Review by Judith Caldwell
Hammer Baroque’s first concert of 2018 featured harper (not harpist, she said) Julia Seager-Scott playing both the Italian baroque triple harp and clarsach (Gaelic harp). It was a very damp day and Seagar-Scott spent an hour before the concert tuning both harps and had to re tune the clarsach during the concert. This, plus the fact that the concert was held in Melrose United’s church hall, gave the whole concert a casual and intimate feel as though the audience were in someone’s living room even though the room was packed to capacity. This mood suited the music, much of which came from the Irish bardic tradition and was written by Turlough Carolan (1670-1738).
Carolan was blinded by smallpox at the age of 18 and Mrs McDermott, his benefactor, decided he needed to learn to play the harp so that he could become a bard (poet/minstrel). He learned well enough to be claimed by some as Ireland’s national bard. He travelled the land staying wherever welcomed and writing tunes for his hosts.
The eight pieces played today ranged from a Clergy’s Lamentation which was very prettily sad, to lively, cheerful, very danceable tunes. There was an appealing tune written for the bachelor John O’Connor and the gorgeous Carolan’s Farewell to Music composed just before he died, ironically at Mrs McDermott’s where he had started out. The clarsach has brass strings which give it a distinctive sound but because of the tradition of bards being blind there are no coloured strings differentiating the notes. This presented a problem which was solved for Seager-Scott when a conservator suggested painting them with nail polish. The Italian triple harp has three rows of gut strings, the two outer ones approximately equivalent to the white keys on a piano and the inner equivalent to the black strings. These require a lot of practice and dexterity to play.
Two songs by John Dowland (1563-1626) featured the triple harp. These were stately, complex and simply gorgeous. Pur Ti Miro by Claudio Monteverdi was lovely, but the stand-out piece for the triple harp was George F. Handel’s Harp Concerto in B flat. Even though it was written a century later than the other works it is so brilliant that comparisons are difficult. The first movement Andante-allegro is the most familiar and Seager-Scott had a restart after some tangled fingering. The second time went well as she mastered the difficult fingering. The final Allegro Moderato provided another workout which was accomplished beautifully.
The concert ended with J. Thomas’s Minstrel’s ‘Adieu to His Native Land’ which he wrote as a farewell to his brother leaving for the new world during the time of Queen Victoria. It was absolutely gorgeous and clearly an audience favourite.
The next Hammer Baroque concert is on Feb. 18th