Full of the warm South

RICCARDO MINASI      ****

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

November 7-8, 2015

Saturday’s fine concert from Paul Dyer and his chamber orchestra was controlled by visiting virtuoso Riccardo Minasi, billed as the ‘fearless Italian Baroque violin’ – which is fine, if you have an apt attribution of what it is to be fearless.  For sure, Minasi bolts into action at the opening bar to every Allegro; in his negotiation of rapid semiquaver figuration, nothing stands in the way; even with mediocre material, he remains in full-throttle delivery mode, urging his Brandenburg colleagues to maintain their impetus.

Riccardo Minasi (image: brandenburg.com.au)

This style of performance is not exclusive to Minasi, but it is hard to find in many other period performances.  An outstanding instance of this approach first struck me when Il Giardino Armonico played their initial tour in Hamer Hall, a program in which machismo and individual flamboyance refreshed many well-worn pages.  Minasi operates with less flashiness but the results he brings out are similarly dust-free.  Mind you, the Brandenburgers have a head start in this style, as artistic director Dyer asks for the same clarity and vigour from his forces in every program that he himself leads.

Minasi compiled a set of nine works for his visit, all written by composers who flourished in Naples and who lived and flourished during that impossible-to-pin-down period of the Late Baroque.  Some of the names were familiar – Durante, Jommelli, Leonardo Leo; others were complete novelties, so much so that Dyer indicated that some of these scores by de Majo, Ragazzi, Manna and Fiorenza were possibly being heard outside Naples for the first time.  Arcane they might have been in provenance but their impact was continuously benign, the usual developmental tropes showing, and giving in to, the potential for shifting unexpectedly; Durante’s G minor Concerto No. 2 maintained this surprise element throughout its admittedly brief length.

Sharing the workload to some extent, Minasi brought members of the ABO strings to prominence in the evening’s second half with a 4-violin concerto by Leo in which he and guest concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen performed in duo-opposition to Matt Bruce and Ben Dollman,  The final Allegro to this remarkably appealing score produced the evening’s most brilliant playing, a style galant promenade loaded with compressed energy and delivered with a flawless sheen.  Much the same immediacy and elegance followed in a three-violin sinfonia by Nicola Fiorenza, Minasi and Dollman partnering Matt Greco in a small treasure, all too brief in its last three movements.

Other moments had their drawbacks.  Both horns and oboes were exposed in an E flat sinfonia by Gennaro Manna, the woodwind pitching noticeably off-centre in the work’s Trio; the brass were required to carry out some rapid trilling in this piece’s first movement which sounded laboured.  But then the program’s final offering, Jommelli’s Sinfonia from the oratorio La Betulia liberata found both oboes generating an excellent spritzig timbre while the sinfonia from Domenico Sarro’s Demofoonte remains in the memory for a series of sustained single-note crescendos from the horns, the string ferment riding the blast.

Minasi made a strong apologist for this neglected music from Naples which, like much of the South then as now, has always been denied a fair shake of the national parmesan cheese dispenser.   In this enterprise, he enjoyed unstinting support from the ABO musicians who played with a confidence and flair that reflected the character of their gifted, personable guest.