Bach with a bit of bite

BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Saturday March 9

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                                                                   Melissa Farrow 

What I heard of this concert was pretty impressive – but wouldn’t you expect that to be the case?   Paul Dyer nailed his ensemble’s colours to a specific mast 30 years ago when he established the ABO and we’ve had a bit of proof over the decades since that his musicians have expertise with the six phenomenal concertos that Bach put together as one of history’s most remarkable job applications.

On Saturday, the Brandenburgers, interleaving with a cluster of guests experienced in period performance, worked through all of the concertos bar one – and, sad to say, that was a part of the sequence that I was anticipating with delight: No. 2 with the four soloists including a brilliant, high trumpet.  To be honest, to hear it I would have sacrificed either the D Major No. 5 or the over-exercised No. 3 in G which has become a chamber orchestra cliche and all too often turns to stodge as its inbuilt chiaroscuro goes by the board.

Still, ABO regulars turned out in force for the first of the usual brace of Melbourne series performances and liked everything on the agenda without revealing much discrimination,  applauding the first movement of the D Major concerto as a salute to Paul Dyer’s negotiation of the famous cadenza – even if his rendition was far from cleanly accomplished with many two-notes-for-the-price-of-one splices in the right-hand work.  But then, the ABO’s artistic director had given himself a demanding schedule,  providing the continuo keyboard for everything else on show.

Yet there was a lot to like.   Brandenburg No. 4 started us off with plenty of verve, Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg excellently balanced and clean-speaking in the flute a bec roles, concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen a chameleonic character with some introduced pauses in the interrupted solo that lasts from bar 81 to bar 124, but you could  not cavil at his skirling demisemiquaver virtuosity between bars 187 and 208 and his headlong attack on the heart-stopping flight in the fugal finale where the violin has centre-stage for 26 furiously active measures.  As a welcome contrast, both recorders wound an untroubled way through the placid central Andante and its piano/forte alternations.

We all have a favourite Brandenburg, and mine is No. 6, probably for its earthy texture of two dominant violas and the superb thick-withied interlocking that Bach made of their parts.   Monique O’Dea and (I think: none of the solo/exposed musicians was identified) Marianne Yeomans began the first movement with excellent rapport and projection, the hefty port-flavoured timbre sustained with few signs of the violist’s weakness – an occasional note slightly off-centre.  There is little to distract from the two top lines outside the tuttis, apart from a sporadic outburst or six from the cello; in this instance, the ABO’s hard-worked Jamie Hey, who also enjoyed a couple of bars in the sun at the end of the Adagio.

But the best, as at Cana, was left till last with a buoyant account of the syncopation-rich Allegro-finale which managed to combine weight and bounce.  Here also, Hey joined in the contrapuntal interplay at two points, deserting his continuo-homophonious  companions: the dual gambas of Laura Vaughan and Anton Baba, Rob Nairn’s bass and Dyer’s harpsichord.   But the focus remained on the spiralling violas whose attack – in canon, in echo, in unison – showed no signs of faltering.   It might not have been the most polished duet work you’d have heard (that appears almost exclusively on recordings), yet it  served as a welcome reminder of the composer’s consummate, infallible craft even when he bends the rules.

Dyer dominated the reading of No. 5, as is only to be expected.   His partners – violin Ben Dollman and Farrow – showed a well-balanced emotional range in the trio-sonata Affettuoso while displaying a well-rounded athleticism in the outer movements, notably a strong version of the last movement with its relieving segments of abrupt exposure for the three soloists.   The concerto is properly regarded as a Baroque high-watermark and, the blips aside, the ABO turned in a brisk performance that emphasized the score’s driving sinewy energy with an episodic surprise around every page-turn.

While I cut out on the concluding No. 3  –  the concert ran over-time, as we were warned it could do, but my transport waits for no man  –  the chance to hear live its program predecessor, No. 1 in F, was one of the chief attractions of the whole exercise.

It’s not that you want to hear the horns misfire in the first two Allegri or the work’s last Trio but it somehow always happens in the concert hall, particularly when the instruments are Baroque/natural and so use crooks.  On this night, Michael Dixon and Doree Dixon made few intonational errors (none, I believe, in the first movement) but these pockmarked the surface of the third movement and  flew up to rattle the listener in that infamous trio involving horns and the three oboes in unison.

Such blemishes apart, this proved a satisfying experience with reassuring input from the woodwind trio – Christopher Palameta, Kirsten Barry, Kailen Cresp – and the ever-reliable bassoon of Brock Imison from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, with ABO associate concertmaster Ben Bruce adding spice with a piccolo violin which hardly emerges from the ruck in the opening movement, is rarely silent in the succeeding Adagio, then enjoys some energetic bursts in the 6/8 Allegro – moments that Bruce took every opportunity to emphasize.

Not for the first time on this night, I found the ABO string corps in fine shape: well-prepared for the abrupt pianoforte changes, with a clean finish to their phrases, especially from the violin camps, finely attuned to Dyer’s performance style – so much so that there was little reason for his semi-conducting efforts during this work which seemed to run itself, as each of the preceding four works had managed to do with minimal gestures from anybody.

At the end, quite a bit to remember with pleasure came from this exhibition of music-making from a band that has identified itself with these masterworks.   Our two Melbourne appearances came at the end of a 7-performance run in Sydney and you’d guess that the standard by this stage is as high as possible.   In fact, Dyer and his charges could take plenty of satisfaction from their efforts which exemplified the period orchestra’s best practice: a central body on song and a collection of character-rich soloists.  Now, just as we’re waiting for Sir Andrew Davis to lead the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra through the large Symphony No. 8 to complete his Mahler cycle before leaving us bereft, so we can expect – somewhere along the line – an outing for the Brandenburg No. 2.    But not this year, it seems.