Sounds heard are sweet

QUEEN OF THE NILE

Sofia Troncoso and Camerata

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Thursday November 12

Sofia Troncoso

Here we are: back in the concert hall – not many of us, but enough to suggest that a corner has been turned. Will we get back to the ‘proper’ order of things and revert to valuing the packed-house syndrome as an indicator of success? Probably. but I suspect that any turning back to the way we were will take longer in the major cities because there’s so much to lose if something goes wrong. You could go the way of self-assurance and propose that people who attend serious music concerts and recitals are, by definition, non-COVID 19 carriers. But the virus is – as we have seen – indiscriminate and, although I may not be sweating and gasping all over you (as I would at a rave), there’s no confidence to be placed in an honest face – not these days.

Despite the ever-present risk, Musica Viva presented this Reconnect Brisbane program featuring the Camerata chamber orchestra in eight works from the Baroque or close to it. Chief soloist, soprano Sofia Troncoso, worked through three arias connected with the night’s Cleopatran theme, but the rest of the content had little to do with Egypt, the glaring exception being a sinfonia from Hasse’s opera Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra. Relieved by some short pieces by Locke, and Biber (the inevitable Battalia), the evening’s major work was a Pisendel violin concerto, with Camerata’s artistic director Brendan Joyce as soloist.

I couldn’t see what was the state of play in the stalls, but there were meagre numbers up in the balcony of the QPAC Concert Hall. We were well-spaced out, mainly in clusters of two – but it seemed that many Musica Viva patrons were not yet willing to take the plunge and come out to a recital/concert. The auditorium’s side boxes radiating down from the balcony were pretty much empty and the ambience upstairs could charitably be called ‘quiet’.

I was sitting in the last occupied row, I think, and have to confess that the acoustic properties were lousy in this position. For a body like Camerata, which is not a dynamically volatile body like the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the travelling power of their group product seems poor. But then, this room – its slight fan, its high roof, its plush seating and carpet – is not an ideal venue for transmitting performances rich in detail. For a Brahms symphony, a big Mahler, the Gurrelieder: fine. But my forebodings started when a chest of viols (2 violins, a viola, a cello, a bass and harpsichord) played the Curtain Tune from Locke’s music for The Tempest – which is the composer’s restrained musical depiction of the sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not, punctuated by some intimations of Restoration storms. As far as I can tell from the score, a certain amount of repetition went on; no problem, and I’m sure it was common practice in the composer’s day while scenery was being hoisted into place. This reading proved to be plangent and restrained, lacking much bite from where I heard it and making you wish for a more aggressive approach that a group like the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra beings to this genre of composition.

Joyce then outlined the order of proceedings and led the full Camerata body – five each of first and second violins, four violas, three cellos and a double bass, with that harpsichord continuo – into Hasse’s Spiritoso e staccatoAllegroStaccato triptych which made a fine impression for its smooth unanimity of attack, but the quality of sound came up as wooly and without bite.

Troncoso gave an amiable account of Cleopatra’s last aria, Da tempeste, from Act 3 of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. In the lower reaches of this piece, her voice melded into the strings all too readily. As it progressed, you could tell that all the fioriture was there but it proved uninvolving, particularly in the exposed middle section from bars 85 to 94. The highest notes required – A and G sharp – came over well enough in semiquaver patterns, not so well as individual quavers.

The Concerto grosso No. 7 in G Major from the Op. 7 set of twelve by Giuseppe Valentini made a novelty of sorts. In his program briefing, Joyce wondered why this writer’s name was not as familiar as those of Vivaldi or Corelli. Well, it might have something to do with melodic originality and a facility of expression that didn’t show so much debt to formulae. Certainly the score had elegance and the Camerata gave it their best, but the five movements – Grave, Fuga, Adagio, Vivace and Allegro assai – proved unexceptional, apart from the last which featured some unexpected modulations.

