Ensemble Hesperi: From Caledonia to the Capital!

From Caledonia to the Capital!
Chamber music and song by Scottish eighteenth-century composers
Ensemble Hesperi, Angela Hicks, Rory Carver
St Mary Le Bow Church, 17 September 2021


Financial support from the Continuo Foundation allowed Ensemble Hesperi to increase their usual line up of four instrumentalists for this concert of music by 18th-century Scottish composers. Their funding also allowed the concert to be filmed for later release. Their programme was based on the composer James Oswald, known as the “Scottish Orpheus”. He was born in Fife in 1710 and was a musician and dancing master in Dunfermline before spending time in Edinburgh. He left Scotland for London in 1741 where he published several collections of Scottish tunes. He become Chamber Composer to George III and spent the last few years his life in Knebworth House, having married the widow of the Lytton owner.

The other Scottish composer featured was the aristocratic Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie (1710-1769), known as “Fiddler Tam” – I assume for his violin playing rather than any nefarious activity. In 1752 he moved to Mannheim in Germany where he studied under Johann Stamitz, returning to Scotland four yeas later as a virtuoso violinist and composer. The two Scottish composers were balanced by two vocal works by Handel, who would have known James Oswald in London.

Joining the core members of Ensemble Hespiri (Mary-Jannet Leith, recorders, Magdalena Loth-Hill, violin, Florence Petit, cello and Thomas Allery, harpsichord), were David Lopez , violin, Francesca Gilbert, viola, Elias Sibley, guitar and the two guest singers Angela Hicks, soprano, and Rory Carver, tenor.

Programming sequences of Scottish songs is not easy, so the inclusion of the Handel pieces, two instrumental Erskine pieces, and two Divertimenti for Guitar by Oswald (from Twelve Divertimenti for the Guitar, 1759) made for a well-balanced concert.

The Oswald songs were drawn from his Collection of the Best old Scotch and English Songs (1761), Colin’s Kisses (1743), Songs compos’d for the Temple of Apollo (1747), and the Curious Collection of Scots Tunes (1740). The concert opened with instrumental selections from Airs for the Seasons (1756) played by the core member of Hesperi.

The two Divertimenti for the Guitar were played by Elias Sibley using a mellow-toned 1826 six-stringed “English” guitar, a popular instrument in Scotland at the time of Oswald. It was the closest that Elias Sibley could get to the sound of a 1759 guitar. The delicate tone of the guitar allowed a focus on the music without the distraction of the characteristic twang of a traditional Spanish guitar.

The two Earl of Kellie pieces were the short three-movement Quartetto No. 1 from his Six Symphonies in Four parts, very much in the style of the Mannheim School, and the Duchess of Buccleuch’s Minuet, composed for the 3rd Duchess, a great-granddaughter of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.

Handel’s cantata Nel Dolce, dell’ oblio (Pensieri notturni di Filli) HWV 134 is a very early work, probably dating from his early years in Italy. It is scored for the unusual combination of soprano, treble recorder and basso continuo. Angela Hicks revealed Phyllis’s nightly thoughts (which seem to have been influenced by Cupid) with some beautifully expressive singing, the purity and stability of her voice ideal for the very generous acoustic of the church.

Tenor Rory Carver sang Total Eclipse from Handel’s 1743 oratorio, Samson. The painful lament at the loss of his sight opens with a famously long solo vocal line after the instrumental introduction. There was a marked contrast between the vocal styles of the two singers, with Carver rather more operatic in vocal timbre and his use of vibrato, neither always favourable to intonation or, occasionally, diction. That said, both singers did well to project the words of these solo pieces and the Scottish songs into a tricky acoustic. They made very effective use of ornaments in the songs.

The church of St Mary-le-Bow is one of the best known of all London churches, not least for the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ tale of the bells, which contributed to the concert at 15 minute intervals. It is a post-war rebuild of Sir Christopher Wren’s post-fire rebuild of a medieval church. It is square in plan, with no obvious means of moderating the reverberation.

This was a delightful evening of little-heard music from fascinating composers from over the border. The playing of Ensemble Hesperi and the singing of the two guest soloists was impressive. I will update this review when the video becomes available.