The second of violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved's Soundbox series once again took place in the exposed-brick Green Room above the bar at Wilton's Music Hall. As with Soundbox 1, the programme comprised short bursts of music with readings of contemporary material, but this time we also had visual aids in the form of postcards, which were referred to througout. A "London-centric" programme focused on a book entitled Select Preludes or Volentarys for ye Violin, published in London in 1705 at a time when crime was rife and some criminal elements were sent down for such heinous offences as "free-thinking". It contained 35 short pieces of music by "severall eminent masters for the violin" from all over Europe, including Corelli, Biber and Purcell. 1705 was also a time when the Italian style was heavily influential (not just in music, but in travel and the arts more generally), with many noted composers travelling to Rome and Naples to familiarise themselves with the latest musical fashions.
The performance began with a G minor prelude by Henry Purcell, who was certainly inspired by the style of the Italian school; the prelude was nevertheless recognisably Purcellian. Prior to playing, Sheppard Skærved explained how contemporary commentators felt that Purcell's music suffered because he had not had the chance to hear good musicians, but this gem of a prelude disproved the theory. From the short-lived sublime, the music moved on to the faster, more angular music of Queen Christina of Sweden's favourite musician, Lonati, also known as "il gobbo della Regina", or the Queen's hunchback. Legend has it that the Queen had something of a soft spot for him because of his deformity, and his eminence was such that he was permitted to travel (residing in London in around 1687), and reputedly took on Francesco Geminiani as a student.
Corelli, too, was on Queen Christina's radar, having organsied a festival of music for her in Sweden. He had, by 1705, established himself as a violinist of international repute, giving concerts across Europe. The introduction to his D major prelude – more of a flourish – explained that he had in fact been active in London; a postcard revealed a token for a series of concerts he gave at York Buildings. For me, this was a highlight: although based entirely on a single arpeggio, the effect of the speedy playing was to leave chords resonating in a relatively dry acoustic. Like Corelli, Torelli was a court musician. His prelude was of a rather different character: doloroso, with Bach-like expression and rubato.
The second half of the programme focused mainly on the English composers in the book. Many of them are relatively unknown today, and their compositions were perhaps not quite up to the standard of the aforementioned works; nevertheless, they were enjoyable, and Sheppard Skærved once again gave informative introductions to each prelude. The audience was especially amused by the story of a "Mr. Smith", one of the composers, who wrote street calls (among them, one for asparagus that made reference to its benefit to bodily functions...) when he was not writing more sophisticated music. That the English violinist-composers were somewhat jacks-of-all-trades perhaps explained their relative obscurity – many were professional singers, and some, such as William Gorton, were also organists. Having said that, they were clearly au fait with violin technique, Gorton in particular employing bariolage in his preludial offering.
Like Soundbox 1, a contemporary composition was used as a comparative exercise. Michael Hersch of the Peabody Institute had written a short prelude for Sheppard Skærved himself, for a previous performance in a Mexico City gallery. The initially grating augmented octaves and major 7ths soon made sense, and even began to sound beautiful. It made me wonder what a book of 35 modern-day preludes might sound like (an idea for a future Soundbox project?).
Once more, this was more a lecture than a concert – except that Sheppard Skærved's sensitive playing and expressive reading, together with audience interaction, kept everyone awake and interested. The audience were free to ask questions of Sheppard Skærved, and did so enthusiastically before, during and after the performance. He need not have apologised for the amount of "trivia" he had read out, though his apology was by way of an eloquent remark by Newton – "I don't know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me" – and was, for that reason only, much appreciated. What on paper did not look particularly enthralling was made very interesting, and I left with a great deal more knowledge about the selected composers than I had before. It is a pity that there were so many empty seats, and I hope that the two remaining performances at Wilton's will be better visited.