Classical Music: Charming chamber-music program is in good hands

What: Early Music Society of the Islands — Handel and Haydn Harpsichord Concerti, with Byron Schenkman and Friends

When/where: Saturday, 8 p.m., Alix Goolden Hall; pre-concert talk at 7:10

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Tickets: $30, seniors and students $25, members $22. Call 250-386-6121; online at rmts.bc.ca; in person at Ivy’s Bookshop, Long and McQuade, Munro’s Books and the RMTS (McPherson) Box Office.

 

On Saturday, the 31st season of the Early Music Society of the Islands will open with a concert featuring the Seattle-based harpsichordist Byron Schenkman and four friends in a program of music by Handel and Haydn. One of those friends, violinist Ingrid Matthews, whom he met at university, has been his frequent musical partner for more than 25 years.

Schenkman is being promoted as “one of EMSI’s favourite performers,” and that is no exaggeration. He first appeared in a society concert in the early 1990s, as part of a trio that included Matthews, and for a time in the late 1990s he and Matthews performed here regularly as members of the music society’s own Consort of the Islands. His most recent appearance was in 2013, with the Seattle Baroque Soloists. He has performed here under other auspices, too, including the 2012 Pacific Baroque Festival.

Schenkman performs on the modern piano, but is most celebrated as an interpreter of Baroque and Classical repertoire on the harpsichord and fortepiano, on which he has performed widely as a soloist and as a member or guest of many ensembles.

In 1994, Schenkman and Matthews founded the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, which they led through 2013. Since stepping down from that position, Schenkman has run his own chamber-music series, Byron Schenkman and Friends, the third season of which will begin in Seattle on Sunday with the same program he will offer here on Saturday.

It is a charming program that includes two works from Handel’s Op. 4, a set of six concertos published in 1738, and Haydn’s Harpsichord Concerto in F Major, which probably dates from the 1760s. Handel’s Op. 4 is usually referred to as a set of organ concertos, and as a performer he was much celebrated in this genre, which he basically invented. Still, in the original edition of Op. 4, published with Handel’s input, the solo role is assigned to “harpsichord or organ” (there is no pedal part).

Schenkman’s four friends, who form a string quartet, will comprise the “orchestra” in the three concertos, and this is hardly scandalous. In early music, one player per part in a concerto is perfectly acceptable and often preferable, both musically and historically; even in the early Romantic era, one could still hear concertos performed with chamber-scaled “orchestras,” in both domestic and public concerts.

The concertos form the first half and finale of Saturday’s program, while the second half opens with chamber music: a violin sonata from Handel’s Op. 1, a set of 12 sonatas published around 1730; and Haydn’s Piano Trio in C Major, Hob.XV:21, published in London in 1795, while Haydn was visiting that city.

Haydn’s are not “piano trios” in the modern sense, with keyboard, violin and cello interacting as equals; rather, they are “accompanied keyboard sonatas,” a genre of light entertainment that emerged in the 1730s and remained immensely popular all over Europe, especially among amateurs, through the 18th century.

An accompanied sonata was a keyboard sonata with one or more additional instrumental parts that were subordinate to the keyboard part. Some such sonatas, in fact, could be played as keyboard solos; the accompanying parts were expendable.

Haydn himself thought of piano trios as accompanied sonatas, and though his violin and cello parts are hardly expendable, they are unquestionably subordinate, even in his last works in the genre, from the 1790s. These trios are principally showpieces for the keyboard; indeed, Haydn’s splashiest keyboard writing is to be found here, not in his sonatas and concertos.

In the trio to be performed on Saturday, Schenkman will play the harpsichord, and though Haydn specified “Piano Forte,” this decision is again hardly scandalous, musically or historically. Harpsichord might even be preferable in this perky piece, the keyboard writing of which demands no pianistic shading.

Recently I sampled Schenkman’s wide-ranging discography, which comprises more than 30 CDs (most on the Centaur label) of solo, chamber and orchestral repertoire, including an authoritative cycle, with Matthews, of Bach’s violin sonatas and bright, lively performances of Bach’s keyboard concertos, with the Seattle Baroque Orchestra under Matthews’ direction.

My conclusion: Saturday’s program is in very good hands.

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