Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University
Thursday May 5, 2022
The name is Tasmanian but some of this ensemble’s personnel are off-islanders; not many of us, and only some of this group, have enjoyed the gift of moving away from the modern plague to a serene retreat in the uttermost south. Van Diemen’s Band is a mobile quantity with a wide number of musicians to call on; for this Musica Viva national tour, the numbers have been whittled down to a sextet – five strings and Donald Nicolson‘s harpsichord. As well as founder/artistic director/leader Julia Fredersorff, we heard violinist Simone Slattery, Katie Yap on viola, with two bass viols in Laura Vaughan and Anton Baba. Fredersdorff, Vaughan and Nicolson I know from their Latitude 37 excursions over the past 16 years; Yap and Baba have appeared in concerts and recitals under the auspices of the Australian Digital Concert Hall – that indispensable source of interest and income for so many local musicians over the past two years.
The Band attempted a parallel between conditions in Europe today with those that prevailed during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. Which almost worked as quite a few of those composers encountering troubles with borders/national frontiers four centuries ago appeared on the Van Diemen program – well, an exception was Philipp Heinrich Erlebach who wasn’t born until a decade after the long conflict ended. The others in the ‘Borderlands’ designated section of the program – Dietrich Becker, Samuel Scheidt, Jean de Sainte-Colombe – were alive at the time (the last-named still a child), although I’m not too clear about the difficulties and/or dangers that they experienced when moving from country to country. Becker didn’t move far during his lifetime, although the German states were hardly safe havens for artists; Scheidt spent most of his life in Halle; the little that is known about Sainte-Colombe suggests he didn’t move far from Paris, once he got there.
Only a few pieces didn’t involve the complete ensemble: Maria Huld Markan Sigfusdottir‘s Clockworking involved Fredersdorff, Yap, and Baba on cello; both gamba players worked through one of the night’s highlights in Sainte-Colombe’s Les Pleurs. As well, Slattery played recorder in a few pieces – a sopranino (?) in Scheidt’s Galliard Battaglia, a soprano In a Scheidt courant where she seemed to double the top violin line, and again the recorder dominated the latter part of the program’s finale: Spirals by harpsichordist Nicolson.
The group showed itself to be careful and poised in delivery across the length of Becker’s Sonata No. 5 in F Major. Not that there’s much to concern players at this level of expertise in a spare sonata da chiesa-style work, yet the output balance could not be faulted, nor individual linear contours. In short, an amiable sample of throat-clearing. Fredersdorff assembled a five-part ‘Borderlands Suite’ to exemplify her Thirty Years’ War parallel, beginning with Scheidt’s galliard that comprised trumpet calls imitating each other, the work going nowhere at a measured pace so that Slattery’s new timbre proved highly welcome. Becker’s Paduan gives all the initial running to the top line, Fredersdorff impressing with an effortless ease before her colleagues Slattery and Yap took up some of the burden.
As I’ve said, the gamba duet by Sainte-Colombe impressed for the even output of Vaughan and Baba, free of the intentional scratchiness and open-string reediness that seem to be compulsory among many interpreters of this composer and his pupil, Marais. In this version, the lines matched ideally in chords and interweaving passages of play to make a moving experience of this all-too-brief plaint. A clever contrast came with the Scheidt courant, which proved to be not as meanderingly fluent as many another dance in this form, yet suggestive of relief after tragedy. The suite concluded with the chaconne that concludes Erlebach’s Ouverture No. 2, notable for a staggered entry from everyone, which spiced up the original’s 8 variants on the descending-scale ground bass; nothing startling here but a laudably confident surge in play throughout.
Then the night’s first half concluded with an absolute gem splendidly performed: Albinoni’s Sonata II in C Major from the Op. 2 Sinfonia a 5. The opening Largo duet between Fredersdorff and Slattery with its stately dotted rhythm set the standard for a dynamically rich interpretation, during which all parties demonstrated a remarkable gift for playing softly without disappearing up an acoustic fundament. Another virtuoso turn from the violins distinguished the following Allegro, but then all five string lines collaborate here in a joyful mesh of interdependence that was as close to ideal as you would want. Further, the ensemble showed its mettle in the A minor Grave with a shower of ebbs and recedings in all lines, dominated by the two top lines with some eloquent statement/response work in bars 9 and 10, later going the other way in bars 13 and 14. The whole concluded with powerful, regular allegro that maintained an interpretative fluency that can often collapse when players are faced with lighter texture and rhythmic novelty. Here, the musicians stuck to their task with admirable integrity, so reaching a mark of high distinction with some of the best Baroque music-making I’ve heard for many years.
I moved to the back of the Conservatorium Theatre for the second part of the performance, which began with Muffat’s Sonata No. 1 from the Armonico Tributo of 1682; more of a suite, really, with allemandes, a gavotte, a minuet but a couple of graves and an appealingly level-headed allegro along the way. From further back in this excellent space, the Band’s breadth of timbre proved more apparent, and the performance style just as smooth-edged or finely bevelled as in the Albinoni, even if the music by the well-travelled French composer impressed as comparatively predictable.
Sigfusdottir’s work dates from 2013 and sets the string trio against an electronic tape, the two sound sources attempting to balance together. The Icelandic composer’s methodology offers a fusion of serious and popular, Baroque and rock – and the results here border on the inane with an overall plethora of perfect 4ths and 5ths in a fabric that moves slowly, if not ponderously. In aiming at giving us, as base matter, a pre-Industrial Revolution work-song, the composer’s offering sublimates a distinctive line to effects and the rocker’s stock-in-trade of numbing repetition. There’s not much to observe about the string trio’s rendition; I assume it fitted the bill because nothing disturbed the work’s glacial surface.
Some say the Sonata Jucunda was written by Biber; others attribute it to Schmelzer. Whatever the truth of it, the work has indubitable character with imitations of Turkish music not that far removed from Mozart’s rondo and the colourful flourishes in Il Seraglio, although the composer seemed to believe that Turkish music was played in unison or at the octave. At the same time, the progress of this extravaganza included some gypsy-indebted passages, especially some polished Zigeuner flourishes from Fredersdorff near the end.
Nicolson has used a Ukrainian song, Dusha moya pregreshnaya, as a thread through his short passacaglia, the melody appearing en clair when Slattery took up her recorder. The language is approachable and orthodox, and you can’t avoid the bandura/zither/balalaika suggestions that frame the work with the strings thrumming atmospherically in a product that stands as a lament for the Ukrainian people, faced with invasion originating from a moral leper. The Van Diemen musicians were playing to a sympathetic audience and enjoyed a warm response. Yet the piece avoids vulgarity and bathos through its skillful organization, simplicity of utterance and innate dignity. It seized the moment, yes, but it brought home the elevated principles underlying this occasion – honesty, charity, even (to my mind) defiance.