Featured Album August 2023: Ensemble Hesperi "Full of the Highland Humours"
This month is Recorder31 at The Early Music Shop, where we're celebrating all things recorder! So, we thought it fitting to feature an album with a strong recorder connection. The four-piece ensemble Ensemble Hesperi were the winners of the Young Ensemble Competition at the London International Festival of Early Music in 2020, and released their debut album "Full of the Highland Humours" last year. Visit our Recorder31 blog to read an interview with the group, or read on here to discover more about the album...
Full of the Highland Humours
OUR FEATURED ALBUM FOR AUGUST 2023
From the artist's press release…
Full of the Highland Humours, the debut recording from award-winning period group Ensemble Hesperi, celebrates the immense success Scottish music enjoyed in eighteenth-century London.
Highlights of the disc include rarely recorded works by James Oswald, a highly successful Scottish composer who made London his “home from home” in the 1740s. Many of Oswald's compositions exhibit musical features associated with Scottish traditional music, and reveal his flair for charming melodies in the newly fashionable “galant” style. His ‘Airs for the Seasons’, four of which appear on the disc, are delightful miniatures, each named after a flower or a plant that blooms in the appropriate season. Also featured are sparkling trio sonatas by Giuseppe Sammartini, a close colleague of Oswald, and by their undeservedly ignored contemporary, Francesco Geminiani, who admired Scottish music so much that his ‘Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick’ featured entirely his own arrangements of popular Scots tunes. Oswald also made his native music work to his advantage, weaving five well-known melodies into a ‘Sonata on Scots Tunes’ which cannot fail to transport the listener on a journey to “North Briton”. Music by two remaining Scottish composers feature on the disc: Thomas Erskine, Sixth Earl of Kellie, a talented aristocrat whose enthusiasm for local music-making in Fife earned him the nickname “Fiddler Tam”, and Robert Bremner, an enterprising Scottish publisher and composer whose influence in London and Edinburgh helped to cement the long-held musical relationship between the capital and Scotland itself.
Why The Early Music Shop loves "Full of the Highland Humours":Ensemble Hesperi are possibly best known to followers of The Early Music Shop as the winners of the LIFEM Young Ensembles Competition in 2020. The following year, they returned to Blackheath launching their album Full of the Highland Humours.
Two years on from its recording, the interpretations on this disc stand the test of time: but of course, this material has stood the test of centuries. Focussing primarily on baroque music connected to Scotland, the programme takes us on a highland journey through the creations of composers including James Oswald, Giuseppe Sammartini and Francesco Geminiani. With much of the Scottish-inspired music being published in London by those including Oswald and Henry Playford, the music’s journey is similar to that of recorder player Mary-Jannet Leith, who was brought up in Scotland but now lives in London.
What’s so remarkable about the music is how Scottish it sounds. The use of traditional dance tunes, presented in Baroque style with ‘cello and harpsichord continuo, creates a stately backdrop upon which the melodies are placed. The recorder of Mary-Jannet Leith and the violin of Magdalena Loth-Hill are effortlessly matched, with expressive, flowing tunes given the chance to soar. Subtle shifts in phrasing and ornamentation from the recorder and violin give the traditional flavour without ever losing the formality of the performance; the distinctive ‘Scotch snap’ rhythm gives the listener no doubt of the music’s geographical ties.
Amongst the disc highlights are the collections of Scots tunes arranged by James Oswald, where the beautiful melodies are presented with shape and poise. In particular, The Ranunculus stands out with its marked shifts in character, while the double-stopped violin on Polwart on the Green again gives echoes of traditional fiddle styles. The group’s resourcefulness in uncovering lesser-known works gives the disc a number of world premiere recordings, although the high Baroque moments, such as the Sammartini sonata near the beginning of the programme, are equally notable. The ensemble is very well blended and there is a unified lightness in the sound.
While they usually assume the role of tasteful, supportive accompaniment, the ‘cello of Florence Petit and harpsichord of Thomas Allery are both given prominent features in solo pieces. Petit’s Alloway House is beautifully lyrical, while Allery’s Maggie Lauder builds from a delicate opening to a sparkling, virtuosic conclusion.
The production by Oscar Torres is clear and warm, with space carved in the mix for each of the four instruments to shine. With detailed and insightful sleeve notes by Mary-Jannet Leith, the disc is an impressive calling card from an ensemble at the beginning of their recording career. With further recordings and performances on the horizon, keep an eye out for them in the coming years.
See below to revisit Ensemble Hesperi's recording sessions back in 2021, and take a look behind the scenes as the album was created...
Full of the Highland Humours is in stock at The Early Music Shop now - order online or buy from our Snape Maltings showroom!