Monday, December 1, 2014

In the shadow of Handel, prolific anthem composer Maurice Greene also wrote engaging proto-symphonies

Garry Clarke, director of Baroque Band
Light shed upon the environments in which major composers made their mark is always welcome. And that's what Chicago's Baroque Band, under the direction of Garry Clarke, has done with  the release of "Maurice Greene Overtures" (Cedille Records).

Greene (1696-1755) was a Londoner from cradle to grave, a friend of George Frideric Handel until a permanent breach between the two men intervened, and an organist whose muse was most often aroused to compose church anthems. According to Grove's Dictionary, Greene's posthumous reputation has been marred by the hostility of the two preeminent music historians of his day, John Hawkins and Charles Burney.

The Baroque Band's program consists  mainly of "Six Overtures in Seven Parts," multimovement pieces whose seven parts encompass strings, flute, oboe, and harpsichord. Filling out the new CD are three sets of harpsichord "lessons," performed by David Schrader, who is also the Baroque Band's harpsichordist, plus a couple of theatrically minded overtures — to St. Cecilia and to the opera "Phoebe."

The overtures often follow the French slow-fast format in their opening movements, marked by vigorous dotted rhythms that grab and hold the attention. The subsequent layout of movements, totaling three or four, is a distant precursor to the symphony, but without the fast-slow-fast balance, cumulative weight, and "narrative" sense that Haydn was to develop. The music resembles the instrumental suite, though particular dance forms are rarely the model.

Greene liked to mimic fugal structure with staggered entrances, but without following through formally. Sprightly rhythms and harmonic restlessness lend a feeling of novelty to music that inevitably reminds the listener of Handel. The tunes are often engaging and never dawdle, even for the sake of the repeats one might expect.  Their settings have a lightly contrapuntal transparency that Greene's flashes of genius never cloud.

The Overture to St. Cecilia concludes the disc handsomely, with a public flair that recalls the Great Saxon who influenced English music indelibly throughout the 18th century. Nestled among the overtures, the worthy academic sets that Schrader presents are somewhat less engaging, but must have been useful as teaching and salon pieces in London musical circles.

The performances are brightly recorded, with Schrader's harpsichord conspicuously binding everything together texturally. Clarke elicits a winning dynamic variety and alert articulation from the Baroque Band.