Laudonia: Grand Tour

St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh

Sir John Clerk of Penicuik’s robust cantata for soprano, violins and basso continuo, Leo Scotiae Irritatus (The Lion of Scotland Enraged), was either left uncompleted or its conclusion has not come down to us. Doubtless that sense of unfinished business would chime with the view of supporters of Scottish independence who gathered at Holyrood in the afternoon before new early music group Laudonia took the stage at St Cecilia’s Hall on Saturday.

They might also have appreciated the clear implication in the Latin words the 2nd Baronet of Penicuik set in 1699 that there were those who wished failure on the Panama-colonising Darien Scheme, the collapse of which led in part to the union of the parliaments of Scotland and England a few years later.

Perhaps wisely, the musicians of Laudonia chose not to delve too deeply into politics. Instead violinist Aaron McGregor introduced this pivotal work in their programme by noting that its composer later appeared to think music too frivolous a pursuit for an 18th century landed gentleman and member of the new amalgamated legislature.

The group’s programme focused on the music Clerk heard, played and wrote before he assumed those responsibilities, on his Grand Tour through Germany, Austria, Italy and France after his law studies in Leiden in the Netherlands – a “gap year” that took him to the court of Leopold I in Vienna and the studio of Arcangelo Corelli in Rome for violin and composition lessons.

Structured around four solo cantatas sung by soprano Susan Hamilton, Laudonia’s Grand Tour was very specific and specialist in one sense, but also made perfect sense as an entertaining programme.

Hamilton’s voice has acquired heft in its lower reaches – immediately apparent in the opening religious cantata by Johann Rosenmuller, a bright and jolly affair for all its lyrical slaughter and blood. It also introduced us to Austrian trumpet player Martin Patscheider, whose precision on the natural horn often made it sound uncannily like a modern instrument.

His partnership with Hamilton’s voice, on music by Daniel Purcell and Alessandro Mallani as well, was crucial to the recital and the balance the group achieved in this intimate space was remarkable, the theorbo of Jamie Akers and harpsichord of John Kitchen as clear as the frontline of trumpet, violins and cello, with Rick Standley on bass violone.

Kitchen had his solo moments in music by Draghi and Pasquini, played on the remarkably loud 1709 instrument he had borrowed from the University of Edinburgh collection housed in the venue, and first violin Bojan Cicic had a virtuoso showcase in Correlli’s La Follia variations. Almost as notable for the ferocious supporting cello work by Lucia Capellaro, it was far and away the best-known piece in the programme, its screen soundtrack use recently including an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.

Occupying the same slot in the first half sequence, Antonio Cesti’s Non Si Parli Piu D’Amore was another highlight, full of tricky intervals for the soprano and switches of mood. Melani’s Qual Mormorio Giocondo, which brought the programme to a close, is more obviously structured but was a well-chosen finale piece to showcase the full range of a very fine new ensemble.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Bojan Cicic by Nick Rutter