Joyce’s violin added a pliancy to the slow opening, while some predictable suspensions and close-order chording gave the Fuga membership of many another similar work. The slow movement didn’t extend very far, despite the introduction of ornaments; the following lively-paced pages brought into play some welcome subdued hugger-mugger action. But the finale, along with those key-changes, also held a more visceral attraction with much crescendo/diminuendo work and a deft juxtaposition of forte and piano passages.

Cleopatra’s Piangero comes earlier in Act 3 of Handel’s opera than Da tempeste and has become well-known here since Opera Australia mounted the work to showcase the Baroque talents of Yvonne Kenny and the trio of counter-tenors in the company’s ranks some decades ago. Here, even without the original’s flute, Troncoso sounded more persuasive with an admirable ability in communicating controlled passion, alongside an added benefit in having more room to gauge a smoother level of production. The central Ma poi morta strophes succeeded pretty well despite an unfortunate top note (scored or introduced, I couldn’t tell) and even if the semiquaver runs might have been less stolid. In this piece, the Camerata players showed the singer every consideration; even I could hear each note of the outer segments to this aria.

Matters didn’t get off to a good start with the Pisendel concerto because I somehow was labouring under the false expectation that the piece was in G Major; it was actually in D . Then the only violin concertos I could find by this composer in that key required oboes or oboes plus horns. Whatever the case, my resources for this were dissatisfyingly small. A short interlude for three solo violins (with harpsichord) in mid-Movement 1 made for a welcome timbral oasis, and Joyce’s solo line came powering up with excellent clarity. Once again, you would have liked more energy in attack; this is the sort of work that Il Giardino Armonico throws off with flamboyance and – when I last saw them – something like musical machismo. It might have made more of an impression if the Camerata’s treatment had been less polite.

An Andante followed period tropes, invested with a walking-pace melancholy and more opportunities for Joyce to shine in a few outbreaks between unexciting ritornelli. The 6/8 finale began with an infectious sweep that didn’t sustain itself; no fault of the Camerata but more Pisendel’s contentment with note-spinning. Speaking of which, the soloist was put to hard labour in this substantial movement which every so often impressed for its verve. Eventually, the work ended in about nine bars of unison/octave work that seemed rather threadbare after the triad-rich if orthodox harmony at play during the preceding pages.

Biber’s descriptive scraps never fail to entertain, but I was a tad concerned that this audience was going to applaud every movement. That trend came to a stop after Die liederliche gsellschafft von allerley Humor where the composer goes in for bi- or tri-tonality; a little touch of Ives in the night. I think most of the standing players did a bit of in-place marching during the violin/double bass Der Mars duet, which brought up memories of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s penchant for percussive footwork when performing Veress’s Transylvanian Dances. Still, this Battle is an easy accomplishment; nothing lasts too long and the scenes roll past – except for the final Lamento der Verwundeten which the Camerata dispatched with an admirable lack of maudlin self-indulgence. War is hell: get over it, as the former Cretin-in-Chief could have told you.

Troncoso ended the program with a stop-start aria from Vivaldi’s Il tigrane. Well, we say Vivaldi but he wrote only Act Two of this work; the outer acts by different composers have not survived. Squarciami pure il seno is sung by Cleopatra and is a fast-slow piece where the two tempi sit side by side rather than being confined to one or other of the work’s three segments. Here, Troncoso showed very willing in crossing between the schizophrenic Egyptian queen’s juxtaposed temperaments with an appealing limpid quality in the Lento interpolations.

An odd work, but taxing in its emotional vaults rather than in vocal technique. You could say the same about pretty much everything else we heard, apart from the violin concerto. In fact, the program mirrored the night itself in being not too hot, not too cold, not high-flying and not particularly popular in content. Rather, we eased back into going out to hear music. For all that, I’m not convinced that this is the venue that suits Camerata when working in this genre. The whole thing recalled those years when Melbourne Musica Viva presented its season in Hamer Hall; we got used to it over time but only realised what we’d put up with after the Recital Hall’s opening. I expect that there are buildings with a less booming acoustic around Brisbane and am looking forward to hearing Camerata in one of them some time soon.