THE SINGING VIOLIN
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Tuesday August 8, 2017
I managed to catch the Russian violinist/countertenor at his final tour date with the ABO in Brisbane. An agreeable experience early in the night as South Brisbane train station is almost inside the foyer of QPAC; getting back to Burleigh Heads with parts of the line closed for repairs proved not so easy – a half-hour longer than the concert itself – but Sinkovsky was worth the effort. Also, hearing something worthwhile in the city’s premier music venue after a large number of years made me even more appreciative of the acoustic clarity found in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
The last time I was in QPAC, during one of the first Brisbane Festivals, the musical diet included Lorin Maazel conducting Mahler and a concert performance of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. I believe the hall has been remodelled since then; it certainly seems to be narrower and – an increasingly common characteristic of fashionable ambience in these times – darker. Furthermore, performers have plenty of air space to fill and, while this venue might not be as broad in the beam as Hamer Hall, it is just as unfortunate for chamber ensembles. While the ABO presents a champagne-crisp sound in Melbourne’s Recital Centre, the Brisbane acoustic is stodgy by comparison.
For its program, the orchestra played seven works, four of them involving Sinkovsky as directing soloist: concertos by Telemann, Leclair, Locatelli and Vivaldi – Baroque material well-suited to show the Brandenburgers at their best. As punctuation marks, artistic director Paul Dyer headed a ciaconna from a four-violin concerto by Jacques Aubert, a concerto for two horns by Vivaldi, and the second-last of the six Introduttioni teatrali by Locatelli – all consistent with and complementary to the evening’s central components.
Without any prefatory spiel from Dyer, the Brandenburg strings launched into the Aubert chaconne which gave some of the ensemble’s main players a battery of solos, none more so than concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen who handled some rapid-fire passages with confidence. As you’d expect, the piece is top-heavy in texture and activity but made for a well-judged warm-up, the players generating animation in an atmosphere that made them sound uncharacteristically soupy. Nevertheless, Dyer invested the plain notes with personality, particularly in his attention-grabbing final bars.
Appearing first in Telemann’s per Signor Pisendel Violin Concerto in B flat, Sinkovsky demonstrated his finely spun line during an excellent initial largo, soaring over three levels of accompaniment. In fact, as the night moved forward, you realised that this player worked best in long lyrical solos rather than in crackling fast allegro or vivace movements. The key lay in the concert’s title: his instrumental voice impresses most when it gets the opportunity to sing, much more so than when fluttering through barrages of semiquaver patterns. In this Telemann, details of the solo line got lost in the fierce drive of the second movement where the orchestra attracted attention for the alternating dynamic juxtapositions of their tutti outbursts. In the end, the work itself impressed more for its interesting content, especially Telemann’s modulation shifts, than for the demands required of its soloist,
Dyer and Sinkovsky followed an initiative shown in the preceding Aubert by introducing surprises in attack and dynamic contrasts, deliberately slowing down the relentless chugging drive and attenuating the predictable composite texture before launching back into a hefty ritornello. The reading proved very entertaining and well-prepared but I’m afraid the promised technical obstacle course seemed fairly run-of-the-mill stuff and a long way short of the electrifying experience projected by the fulsome program notes.
Daryl Poulsen and Doree Dixon played the requisite solos for that double horn Vivaldi concerto. Both players used crooked instruments, I believe – which has the fine effect of giving you the correct, authentic period sound but tests the executants pretty sorely. The opening allegro made for hard labour, even in the movement’s unremarkable chains of F Major trills and arpeggios. Vivaldi’s intermediate largo comprised a duet for Tommie Andersson‘s theorbo and Jamie Hey‘s cello in which the latter enjoyed all the attention. The finale again tested both soloists who were, I think, inconvenienced anyway by the over-rapid tempo in both faster movements. As with a fair few essays at projecting an original-instruments sound, you wonder about the point of it all if the results are not clear and exact, even more so when the actual music is uninteresting, as this was; filler, even by Telemann’s standards.
Leclair’s D Major Violin Concerto from the composer’s Op. 7 set of six gave Sinkovsky a more flattering landscape to work in, thanks to its fine combination of challenging content and pointed showmanship. Yet again, the soloist appeared most impressive in the central adagio where his shapely outlining of Leclair’s melodic chain made for one of this concert’s finer moments. I wasn’t over-enamoured with the orchestra’s approach, in particular the ducks-and-drakes games carried out on the tempos and dynamics. This rather arch and contrived interpretation smacked of over-drawing an interpretative floridity that Sinkovsky himself entertained in the finale’s concluding solo flurries alongside an accelerando that I couldn’t see adding much to the work’s effectiveness. It would have been better to leave the score to make its own points without infusing it with an overdose of Sydney-tinctured cosmetics.
The evening’s second half began with an address from Dyer, postponed from the night’s opening and none the more welcome for its banality and irrelevance. With relief, we turned to Locatelli’s E flat Major Concerto Grosso with the suggestive nickname of Il pianto d’Arianna: six movements, including a multi-partite first one, all tracing the various emotional moods of the Cretan princess left behind on Naxos by her innately careless/ thoughtless lover Theseus. The composer covers a lot of territory, the most moving section a non-vibrato grave at the work’s heart which eschews the soloist’s services. You could find fault with several over-pregnant pauses that peppered the concluding largo but Sinkovsky brought into play some moving, soft melismatic lyricism during the earlier movements, enough to raise admiration for his powers of judgement and articulation.
The slight Locatelli Introduction proved to be a lot of fuss over very little, Dyer indulging in a welter of attention-grabbing jumping up and down from his harpsichord for furious direction of the bleedingly obvious across three movements of frippery living up to its titular description, the best part of the construct a central trio for violin, viola and cello.
To conclude, Sinkovsky led Vivaldi’s Il favorito Violin Concerto in E minor where the opening movement enjoyed a bit of retooling when the emphatic arpeggio main figure and its consequent development gave way to a sudden change in approach that slowed to unexpurgated languor so that Sinkovsky could give free exercise to the ornate solo decoration; understandable but rather jarring given the movement’s structural context. Using the upper strings only, Vivaldi constructed an elegant central andante without theatrics but a captivating sequence of effects to display the soloist’s flexibility and pitching precision – right up Sinkovsky’s artistic alley.
The Russian-born violinist is a highly talented musician, expert in this music and technically assured in his execution of it. For all that, his performance personality is some shades less flamboyant than you’d expect. Of course, he can handle the rapid-fire ornamentation and seamless bars of vaulting passage work that much of this night’s music contained. Yet he’s not a performer who shows at his best in flamboyant gestures or casting aside caution. I’d like to hear him again (which is more than I can say of most performers) but in a different context; possibly in a smaller ensemble and playing trio sonatas rather than concertos.
Nevertheless, the Brisbane audience should have been gratified by most of this evening’s performances and the ABO’s unfailingly enthusiastic commitment to their work.