Saturday March 19
After a fair stretch of time working out of the Recital Centre’s Salon, this expert period music ensemble has moved its performance venue across Swanston Street Bridge to the Deakin Edge. One immediate advantage is that patrons now have unimpeded visual access to the group’s performance: they’re all exposed, head to toe. And, thanks to the space’s natural light, you can see the labour involved in the players’ work. Another incidental benefit is that the need for two sittings of the same program on the same day has disappeared and, by yesterday’s showing, La Compania has largely retained its audience.
A disadvantage comes in the Edge’s acoustic properties. While they can flatter a chamber orchestra, a small set of players like La Compania’s septet can become imbalanced, given the large air space. Worth investigating is the solution put into practice by Kathryn Selby which is a back screen of panels that bounces sound out into the audience; this reflection works very well for piano trio recitals and might do much to lift the audible profile of Victoria Watts on viola da gamba and Rosemary Hodgson’s vihuela and small guitar/chittarino, both of which tended to disappear in the sonic complex except when used percussively or when the wind components fell silent.
Opening the new season in a new room, Danny Lucin led his players and two singers in a program concentrated on Mateo Flecha the Elder, the early 16th century Aragonese composer attributed by some musicologists with the composition of that well-known Chistmas villancico, Riu riu. But this program consisted entirely of the composer’s ensaladas – salads indeed, mixing languages and metres in a cleverly unified whole; to my mind, more like a mixed grill because of the emphatic if changing rhythms and the clear melodic definition, some stimulated taste-buds removed from lettuce leaves and cucumber. Three of these involved singers, soprano Cristina Russo and tenor Timothy Reynolds: La negrina, La guerra and the substantial El fuego. Interwoven came three instrumental transcriptions: La bomba and two brief extracts from another ensalada, El jubilate: O que bonita cancion and La girigonca.
Pretty much all of these, sung or played, have a religious basis: some connected to the birth of Christ, others like La guerra concerned with the inevitable triumph of the Son of David over Lucifer or the necessity to follow the strait and narrow path rather than succumbing to the tempting fires, depicted in El fuego (of course), that can seduce mankind into wrong-doing in this temporal realm. All very laudable and, if you have to endure moral-enforcing strictures, they could hardly be more agreable than these buoyant and optimistic miscellanies, written for the Christmas-time delectation of Spanish aristocrats.
In this new operating ambience, Cristina Russo’s projection impressed more than the last time I heard her in the Salon. From the confident opening to La negrina, her projection emerged clearly from a considerate instrumental backing, a fair match for Reynolds’ always-lucid tenor. In fact, this ensalada offered the most obvious examples of internal variety, its parts glued together in a rapid-moving miscellany, while the later stages of La guerra held some cleverly constructed and just-long-enough onomatopoeic passages where the singers mimicked the sounds of battle. In addition, both Russo’s and Reynolds’ articulation in these instantly perceptible right-or-wrong conditions remained finished and accurate and their diction impressed consistently, given the rapidity with which several stretches of the texts had to be pronounced.
Lucin’s cornetto is as supple as ever, never strident but sinking to a gentle piano when escorting the singers, even if some of his ornamentation work sounded over-rushed; too many notes, as Mozart’s emperor said. When Brock Imison took up his bass dulcian, the instrument’s penetrating force gave the ensemble’s output an added weight, matching Mitchell Cross’s penetrating tenor dulcian while Glenn Bardwell’s sackbut presented a discreet line throughout the program. In fact, the streamlined shape of the company, with Christine Baker’s percussion offering plenty of colour in her chameleonic supporting role, gave this celebratory music an attractive leanness that only came unstuck at the start of O que bonita cancion which began with a solo from Hodgson that sounded tentative, possibly because the notes fell awkwardly for the player’s left hand. But it was a small blemish, forgotten when the other instrumentalists entered into this particularly enjoyable ensalada party.