Thirty of us were crammed into the tiny oak-panelled parlour while the Bond Street shoppers went about their business below. The string-players had just enough space to extend their bows, but the theorbo's 5ft-long neck threatened to puncture Handel's painted face. "Sorry we're starting late," said the woman on the door. "Some people don't yet know where to find us."
Yes, the Handel House Museum may be three years old, but it's still Mayfair's best-kept secret. And since the seating for its Thursday concerts is so limited, it's probably just as well.
For, in this very room, Handel himself - a whizz on the harpsichord - gave recitals and sneak previews of operas. But the music we'd come to hear wasn't by him: the Marésienne Consort were to play works by a Welshman, Elway Bevin, a Moravian, Gottfreid Finger, and those monarchs of the viol, Christopher Simpson and John Jenkins. With a baroque violin, two bass viols, and a theorbo lute, each of the players talked us through the music in a suitably intimate manner.
With its frets and its clean, sustained sound, the viol was primarily an amateur instrument - Samuel Pepys and Charles I both played one - but this music called for high professionalism, for these composers stood in an unbroken line stretching from the great Orlando Gibbons to Purcell.
After nimble polyphony from Bevin came some "divisions" from Simpson - instrumental contests in which each tries to outdo the others in ornamentation, before resolving in sweet accord. Then came a fantasia by Jenkins, so famed in his day that Purcell, born 60 years later, was at first dubbed "the Jenkins of his age". Intricately layered from the start, the melodies set up a miasma of grave beauty, and in this acoustic we seemed to hear every hair of the violin's bow.
Then a stop for tuning: 30 people in this tiny room created such heat and humidity that the gut strings instantly responded. Three more floridly ornamented pieces by Simpson followed, ending in a galliard in gloriously rich colours. This group, named after the composer Marin Marais, not only play superbly, but also present the fruits of musicological research, and to hear them in this sacred space was unforgettable.Reuse content