Thanks to the dedicated work of scholars and practitioners in the field, in the last decade, audiences in London have become relatively familiar with the music of female composers in the Baroque period. Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, and Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre may not be household names yet, but many early music fans, who have always embraced rarities, would consider their works being as worthy of being included in the canon.

Rachel Podger © Theresa Pewal
Rachel Podger
© Theresa Pewal

Violinist Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque’s programme for the “Venus Unwrapped” series at Kings Place, a year-long celebration of women creativity in music, featured works by three female composers: vocal music by Francesca Caccini and Jacquet de La Guerre, as well as a compact but dramatic violin sonata by Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704) – a prolific nun composer in 17th-century Italy – which was a real gem. Apparently it is the only solo violin sonata she left among an impressive oeuvre of over 200 compositions, several of them published at the time. Divided into many sections of contrasting moods, the music is at times vivacious and at times reflective and recitative-like, which Podger expressed with fluency and ease. In particular, it was the highly inventive continuo realisations by harpsichordist Marcin Świątkiewicz that gave the work a rich sonority (as many would know, the continuo score only has a single bass line). He certainly matches Podger in skill and spirit.

The concert opened with some short songs of Francesca Caccini, performed by sweet-voiced mezzo soprano Ciara Hendrick. The madrigal Maria, dolce Maria was performed with intimacy and feeling with only theorbo accompaniment (Daniele Caminiti). The gamba (Reiko Ichise) and harpischord joined in the continuo in the canzonetta Fresche aurette (Cool breeze), a fast triple-metre song; the music bounced along lightly, capturing perfectly the breeziness expressed in the song.

An unusual feature of this concert, which Podger explained from the stage, was that the group had chosen to perform this programme on a low Baroque pitch of A=392, which meant that all the notes sounded a whole tone lower than the standard A=440 (the usual Baroque pitch is A=415). This may sound pedantic, but it’s actually quite physical, and my ears sensed the difference from the beginning because somehow the tension of the gut strings on Podger’s violin sounded lower than usual, resulting in a pleasant, relaxing sonority. Also noteworthy was that Świątkiewicz used two harpsichords in the programme, an Italian in the first half and a French one in the second half.

The featured female composer in the second half was Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, a Parisian composer who was admitted to the court of Louis XIV. I had been acquainted with her violin sonatas and harpsichord solo music, but the eye-opener here was her substantial solo cantata Les Sommeil d’Ulisse (Ulysses’ Slumber) which concluded the evening’s programme. It’s a dramatic and colourful tale of Ulysses being sent back to Ithaca despite the wrath of Neptune, and Jacquet de La Guerre vividly depicts the storms, the rough seas and then the gentle slumber music, with Rachel Brown making a guest appearance on the Baroque flute. It was like a scene from a French opera and Hendrick narrated the story with plenty of emotion and drama, while maintaining elegance and flowing sense of rhythm. The voice is light and agile, with a pleasing mid-range.

Instead of having an all female-composer programme, Podger inserted some music by Handel in the first half (selections from his German arias), and a Bach solo work in the second half. I felt the Handel songs mixed quite well into the music of the first half, but the Bach was very much a world of its own. Podger chose Bach’s D minor cello suite in a version transposed for violin. She has a way of bringing infectious enthusiasm and joy to anything she plays and this was indeed the case here too, but admittedly some movements worked better than others. The faster movements such as the Courante and Gigue were crisp and articulate, but in the Sarabande in particular, one couldn’t help missing the warm resonance of the cello.

Inevitably, throwing Bach’s music into a programme of female composers’ works risks overpowering their music, but on this occasion, Jacquet de La Guerre’s cantata that followed had enough weight and drama that it was her music that lingered in the mind as I made my way home.

****1