Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 1

Handel at Vauxhall: Vol 1
London Early Opera
Bridget Cunningham, Daniel Moult, Kirsty Hopkins, Sophie Bevan
Signum SIGCD428. 48’18

Preceding the two recordings of Handel in Italy (reviewed here), London Early Opera explored the music of Handel (and his contemporaries Thomas Arne and John Hebden) as it might have been performed at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Pleasure Gardens like Vauxhall were a focus for musical, and other entertainments in 17th and 18th century London. This fascinating programme (but very short, at just over 48 minutes) is based on a conjectural reconstruction of part of a typical evening at Vauxhall in the early 1740s, and includes a wide variety of music including orchestral, organ and vocal music. 

The two vocal highlights include Kirsty Hopkins’ beautifully elegant singing of Hush, ye pretty warbling choir from Acis and Galatea, combined with some lovely sopranino recorder playing from Louise Strickland and a bird whistle imitating the Vauxhall Gardens organ.jpg‘symphony of singing birds’ that the Vauxhall organ’s collections of ‘toy’ stops would have included. The original organ was built in 1737 (possibly by Bridge and Byfield) and housed in a special pavilion just behind the orchestra building. A so-called ‘long movement’ enabled the organ to be played from a separate console within the orchestra. From then on, organ concertos became a regular part of the entertainment and many of London’s most famed organists combined liturgical roles in city churches with these very secular Pleasure Garden occasions.

The importance of the Vauxhall organ is demonstrated with a Handel organ concerto, preceded by a short improvised ‘Diapason’ movement in the style of Handel and John Worgan (although the latter didn’t become organist there until 1751, when he succeeded his brother, James). The Opus 4/2 concerto is one of Handel’s liveliest, and Daniel Moult adds his own layers of liveliness to the solo passages, with some inventive twiddles, twists and turns. Sadly the organ is a tiny three-stop ‘box’ organ, sounding completely different to that of the original 1737 organ. There are several organs in London which are far closer to the sound world of the Vauxhall organ that could have been used to record the concerto, albeit with some issues of pitch and logistics to deal with.

The second vocal highlight is Sophie Bevan’s singing of The Advice, a little-known song based on the music of Handel’s opera Ezio, but set to different words, including the very Vauxhall line ‘Friendship, wine and love united / from all ills defend the mind’. It makes a rather strange follow on from the sombre Dead March from Handel’s Saul, but described the mood of Vauxhall rather well.

John Hebden.jpgJohn Hebden (pictured) was bassoonist and principal cellist in the Vauxhall orchestra. His four-movement Concerto for Strings and Basso Continuo in A from his Opus 2 set of six concertos. In typical four-movement form, its delicate textures and light mood perfectly reflect the mood of an evening at Vauxhall. The CD finishes with one of Handel’s most glorious creations, As steals the morn upon the night from L’ Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. It features the sensuous sound of the bassoon but also, on this occasion, rather too much soprano vibrato for my taste.

Nothing survives of the original Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, although there are tiny bits of architectural evidence of some of the other London pleasure gardens, if you know where to look. The current public park, just behind Vauxhall station, keeps the name alive, as does a local history society. The booklet notes feature David Coke’s scholarly history of the Gardens and commentaries on the music by London Early Opera’s imaginative conductor and musicologist Bridget Cunningham. This CD was released in May 2016, and a second volume is due for release in 2017.

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