Ensemble Marsyas at Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, August 22nd 2014
In this concert Edinburgh-based Ensemble Marsyas, making its first appearance here, aims to evoke the (largely forgotten) cosmopolitan Dublin of the mid-eighteenth century. This was a place where musicians – and music – from across Europe crossed paths, and there is a lot more to this sound world than Carolan’s tunes or Handel’s Messiah.
Playing on period instruments, the ensemble of ten players consists of harpsichord, strings and two horns. Dublin enjoyed an abundance of virtuoso horn players in the mid-1700s, but the pieces they would have actually played isn’t known, so the ensemble turns to music associated with another horn-dominated centre of baroque Europe, Dresden. The concert opens with the Overture in F by Johann David Heinichen, and later on we hear a Concerto for two horns in F by Vivaldi. Putting two natural (i.e., valveless) horns centre stage – or prominently up in the balcony, as they are in the Heinichen – can be risky, and the difficult combination of bold, rich tone and fragile tonality that these beautiful instruments bring with them is certainly not helped this evening by the humid weather. Nevertheless, there is some fabulous, if necessarily determined, playing from the two soloists, Ursula Paludan Monberg and Helen Shilito.
The least-known music of the evening is heard in the two sinfonias by Flemish violinist Pierre van Maldere, probably being played in Dublin for the first time in 260 years. It’s very likely that he composed these pieces during his time here (1751-53), and their mix of baroque and classical ideas offered a fascinating view into an often neglected period of music history, the music teasingly anticipating the work of later, better known composers. The ensemble plays these sinfonias with elegance and assurance, clearly keen to make a case for this repertoire. The Sinfonia in G – another work featuring the horns (and evidence again for the work’s Dublin origin) – includes some lovely writing, the players bringing out the dynamic contrasts and dance-like material of the outer movements, as well as the serene interplay of the slow ‘andantino’. It would be interesting to hear this music alongside other comparative works, such as those of Johann Stamitz or C.P.E. Bach.
The concert’s highlight, however, is a piece by the elder Bach, Johann Sebastian, his Violin Concerto in A minor. It’s always a pleasure to hear this extraordinary work played, but tonight’s performance – with leader, Cecilia Bernadini, as soloist – is very special indeed. Not even the sound of a siren from nearby Dame Street (causing the players to extend the pause between the first two movements) detracts from the excellent playing of both soloist and ensemble, Bernadini articulating the solo line with wit and fire.
Two concerti grossi fill out the rest of the programme. Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 from his Op. 6 set – a staple repertoire piece for baroque ensembles, both now and in the period – and, perhaps less familiar, the Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D minor by another sometime Dublin resident, Francesco Geminiani. In both these works the colourful dialogue between solo group and the full band is seamlessly managed, and ably supported by the continuo team of cellist Sarah McMahon and director Peter Whelan (better known as a bassoonist!) at the harpsichord. Geminiani’s concerto grosso is based on the popular dance tune ‘La Follia’, a theme-and-variations set that takes the audience on a mind-bending journey, the simple tune a pretext for a dazzling array of possibilities. The ensemble meets the challenges of the piece with fine playing, bringing out its shifting moods, and drawing the concert to a brilliant close.
Heinichen: Overture in F, SeiH 234
Van Maldere: Sinfonia in C, VR31
J.S. Bach: Violin Concerto in A minor, BWV1041
Van Maldere: Sinfonia in G, VR28
Handel: Concerto Grosso in G, Op. 6/1
Vivaldi: Concerto for 2 horns in F, RV539
Geminiani: Concerto Grosso No.12, “La Folia”