Sonnerie/Anderson/Lawson, Wigmore Hall, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Lawyer, linguist, patron, politician, architect, gardener, and author of a substantial unpublished blank-verse epic entitled The Country Seat, Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, 2nd Baronet (1676-1755), was a formidable figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. On the evidence of this Wigmore Hall concert, he might also have developed into a significant composer, had his aspiration not gradually lost out to the belief that the profession of musician was unfitting to a gentleman.

What we heard here, in new editions by Kenneth Elliott, were the four and a half solo cantatas that represent the bulk of his surviving output. These all date from the time of his legal studies in Holland, and the 18 months he spent in Italy, during his Grand Tour, studying with the great Corelli. And they suggest a genuine progress from enthusiastic amateurism to professional expertise - if by fits and starts.

Thus, the penitential Latin cantata Eheu! Quam diris hominis, with which the vibrant-toned Scottish soprano Lorna Anderson and four members of Monica Huggett's period ensemble Sonnerie opened the concert, declines from a convincingly Purcellian mode of chromatic lament to rather short-winded jollities at the thought of heavenly recompense. Indeed, the missing later pages of the patriotic cantata Leo Scotiae irratus, occasioned by Scotland's disastrous colonial Darien Scheme, may have been done away with in a critical fit by Sir John himself.

A more extended setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei, pleasingly delivered by the evening's other Scottish soprano, Mhairi Lawson, similarly veered between florid ariosi and contrapuntal flights of considerable confidence, and those little short-circuits of harmony and part-writing that tell of a student still not quite on top of his technique. Yet the two works in the second half were consistently finer. The amatory cantata Dic mihi, saeve puer, apparently much-revised during Clerk's Italian studies, achieves real point and passion in its succession of concise numbers.

And there is evidence that the notoriously picky Corelli wielded his celebrated fiddle in at least one performance of Clerk's near 25-minute wedding cantata, Odo di mesto intorno. As well he might, for this extended sequence of dramatic recitatives and florid da capo arias shows an almost Handelian mastery of melodious Italian word-setting and varied instrumental commentary that would certainly hold its own in any concert of comparable repertoire.

Which makes it all the sadder that whatever he may have gone on writing in private was subsequently suppressed or lost. Still, between the cantatas, we had the Scottish actor Bill Paterson reading chunks of moralised topography from The Country Seat, to remind us of what Sir John got up to instead.