Mr Handel’s Vauxhall Pleasures
London Handel Festival
London Early Opera, Bridget Cunningham
St George’s, Hanover Square, 4 April 2018
London Early Opera have released two CDs reflecting the musical life of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens during the mid 18th century (reviewed here and here). Their London Handel Festival concert drew on music from both CDs with a backdrop of projected contemporary images and a spoken text setting the scene. Pleasure Gardens like Vauxhall were a focus for musical and other entertainments in 17th and 18th century London, including ‘music, food and amorous dalliance’. Such amorous dalliances were explored in the spoken commentary, given by Lars Tharp, including a diary entry from an American noting a meeting with one of the young Vauxhall ladies, who he ‘rogered twice’ and then forgot to say his prayers. As the Air from the Water Music played, we heard a description of a river journey to Vauxhall from Westminster. It was followed by Handel’s bubbly Sinfonia to Acis and Galatea, the source of a couple of later arias.
One the key musical features of the Vauxhall Gardens was the organ, built in 1737, and situated just behind the central orchestra pavilion. A so-called ‘long movement’ enabled the organ to be played from a separate console within the orchestra. Organ concertos soon 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. Handel’s Organ Concerto in B flat major (Op4.2, HWV 290) was a fine example of the genre, with Daniel Moult playing the Handel chamber organ (picrured below) in St George’s, an example of the type of domestic organ that might be found in country houses of Handel’s time, but slightly smaller than that used in the opera houses, and much smaller than the Vauxhall organ. This was made up for by Daniel Moult’s later playing of Handel’s Hornpipe and a piece by one of the Vauxhall organists on the main church organ. The centre part of its case dates from around the time that Handel arrived in London, so would have been familiar to him. Moult playing was stylistically and appropriately adventurous, very much as Handel’s would have been.
Most of the programme was devoted to a variety of songs, sung by Claire Bessent, Eleanor Dennis, Charles MacDougall, Greg Tassell, and Benjamin Bevan. These included ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling choir’, with recorder player Emily Bloom and Oonagh Lee providing the warbles, and ”I rage – I melt – I burn’, both from Acis and Galatea. Other important instrumental contributions came from Joel Raymond, oboe, Inga Klaucke, bassoon, Tamsin Cowell, trumpet, and Katherine Sharman, cello together, of course, with Bridget Cunningham’s impressive harpsichord accompaniment to many of the pieces.
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 programme included David Coke’s scholarly history of the Gardens and commentaries on the music by London Early Opera’s conductor Bridget Cunningham. It is a fascinating story of a long-gone musical life, and the two CDs are well worth exploring.