Laudonia on the road

Soprano Susan Hamilton tells Keith Bruce how her new early music group follows in very specific musical footsteps.

Over three centuries after its first flourishing, the Grand Tour is back in fashion. At the end of September, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra opens its season with Maxim Emelyanychev’s Grand Tour, as their principal conductor takes a programme culminating in Beethoven’s Eroica to seven venues across Scotland. 

At the start of the month, however, there is another Grand Tour of Scotland and London by a new early music group, Laudonia, led by soprano Susan Hamilton. It is most appropriately named, because it celebrates the musical journey across Europe that prominent Scot Sir John Clerk of Penicuik undertook in the 1690s.

The Second Baronet of Penicuik is a crucial figure in Scots history, whose legal mind and political work put him right at the centre of events when he returned from his travels. After the collapse of the Darien Scheme in Panama threatened the economic stability of the country, he was one of the signatories of the Act of Union and one of the first Scots members of the Parliament of Great Britain, with responsibility for the financial affairs of Scotland.

He had studied law in Leiden in the Netherlands but was also a fine musician and composer and, in the last years of the 17th century, embarked on a Grand Tour that was musical in its focus and included lessons in violin and composition from no less a figure than Arcangelo Corelli.

Although much of his own work was lost in a fire that devastated Penicuik House in 1899, his emotional cantata Leo Scotiae Irritatus (The Lion of Scotland Enraged) will open the second half of the concert programme that Hamilton and her instrumental colleagues have devised for Laudonia’s first tour.

The soprano co-founded the Dunedin Consort in her twenties, but in recent years has devoted herself mostly to teaching. Now, she says, “I’ve found my wings again.”

Encouraged by her partner, Austrian arts manager Christoph Crepaz, who is Honorary Consul for his home country in Scotland, she began to assemble the ideas for Laudonia, which borrows the Roman name for the Lothians of Scotland. As with so much else, the Covid pandemic interrupted their schedule, but because the project began before Brexit it had established a foothold in both countries, and the group has already performed in Austria and at the Scottish Parliament.

This Grand Tour is Laudonia setting out its stall for the wider public for the first time, and Hamilton has assembled a stellar instrumental ensemble around her, led by Croatian early music specialist Bojan Cicic. He is joined by Aberdeen University-based Aaron McGregor on second violin, Lucia Capellaro on cello, and Mr McFall’s Chamber bassist Rick Standley on violone. With keyboard maestro John Kitchen on harpsichord and Jamie Akers playing theorbo, the other lead instrumentalist is Austrian natural trumpet player Martin Patscheider.

“I love the soprano and trumpet combination, especially in the church venues we are playing,” says Hamilton. “The obligato instrument you are singing with makes such a different to how you sing.”

There’s a certain amount of speculation about the music the travelling Scotsman could have heard in the programme she and Laudonia have put together, but it follows the route of Sir John Clerk’s youthful peregrinations across Europe, south through Germany and stopping in Vienna before a long stay in Rome, where he was taught by Corelli three times a week.

Alongside the Sonata La Follia showpiece for violin, Corelli is represented by the D Major Sonata a Quattro which adds a trumpet to the mix. The Trumpet Song from the music Daniel Purcell wrote for Thomas D’Urfey’s play Massaniello, is justified on the basis that it was spanking new in 1699 when Clerk was travelling through London on his way home.

That was where Giovanni Battista Draghi worked too, and Kitchen will play his Harpsichord Suite in A Major. If Clerk did not meet that Italian composer, it is very likely he did run into his brother Antonio, also a composer, in Vienna.

Clerk’s own memoirs recount his meetings with another Italian composer, Benardo Pasquini, in Rome and his music is included in the programme alongside that of his countrymen Antonio Cesti, with the solo cantata Non Si Parli Piu d’Amore (Let There Be No More Talk About Love), and Alessandro Melani’s Qual Mormorio Giocondo (Like the Cheerful Murmuring), again featuring trumpet obligato. Both Cesti and Melani worked at Leopold the First’s Viennese court, and Clerk records meeting the Holy Roman Emperor.

The dark horse of the pack is perhaps German composer Johann Rosenmuller, whose O felicissimus Paradysi aspectus (O Most Happy Sight of Paradise) opens the programme and also pairs the soprano voice with trumpet. Rosenmuller did not have the luxury of a Grand Tour, but instead made a Great Escape from his homeland to Italy, forced to flee when angry parents discovered the exact nature of his enthusiasm for choirboys.

Laudonia’s Grand Tour opens at Holy Trinity Church in Melrose on Friday, September 1 and continues to Edinburgh’s St Cecilia’s Hall (Saturday Sept 2), Dunkeld Cathedral (Sunday Sept 3), Inverness Cathedral (Tuesday Sept 5), Queen’s Cross Church, Aberdeen (Wednesday Sept 6) and St Mary Abbot’s Church in London’s Kensington on Friday September 8. All concerts at 7.30pm.