‘The mysterious Rost Manuscript’
Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London. 30 January 2018
Ensemble Rost is a trio of musicians (Danish, German, and French) who met in 2013 at the Royal Danish Music Academy in Copenhagen. They formed to explore (and named themselves after) the important Codex Rost (or Rost Manuscript), a collection of 157 pieces, mostly sonatas or sonata-like works. The period of composition dates from about 1640 to 1687 and is written down in three part books, all accessible online. As well as several named composers, the collection also contains 81 anonymous pieces, some of which might be by Franz Rost himself. Ensemble Rost is particularly interested in the Sonatas for their own rather unusual lineup of violin, viola and keyboard. The viola is referred to in different ways: Viola, Bracia, and Alto, leading to questions as to whether these all refer to the same instrument.
For their impressive concert in the church of St Peter ad Vincula, one of the two Chapels Royal in the Tower of London, they presented six of the anonymous compositions alongside a Sonata by Schmelzer, also found in the Rost manuscript. It was interesting to compare the anonymous pieces. The was certainly a similarity in style, most starting with one of the two treble instruments followed by the other, before they combined in imitative interplay, all within the usual structure (or lack of) of the flamboyant 17th-century stylus phantasticus, with its distinctive rather anarchic sequence of different sections. But there were differences in mood, ranging from the rather meditative opening C major and later D major Sonatas, to the more dramatic opening of the A major Sonata. The extended concluding C major Sonata by Schmelzer did rather show a more sophisticated musical style. I liked the way that the musicians sensitively and subtly negotiated the links between sections in this and the anonymous pieces.
The three members of Ensemble Rost (Tinne Albrechtsen, violin, Marie Stockmarr, viola and Babett Hartmann, harpsichord) also each had solo moments in pieces by Bassano, Froberger, Domenico Gabrieli, not found in Rost. The violin and viola solos were both Ricercar’s, the harpsichord piece a well-known Toccata by Froberger, also in a multi-sectional form. Ensemble Rost might not have realised this, but this Toccata was one of the Froberger pieces copied out by John Blow who, as a chorister, gentleman and eventually the Composer to the Chapel Royal, must surely have performed in the church of St Peter ad Vincula.
With its substantial moat and impressive layers of walls, the Tower of London must be one of the quietest places in the central London for an intimate concert like this, so it was unfortunate that a police helicopter hovered overhead for much of the time, providing a not-quite-in-tune drone to several pieces.