The Ghost in the Machine

The Ghost in the Machine
Emily Baines, recorders, Amyas

First Hand Records FHR 113. 62’41

The launch concert on Wednesday 15 December has been cancelled.
It will return in the New Year

It has long been the case that many ‘early music’ recordings and performances are preceded and supported by a considerable amount of research by the performers. This recording from Amyas is one particularly interesting example. It is based on 10 years of research by Emily Baines (culminating in her doctorate) into the evidence of 18th-century performance style found in mechanical musical instruments of the period, such as barrel organs and musical clocks with tiny organs inside them.

Two such instruments were prominent in this recording, one of them the ‘Braamcamp’ musical clock made by Charles Clay, now in the Museum Speelklock, Utrecht after many years in private hands. There are several examples of ‘Mr Clay’s’ clocks around Europe, including one in Kensington Palace. They were advertised as featuring works by Handel, Corelli and Geminiani, and a manuscript in the British Library contains scores from Handel’s scribes (including ‘Ten Tunes for Clays Musical Clocks’) that almost certainly directly link the clock pieces to Handel himself. The other influential instrument was a barrel organ made by Henry Holland, and now in Hammerwood Park, East Grinstead (UK). It was built around 1790 and has 12 barrels of music, more than half of it by Handel, still popular decades after his death.

Several of the pieces are sensibly grouped into suites (there are 29 tracks), including the opening suite of three pieces by Handel – the Overture to the Water Music, the Dead March from Saul, and See the Conquering Hero Comes. from Judas Maccabaeus. These are all transcriptions from the Holland barrel organ arranged for the full ensemble. The inclusion of elaborate ornaments is a particular feature of the barrel organ pieces, the authentic nature reinforced by the following two pieces, taken from Hotteterre’s Ornamented Airs and brunettes.

The Holland organ includes a version of Handel’s Organ Concerto No 5 in F. It is almost identical to the Recorder Sonata in F, and the version performed here is a hybrid combination of the two pieces. Again, the prominent ornaments are a noticeable feature, and reflect the improvisatory nature of the organ solo parts of the Organ Concerto which would originally have been improvised by Handel.

A sequence of pieces demonstrated the proliferation of ornaments in other music of the period, as found in the mechanical instruments, one of which (God Save the King) is transcribed from a barrel organ that was taken on board the ship exploring the North-West Passage in 1819/20. A jovial Rule, Britannia completes the sequence.

Particularly interesting is the suite of three little Handel pieces played on recorder and organ alone (extracts from Ottone, Arianna in Creta, and Scipione, tracks 10-12). These are transcriptions from the little organ inside Charles Clay’s musical clock, and is the closest we get of this recording to the sound of the real mechanical musical machine. Other tracks use a variety of instruments alongside the various sizes of recorder.

Two Recorder Sonatas (by Francesco Barsanti and John Baston, a première recording) and another group of Handel pieces complete the programme.

Whether or not you have an interest in 18th-century performing style or mechanical musical instruments, this is a delightful sequence of pieces, expertly played by Emily Baines and her colleagues in Amyas. Special mention is deserved for the continuo group of Poppy Walshaw, cello, Arngeir Hauksson, theorbo, and Steven Devine, harpsichord & organ, with Holly Harman and Jim O’Toole violins, and Alexis Bennett, viola, also adding to the consort.