THE WEAPONS OF RHETORIC
Verbrugghen Hall, Conservatorium of Music, New South Wales
Saturday June 11, 2022
The best moments of this Bach celebration came when the numbers performing were at their largest. Not that this is saying much because the Akademie doesn’t run to crowded stages, their emphasis being on a refinement of tone that can lead to tenuousness. But, of the six works or extracts programmed, those I enjoyed most were the ensemble’s version of the superb Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and the night’s finale – the Concerto for Two Violins BWV 1043. Both were chamber-proportioned with one instrument for the orchestral violins and viola line in the Double Concerto, and one instrument per line in the Brandenburg.
Laura Vaughan opened the recital with Sonata No. 2 in D Major for Viola da gamba and Harpsichord, Neal Peres Da Costa playing the keyboard. The opening Adagio set off alarm bells with an enunciative error hitting the string line as early as bar 7, but the actual progress of the movement was uneasy as the viola’s output proved uneven, dipping in and out of audibility while the harpsichord stayed omni-present. In the pendant Allegro, Vaughan had her hands full ensuring the accuracy of line, but her delivery lacked dynamic differentiation; admittedly hard to achieve when you eschew vibrato and have your hands full of semiquavers. Still, these pages relied largely on the harpsichord for bite and shape.
Patches of the eloquent Andante succeeded, mainly those parts where the harpsichord is responding to figured bass directions only, but the continued unevenness of the viol disappointed, especially in closely integrated segments where lines overlap and link motivically. As for the final Allegro, Vaughan seemed yet again hard pressed to get her notes out, let alone do anything with them. For this reason, much of the movement’s high spirits failed to fire, and scintillations like the quick bumps in bars 100, 102, 104 and especially from bar 106 through to the exhilaration of bar 110 preluding the return home, all failed to carry and to have their full effect.
To take us through the Ricercar a 6 from The Musical Offering, Akademie founder Madeleine Easton and Julia Fredersdorff played violins, Karina Schmitz and John Ma violas, Anthea Cottee cello, and Kirsty McCahon double bass. There’s no definitive instrumentation for this part (or much else) of this score, so this all-strings version works as well as most, although throughout its length I was inevitably reminded of Webern’s orchestration – a bad situation because I kept on mentally replacing the Akademie’s string lines with the Austrian composer’s imagined timbres. It wasn’t as though the players didn’t fulfil their roles, but the playing was rhythmically mechanical and the prevailing dynamic remained bland and colourless, even in moving passages like the touching cadence in bar 39.
Surprises like the exposed bass line from bar 66 to bar 72 was given as a gruff, uninflected grumble, and the written out top-line mordents in bar 93 simply didn’t carry. At the end, the last five bars in Webern’s version radiate jubilation and achievement, albeit with a small orchestra’s resources; this sextet maintained their chugging approach and brought about an unexceptional end to this magnificent structure. Fair’s fair: everyone stuck to their period-authentic guns and laid bare the architecture, but is that enough? To me, the effect was that of an exercise, one carried out half-cocked.
Solo violas (da braccio) for the Brandenburg 6 were Schmitz and Ma; Vaughan and Jenny Eriksson played violas da gamba; Cottee enjoyed the prominent cello line; McCahon’s double bass stood in for the original violone and Da Costa gave ample support with his cembalo/harpsichord. I’ve heard other performances that were more accurate and polished, but not another that proved as enjoyable and refreshing as this one.
What struck you straightaway was the relish with which all performers threw themselves into the ritornelli; each time a pivotal refrain came round, the players smiled – with delight, I assume, at the splendidly rich and powerful noise they were producing, as well as revelling in a music that tests but leaves room for delight. The top viola notes were occasionally wavering off-pitch, but in gthe first movement these glitches were few and far between after about bar 40. And the continuo homophony with those insistent bass chords under the twinning top lines proved emphatically compelling.
In the central not-too-much Adagio, you became more aware of the swelling and diminishing phrases employed by the two viola soloists; nothing overdone or swooping but giving the weaving lines some shape, not leaving them to survive unadorned, without attention. Alongside this, the employment of differing dynamic levels shone through, assisted by the silence of the gambas, and taken full advantage of by Cottee who broke into independence at bar 35 where she was relieved from her regular six-crotchets-a-bar stolidity. In similar vein to the first movement, the concluding Allegro was a delight, pretty close to an unqualified one. Once more, the musicians showed obvious pleasure in their individual work and their collegial results in this spirit-lifting dance. I relished the give-and-take manners of the three solo lines from Schmitz, Ma and Cottee, and the polished oomph of the returning ritornelli did great service to the composer – and that’s the best you can hope to witness at any concert.
