holed, silm-shouldered 6-string piece, a Nuremburg-constructed replica of a 1640 Busch instrument, which added a wide, clean and comprehensive penumbra to the ensemble. The acoustic is alive and allows real responsiveness from the players, without the bother of an excessive reverb to manage.

As such the programme drew focus towards the performers. Schmelzer's uncomplicated, satisfying examinations of the form moved from pageantry in the first to dance in the third and dialogue - though casual, not in a demarcated  antiphonal style - for the fourth. Having established a satisfactory homogeneity of sound for these Austrian works with Philip Yeeles, Almut Schlicker played the rather more programmatic Pandolfi Sonatas alone.

These highly figurative, even vocal pieces were a clear highlight of the concert. The first, Sonata II La Cesta ('the basket'), is a sinuous piece in which the Italian DNA of the harpsichord comes into its own in a recitative-like opening before a highly chromatic ground bass section leads to a sliding cavatina. Presumably this is all about the wicker weave of the basket of the title. Less complicated but even more beautiful is the grand view from the top of La Castella, ('the castle') as Sonata IV is called. Once again a ground bass underpins the central section of the work but this is much more simple and spare. Like a Romantic poet we can gaze up at the castle walls, dance on their ramparts (an improvised plucked-bass approach to this section from Peter McCarthy was rather inspired) and then fly from them like a bird in the violins melismatic phrasing. An unusual coda of no more than two or three bars re-estabishes our vista at the Sonata's close.

This being the Sweelinck Ensemble, director and harpsichordist Martin Knizia had, naturally, programmed Bach to conclude. Strangely, after the airborne delight of La Castella, this Sonata, with its rich harmony seemed rather score-bound and worthy, though I enjoyed it's almost tourette-like gestures, especially in the counter-melody of the opening Andante.

Clearly the St Anne's Music Society have made the most of their new home. This is a fine venue for first class music making, which, along with the concurrent series of St Mary-at-hill's domestic programme makes this a significant (if apparently under-discovered!) venue for music making in the City and therefore across London as a whole.

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