London Festival of Baroque Music 2017
“Baroque at the Edge”
Nathaniel Mander, Harpsichord
St John’s, Smith Square
William Byrd, c.1540-1623
Fantasia, “The Woods so Wild”
Thomas Tomkins, 1572-1656
John Blow, 1649-1708
Johan Christian Bach, 1735-1782
Sonata in C minor, op.17 no.2
Franz Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809
Fantasia in C, Hob.XVII:4
Today’s recital is bookended by two fantasias, on either side of the High Baroque. In their earliest form, fantasies or fancies were just that, improvised flights of fancy. This first gem blooms almost from nothing, unfurling with elegant flourishes of polyphony.
Shall I go walk the wood so wild,
Wandering, wandering, here and there?
This fragment is all that survives of The Woods so Wild, but though the lyrics are lost to us, the melody sings on in this setting by William Byrd. These 14 variations are pastoral and rustic, not so elaborate as others, but a small masterpiece. The harmony of the song oscillates between F and G major, which is striking to modern ears, but gives a rich, lilting quality.
Byrd died an influential man and England’s most famous composer, though he drew political fire as a Catholic: despite his constant employment by Queen Elizabeth, he fell under such suspicion that his house was raided twice.
Byrd’s keyboard style, with its sophisticated polyphony, laid the groundwork for the instrument. What better place to begin today’s recital?
A student of William Byrd, Tomkins was devoted to the great English virginal school, carrying it well past its heyday until his death (and its). His ornate, brilliant style is uniquely virtuosic – like Bach, Tomkins adhered to an archaic tradition, which he pushed into some of its finest expressions. His eight variations on Barrefostus’ Dream, a ballad tune possibly connected to Dr Faustus, are characteristically grand, rich and rhetorical; growing from its repeated, hymn-like ground bass, the Ground stands in more meditative contrast.
Blow’s ground, heard next to Tomkins’, shows us quite how much music was to change. The Restoration in 1660 brought continental tastes into vogue, emphasising simplicity and elegance. Lyrical, charming and straightforward, Morlake Ground has everything to do with this new style.
Like his contemporary Henry Purcell, John Blow was a key musical figure of the early English baroque. After a distinguished career he died Composer to the Chapel Royal, like William Byrd almost a century before.
The youngest son of the great J.S. Bach, Johann Christian Bach truly hails from the edge of the Baroque. The “English” Bach, he made considerable fame writing music for the elegant tastes of Regency London; for the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and elite venues in Soho and St James’.
This Sonata, despite its dark key, is eloquent, poised and beautifully structured: Mozart, who visited London at the age of 8, was a huge admirer of Bach’s refined, effortless music. Some accounts report that Bach would improvise a phrase of music at the keyboard, and the young Mozart, sitting on his lap, would play back.
Far from his isolated role at Esterhazy Palace, where he was “forced to become original”, Joseph Haydn met with instant celebrity in London. It’s easy to hear why: “Papa” Haydn’s was a boyish, charming sense of humour. As a choirboy, he’d been royally whipped for climbing on Palace scaffolding – he was later expelled for cutting off another boy’s pigtail.
Capricious, tuneful, and ticklish, this Fantasia delights in twists and turns: full of jokes and mood swings, sudden fortes, accelerating into sudden pauses, veering off into new ideas, this music slips the rug from under our feet.
This wit belongs to a different age, an age of satire and caricature, far from the earthiness of the past. Haydn, and his pupil Beethoven, would take this sort of music still further away from the edge of the Baroque.
A performer with “style and panache”, Nathaniel Mander trained under Carole Cerasi at the Royal Academy of Music, graduating with first class honours in 2011. Winner of the 10th Broadwood Harpsichord competition, he gave his debut London recital for the British Harpsichord Society at Handel House in 2011 and his Wigmore Hall concerto debut in 2012.