The cream of society in early 18th century England couldn’t get enough of Italian music; its appreciation signalled a knowledge of both the Renaissance and the world of classical antiquity. For those who had enjoyed the more earthy delights of The Grand Tour, it also came with a knowing wink of carnality and excess. It is no surprise, then, that composers of the period rushed to England to provide music in ‘the Italian style’ to those of bon ton. Francesco Geminiani, a genuine son of Lucca, became hugely popular, but those from other parts of Europe who’d studied in Italy were also quick off the mark. Handel, of course, made a fortune from his Italian operas, but he was not alone.
The Baroque ensemble Spiritato enjoy championing the works of little-known composers of the era, and ‘The Taste of This Nation’, their latest CD, from Delphian (released on 12 February next year), features works by non-Italians writing in the Italianate idiom(s) for the English market: the Prussian Johann Christoph Pepusch, and two native Britons, William Corbett and Obadiah Shuttleworth.
Spiritato are a highly accomplished ensemble, and their natural affinity for the period (complete with effortlessly realised ornamentation) shines through on these recordings. They’re close-miked, so there’s a real feeling of the performers’ physicality, and of the subtle differences in instrumental timbres, allowing the listener to hear the character of the violins in their solos (delivered with casual virtuosity by the group’s Director Kinga Ujszászi, and Tuomo Suni), along with slick intonation from the string ensemble, and some opulent continuo work from harpsichord and plucked instruments.
Two of the violin concerti from William Corbett’s Le Bizarrie bracket the programme, cleverly chosen to represent, in title at least, the Anglo-Italian axis: ‘Al’ Inglese’ and ‘Alla Bolognese’. Both of them are full of contrast and rhythmic interest. Corbett’s Op. 1 Sonata for trumpet and oboe (played by William Russell and Oonagh Lee) is perhaps the sparest piece on the recording, but it provides an exciting change in texture as well as spotlighting some accomplished playing by the two soloists.
The works by Pepusch are all short cantatas, and feature the mezzo-soprano Ciara Hendrick. Hendrick has a delightful voice that manages to combine a clean, bell-like tone with just a hint of creaminess. Her presentation of the range of emotions in these short works is first-rate: you can hear the smiles in The Spring’s ‘Love and Pleasures gaily flowing’, and the sighs at a ravaged Britain in the earlier movements of While pale Britannia pensive sate – which disappear in the final movement, when, with a rumbustious swirl of strings and trumpet, George I arrives to save the day. The most enjoyable of the cantatas is Chloe, whose depiction as ‘the fairest Tyrant of the Plain’ is delivered with a declamatory disdain before, mollified, she concludes with a lilting pastoral love song.
The Italophiles adored Arcangelo Corelli’s concerti grossi, but, sadly, he only wrote 12 of them. The demand was such that several composers hurried to rearrange his violin sonatas into the form – the most well-known of which are Geminiani’s 1726 set from the 12 sonatas of Corelli’s Op. 5. In the same year, though, the London born Obadiah Shuttleworth published his arrangements of number I and XI from the same opus, and this disc contains their first recorded performance. In contrast to Geminiani’s well-upholstered reworking, Shuttleworth’s sparser texture focuses on the two violins of the concertino group, arguably maintaining much more of the intention of the original sonatas, and in these recordings, this intertwining of the two instruments continues deliciously across the short contrasting movements.
A copy of the CD can be pre-ordered here.