In the world of musical instruments, perhaps only church organs are more lavishly decorated than harpsichords. The lid of the lovely instrument that Laurence Cummings has been playing during his Bach residency at Sage Gateshead is decorated with the motto Musica laetitiae comes, medicina dolorum – “Music is a companion to joy and a medicine for pains” – a motto that stands well for the programmes that Cummings and Royal Northern Sinfonia have put together.

Laurence Cummings © Robert Workman
Laurence Cummings
© Robert Workman

Last night’s chamber concert in Hall Two was a distillation of the two larger programmes that frame it: a violin sonata instead of a concerto, trio sonatas and harpsichord sonatas instead of orchestral suites, and a cantata for solo voice instead of the more familiar choral works.

Kyra Humphreys and Laurence Cummings opened the concert with a beguiling performance of Bach’s Sonata for violin and keyboard no. 3 in E major, BWV1016; her rounded phrasing of the opening movement created a summery, pastoral spirit, and an air of relaxed simplicity carried through the faster movements too. I particularly enjoyed the sense of movement that Humphreys brought to the long notes in the second movement, and the sympathetic interplay between her and Laurence Cummings’s energetic but delicate accompaniment, ending with a lively acceleration through the final movement. What really came across in this performance though was a sense that this was music written purely for the pleasure of being music, suspending time for a moment of beauty.

Although Bach himself never travelled very far, he was well connected with the wider musical world of Europe, through correspondence with other musicians, and contacts at the German courts and cities where he worked, and so for the central section of this concert, Cummings plugged us into Bach’s wider musical network, with works composed by his contemporaries across Europe.

Alongside Bach, François Couperin’s was one of Europe’s great keyboard players and he left us an important body of harpsichord music – with all the ornaments usefully written out – as well teaching manuals. Cummings chose three contrasting movements from a longer suite, the Huitième ordre in B minor to create a mini-sonata, beginning with La Raphaèle, a grand statement in the Allemande style, that conveys the nobility of Raphael’s paintings. Cummings’s light touch brought out the clarity of Couperin’s counterpoint and what I found particularly interesting here was hearing how the elaborate ornamentation can keep the music moving, pushing it onwards, instead of weighing it down. After a sparkling Gavotte, the ever repeating melody of the final Passacaille carried hints of a dark obsessiveness that I’ve noticed in other pieces French Baroque music.

Domenico Scarlatti is the third product of that annus mirabilis, 1685, which also gave us Bach and Handel. In his introduction, Cummings suggested that Scarlatti, who was employed by the Queen of Spain, may have been homesick for his native Italy when he wrote his sonata no. 466 and his playing of the plaintive rise and fall certainly reflected this. Sonata no. 467, by contrast, was full of fire with energetic runs and big jumps down to thunderous bass notes.

The concert was originally advertised as including music by Telemann, and a programme change gave us a trio sonata for oboe, violin and bass by the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka instead – a slight substitution it must be said, as Zelenka and Telemann both write in the same charmingly melodic style, and both clearly had considerable understanding of how to write well for winds. Oboist Steven Hudson gave a lovely soft, but clear, articulation to the fast passages and the interplay between oboe and violin was delightful. I very much enjoyed James Craig’s energetic cello part in the second movement, but I couldn’t help wishing that we’d had the chance to hear these acrobatics on bassoon, as it was originally written. The highlight of this piece though was undoubtedly Hudson’s expressive oboe playing in the third movement, a gorgeous siciliano.

The cantata that closed the concert, BWV51 Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! is an unusual example of a church cantata for solo soprano. Soloist Mhairi Lawson was clearly in her element here, pouring out the long jubilant runs with what seemed like effortless smoothness and obvious enjoyment, and visibly relishing her interaction with Richard Martin’s elegantly virtuosic trumpet accompaniment. Of course singer and trumpet could easily have filled a large concert hall with their bright sound, and it was notable that both possessed the extreme control needed for the intimate space in Hall Two: they blended beautifully and never overpowered. The quieter movements were adorned by James Craig’s lovely cello continuo and Laurence Cummings’s judicious use of the soft lute stop.

Each piece this evening was followed not just by applause but murmurs of warm appreciation, giving the impression that that for everyone, the music was living up to that motto on the harpsichord.