After interval, Easton worked through the first two movements of the G minor Violin Sonata, an Adagio and Fugue. On first hearing, the first of these impressed as strained, a sequence of hurdles. Second time around, the reading seemed more coherent in every sense except rhythmic; in that, Easton is not alone as interpreters galore take their own sweet time and liberties over the movement’s passagework with its semiquavers, demi-semiquavers, and hemi-demi-semiquavers. Only a few violinists I’ve heard adhere to the letter of the metrical law and negotiate these flights in strict time; for most, Bach’s score is a palimpsest only, so bar lengths can expand and contract at will. Still, the part-writing was observed properly and only two articulation errors emerged from the mesh.
The fugue, familiar to many of us from the organ Prelude and Fugue BWV 539, was a more rigorous test aa the linear interplay intensified, the first danger sign coming at bar 11 where a few of the triple-stop chords failed to resonate properly. Later, top notes started to waver or not register securely. But the experience was something of a mixed bag; the written-out arpeggio passage work from bar 42 to bar 50 succeeded well enough, with a bit of interpolated dynamic juxtaposition, such as organists make by switching between manuals when playing the same material twice. But then, a pivotal top note to a bar 52 chord failed to sound. Bars 61 to 62 revealed pitch problems; bars 74 to 75 were near-disastrous; and even the single-note passages were not exactly fault-free. Something of a struggle for Easton, and for us.
The ten Riddle Canons from The Musical Offering present logistical problems for any performers, I suppose. There’s no worry about the actual notes, which are not difficult to negotiate. But it’s an organizational question, deciding who comes into the mix and where. To a large extent, these exercises are paper music, not really audience-attracting; but then, after this night, at least you can say you’ve heard them. Rather than entrust them all to Da Costa (who scored Canon 9 as a solo), Easton and her advisers used a mixed quintet: herself and Fredersdorff on violins, an anonymous flautist, Cottee’s cello, and the harpsichord.
And on they went; five duos, a trio, three quartets, and the aforementioned keyboard solo. Easton prefaced groups of canons with a few explanatory comments, mainly telling us the pieces’ names, their peculiarities, and their functions as indirect praise of the whole work’s pseudo-commissioner, Frederick the Great. The actual outlining of each canon raised no problems; everyone appeared to find their places in the simple labyrinths but, as with the Ricercar a 6, the experience proved bloodless, if formally satisfying.
Easton and Fredersdorff took the solo lines in the D minor Concerto for Two Violins, Schmitz changing her viola for a violin to give a tutti force to back Easton, while Fredersdorff scored the ripieno services of a young musician whose face I recognized but who wasn’t acknowledged in the program (like the Canons’ flautist) but whom I’ve seen in Australian Digital Concert Hall broadcasts like this one on at least one previous program. Ma gave us the viola line, while Cottee and McCahon supplemented Da Costa’s left hand.
This is a very familiar work and we’ve heard sterling performances over the years, my first experience being the old Deutsche Grammophon disc from the late 1950s of Oistrakh father and son with the Gewandhaus under Konwitschny. Our Easton/Fredersdorff pairing came across as well-matched, both displaying their own personalities with a slight edge in volatility on Easton’s part, her partner giving a more polished production. Again, the ensemble appeared happy in their work with a good deal of mutual appreciation signs and smiling acknowledgement of a well-turned line. Their opening Vivace was exceptional because of its light bounce, despite that reinforced bass, bowing lengths kept modest and the entire body sprightly in attack.
A substantiating instance of the soloists’ striking their own paths came up in the central Largo with the fine-pointed partnership that arises in bar 10, here an understated pleasure to the bar 15/16 cadence. Even better music-making followed with remarkably sensitive interplay up to bar 31; but the whole movement is an easy-flowing duet and, to a certain extent, plays itself into your affections. While the finale made a rousing conclusion to the program, its success rate was uneven. For instance, the sweeping double stops in both solo violins from bar 41 to bar 48 were accomplished with impressive grandeur; their recurrence between bars 127 and 134 failed to catch the same fire because of a lack of pitch accuracy. However, with Da Costa driving the assault, these pages as a composite unit brought this night to an invigorating conclusion.
I’ve not got much to say about the contributions of commentators Jonathan Biggins and Jonathan Horton who made intermittent attempts to bring the arts of rhetoric and music into line, thereby aiming for some justification regarding this concert’s title. Some of the speakers’ addresses were entertaining, if several details stretched the bounds of belief or truth, and Biggins moved into an unexpectedly Jesuit trope in his final Bach encomium. But a sustained shared thesis might have been more persuasive, especially one that had been well-researched and didn’t look so blatantly toward raising laughs.