BAROQUE IN BLOOM
Saturday November 20, 2021
It’s been years – well, over two – since I last heard the Australian Brandenburgers at work. Not that you could have expected more frequency, given the off-again, off-again nature of Australian concert-giving during our pandemic. Added to which, the organization would have put Brisbane excursions on the backburner when facing the shrinking possibility of getting on-stage in its home town. In our communal gap years, we’ve been offered some online scraps from specific orchestra members and two digital screenings, of which this program is the more recent.
Plenty of familiar faces emerged across the six constituents of this program which found the ABO mining one of its finest seams in Italian Baroque violin scores. Associate concertmaster Matthew Bruce has been a Brandenburg member almost since the beginning, as has guitarist/theorboist Tommie Andersson. Cellists Anthea Cottee and Rosemary Quinn are very familiar faces, as are violists Monique O’Dea and Marianne Yeomans. Some other participants have become familiar in different contexts, like Madeleine Easton from the Bach Akademie Australia, Matthew Greco from the Australian Haydn Ensemble and the Muffat Collective, Anton Baba from the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra.
Others were complete unknowns to me, like the violinists James Armstrong, Rafael Font, James Tarbotton and bass Bonita Williams, although this last I must have come across as she performed with both Orchestra Victoria and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra before settling into the Opera Australia pit in 2016. Whatever their provenance, the composite ensemble worked with fine rapport for most of this brief (35 minutes) program which comprised Marini’s Capriccio Per Sonare il Violino con tre corde a modo di Lira with Easton leading an elegantly contrived quartet; three of the ten concerti grossi in Giovanni Lorenzo Gregori’s Op. 2 set, a different concertmaster for each; Vivaldi’s C Major Sinfonia RV 116, Dyer directing with customary brio; and Corelli’s Ciacona Trio Sonata, the last of his Op. 2, with Tarbotton and Armstrong in excellent partnership.
Mind you, this broadcast was a fair while in arriving: it was recorded on September 24 in the Sydney Recital Hall. The program’s title was given substance by surrounding the performers with floral arrangements amounting to mini-jungles from some angles. Still, the entertainment had an appealing shape, moving from the solo spotlight on Easton for the Marini, through the exposed two Corelli violins, the exercise ending with exuberant full-blooded panache in the Vivaldi romp.
One of the delights of the Baroque is that room for improvisation or manipulation is wide; most of the performances we hear fulfil expectations because the scores are complete and set in stone, e.g. the St. Matthew Passion, The Four Seasons, Judas Maccabeus. Dyer and his band are quite prepared to take liberties, particularly with music that is all bare bones. For instance, the Marini Capriccio; the score I’ve come across is 53 bars long and heavy on unadorned chords at the opening, in the middle, and at the end. Easton opened with an unaccompanied solo, setting up her main interpretative model of arpeggiated three-part chords, before the continuo – Dyer on organ, Andersson on theorbo and Baba’s gamba – entered. From which point on, the interpretation followed Marini’s chord progressions faithfully in a reading that – quite -rightly – left all the running to Easton’s crystalline upper part.
For the one-movement Corelli sonata, the same three players provided the accompaniment, Dyer moving to a harpsichord, and each of them having a statement of the chaconne in turn before Tarbotton and Armstrong entered with flawlessly articulated and balanced interweaving lines. From both violinists, the style of address proved congruent, the dynamic changes calculated to a nicety and both sequences and canonic writing clean enough to sound as though one player was operating both instruments. All right: it’s not difficult music, not even when it switches in bar 17 to Allegro, but the piece requires finesse and empathy to carry off. Here was another example of music you don’t want to stop and, for a moment, I thought it wouldn’t when the soloists repeated their opening plangent Largo.
Then the ABO cohort presented the three Gregori works in a boxed set – Nos. 1, 2 and 5 with Greco, Bruce and Font serving as respective concertmasters. Of these, No. 1 in C Major and No. 5 in B minor were enjoying their Australian premieres; fine work, resurrecting some amiable material which could stand light comparison with the composer’s contemporaries Vivaldi and Corelli. All listed personnel except Baba took part in Gregori’s scores. In the outer two, the flower arrangements disappeared but the playing didn’t suffer; indeed, Greco’s control of the C Major work was exemplary for its restraint and sympathy. The rather ordinary melodic content enjoyed some relief with a sinuous solo from the leader in the central Adagio, the whole concerto enjoying several sparkling duets in its finale from Greco and Armstrong.
Bruce directed the No. 2 Concerto in D with just as much security as had Greco. After a bar or two of the opening Grave, Dyer took over with an extended harpsichord solo of high tedium – a series of arpeggios wandering around D Major for the most part and calling to mind the Brandenburg No. 5’s cadenza for no apparent reason. Maybe Gregori wrote it; possibly it was an add-on but to me this solo sounded out-of-character with everything else we heard. Its meandering path eventually led to a dominant pause and we entered the jolly, welcome Allegro. Bruce prepared us for the Adagio with a brief cadenza and closed up the movement with another one before the vivacious rush of Gregori’s Allegro finale which featured some more duets between Bruce and Greco, the latter leading the second violins who had changed position and faced Bruce and his firsts.
No. 5 in B minor was performed in a dark purple lighting to match its tonality, although Scriabin attached this shade to C sharp, investing B with blue. For this reading, some bass players had been moved but the two sets of violins still stood on opposing sides of the space; Dyer moved between organ and harpsichord, starting out at the former for the initial Largo, moving for the tuckets of the first Allegro, then back to the organ for the Adagio and staying there for the gigue-style finale. Leader Font kept his focus on the job in hand and showed an admirable mastery of piano dynamic in rapid-fire passages as well as rounding out the excellent duo playing – a prime feature in all three Gregori compositions – by his partnership with Greco in the concluding pages.
All too soon, we came to the Vivaldi sinfonia, which was all Dyer; well, there’s no show without Punch. For this, the harpsichord took centre stage, surrounded by flowers, with all other players (including Baba) standing/sitting in a circle around this floral fulcrum. A bracing allegro, in which everybody seemed to know exactly what they were about despite Dyer’s gesturing, came across with commendable crispness. Prior to the Andante, we were gifted another Dyer solo between the work’s bars 76 and 77, a further one at the movement’s halfway point at bar 90, and finally yet another leading into the last Allegro which was a triumph for the Brandenburgers’ precision and elan. Yes: it was C Major and moved only to the dominant and back, so it’s not as though people were grappling with demands on their left-hand technique. Still, it was a welcome chaser to an enjoyable half-hour and bracing to hear these strings performing close to their best.