Presented by Festival Baroque Australia
Perth Town Hall
reviewed by Stuart Hille
Soloists: Sara Macliver (soprano), Catherine Jones (cello), Leanne Sullivan (baroque trumpet).
With: Julia Fredersdorff (violin), Giulia Panzeri (violin), Katherine Corecig (viola), Sophie Walker (cello), Tommie Andersson (theorbo), Stewart Smith (continuo).
photo credit- Frances Andrijch
To preface this critique of the Concerto Paradiso I’d like to draw upon an anecdote of an occasion during which I presented a pre-performance talk to one of the ABC’s ‘Mostly Mozart’ concerts. I wished to stress to the audience, Mozart’s uniqueness by comparing his Symphony no.38 (‘Prague’) to an orchestral suite by one of his contemporaries: Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, both of which we had heard in the previous concert. The suite was a benign, orderly affair and displayed the utmost in practicality or workmanship. It certainly wasn’t remarkable. Dittersdorf’s was a fashion-conscious, hermetically sealed world. A few seconds later, the ‘Prague’ began and immediately, as I recounted to the audience, the heavens suddenly opened and rays of genius pierced the mediocrity.
I mention this occasion for two reasons. The first of these relates to the fact that nearly all the items on the Concerto Paradiso program were, it their own ways, equivalents of Dittersdorf’s orchestral suite: innocuous, verging on a trifle dull but always very functional. Each composer had clear command of figured bass and contrapunctus – all a composer really needed in the era of the baroque. But there was one work – a Handel aria from ‘Alcina’ – that, like Mozart’s ‘Prague’ symphony, transported the listener to an entirely different world. It’s akin, I imagine, to casting a spell: we lean forward because we strain to catch every musical strand, we watch carefully in order not to miss a gesture, and our listening suddenly becomes far more acute and sensitive. And we then realise that the baroque period, like the classical, was hugely populated by functional and capable writers; but in every generation, or its equivalent, a creative beacon illuminates the minds of people, not simply entertains them.
The second reason relates to the way in which the performers respond to such an occurrence. Their reaction, it would seem, is entirely instinctive. In Handel’s aria, the featured soloists – Sara Macliver and Catherine Jones – answered in a fashion that was quite breath-taking in its sensitivity, poise and accuracy. Moreover, the small accompanying ensemble (including the omnipresent Stewart Smith) demonstrated beautifully balanced rapport. They picked up and embellished any small melodic gestures in an attempt to nurture the music even more. This rendition had the imprint of class and lambency. Macliver’s ability to just ‘touch’ high notes (the placement of which, I should add, lifts this piece out of the ordinary) was most gratifying because it seemed effortless.
Initially, one questioned the need for a solo cello but as soon as the rendition began, the reasoning became apparent. The cello has the capacity to not only combine with the soprano voice but also to extend its range. Again, this shows Handel thinking beyond rigid, set definitions used by his contemporaries. The piece isn’t a duet but an aria which is allowed to blossom in its registral breadth.
Catherine Jones was the very essence of baroque utilitarianism throughout the concert: at one moment she would become soloist (most notably in Vivaldi’s ‘Sonata no.6 in Bflat RV47’…a disappointing composition) and at another she would immediately join the accompanying ensemble. One assumes this was a common baroque practice. Requiring the musician to be as versatile as possible makes abundant financial and artistic sense.
Jones performs on a loaned Gagliano cello (1770) which has a richly honeyed and mellow timbre. In fact it is so creamy in tone that its voice can easily become obscured by other instruments. Indeed, there were a couple of areas in Leonardo Leo’s ‘Cello Concerto in Dminor’ when, despite the soloist’s obvious rapport with the instrument and her technical skill with baroque performance, her sound became engulfed by the general texture (which was very modest). Even the Perth Town Hall’s nicely balanced but ‘shiny’ acoustics couldn’t ameliorate a situation that is the result of an instrument that ‘speaks’ uniquely. This Gagliano cello is a true solo instrument in that it doesn’t like to share attention.
Having said that, it should be added quickly that Jones has all the indicators of considerable prominence. Her bowing is decisive, and her pitch and dynamic control are solid and reliable. Clearly, as her biographical details indicate, she has chosen the ‘niche’ of baroque performance. Her style and approach will become more rounded and her digital skill better sublimated as she continues to mature as an artist in this field. Given the nature of the instrument she plays, and taking into consideration her prowess, one feels she could be better assessed in a performance of one of the Bach solo cello suites. These works test a player’s artistry and skill at the ultimate level.
Another soloist featured on the program was baroque trumpeter Leanne Sullivan. A baroque trumpet is a natural (valveless) instrument used in period performance. One couldn’t tell whether Sullivan performed on a totally natural trumpet or on one of the slightly vented instruments. Whatever the case, she demonstrated, with only a couple of minor exceptions, fine ‘lip’ control (natural trumpets, reliant solely on the harmonic series, need to be literally ‘lipped’ into tune on certain partials).
When Sullivan had the opportunity, as she did in Torelli’s ‘Concerto in D’ and Cazzati’s ‘Sonata a 5 op.35 no.11’, to display her developing skills, she so clearly relished the moment. Hers is the sound which most readily evokes the grandeur and restraint of the baroque. Sullivan also showed her talent to blend with the voice (Sara Macliver) in Scarlatti’s ‘Mio Tesoro per te moro’ and ‘Rompe Sprezza’. Together, the two soloists displayed superlative concord, based on finely judged dynamic balance. Moreover, their interpretation was further enhanced by a lovely reciprocity with the continuo, cello and theorbo (Tommie Andersson). The final section was a true Alessandro Scarlatti quirk: so brief as to be finished before the mind has registered it has begun!
Mentioning the theorbo, one feels some regret the program couldn’t accommodate a work featuring lute solo. The theorbo (a large lute with a doubling of strings) is an accompanying instrument which, as Andersson sensitively revealed, serves its purpose beautifully in the gentle baroque fabric. But, given Andersson’s expertise, it seemed a pity not to be able to hear him as a featured solo artist. On this occasion that wasn’t to be but both Andersson and Smith, as they showed so consistently throughout the concert, gave every item solid and ever-sensitive harmonic bedrock.
Similarly, the other (primarily) accompanying instrumentalists show staunch harmonic support and neatly crafted interweaving. However, Julia Fredersdorff and Giulia Panzeri (violins) appeared to be particularly absorbed by constant tuning. One can hardly complain because their intention was purely musically based. Nevertheless, I can’t recall another concert where there was so much tuning up of strings prior to movements being preformed, baroque or otherwise. The custom almost became an addiction and soon included violist Katherine Corecig, cellist Sophie Walker and Andersson on the theorbo. This causes one to wonder if there is any clear evidence that feverish tuning was a common practice during the period. My guess would be that no such proof exists and that the procedure is more a result of our modern day preoccupation with precision. Even Ms Macliver felt it necessary to make a short aside to the audience to this effect. She was, after all, waiting for the frenetic buzz of tuning and re-tuning to be resolved, as was the audience, so she could begin singing!
Indeed, Macliver, after such a superb account of the Handel aria, deserved more than one of the bouquets handed out after the encore. As much as it was to every one of the musician’s credit, it was her gentle unfolding of the music that lifted this concert into a sphere above most. This program showed how the creative thinking of one genius can not only affect music history but it can also influence an entire concert’s complexion when placed in the context of his contemporaries.
Stuart Hille 2009.