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MusicThe Berkshire Review in Australia

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra Led by Riccardo Minasi Plays Vivaldi, Zelenka, Sardelli, Fasch on Period Instruments

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Siobhan Stagg sings the Zelenka aria with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo: Steven Godbee.

City Recital, Angel Place, Sydney: 2 November 2011

Jan Dismas Zelenka
Sinfonia from the Serenata Il Diamante, ZWV 177
Aria “Qui piegate, qui posate” from Il Diamante, ZWV 177
Siobhan Stagg – soprano
Mikaela Oberg – baroque flute

Antonio Vivaldi
Concerto for flute “La Notte” opus 10 no. 2, RV 439
Melissa Farrow – baroque flute

Frederico Maria Sardelli
Cello Concerto in G minor
Jamie Hey – baroque cello

Johann Friedrich Fasch
Ouverture Grande in D major, FWV K:D8

Antonio Vivaldi
Violin concerto in E minor “Il Favorito”, RV 277

Riccardo Minasi – baroque violin and guest director

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra specializes in playing Baroque music on period instruments, though they often include earlier 16th and later 18th century music too, but for this program they have taken a cross section of late Baroque Italy and Germany selecting pieces all from the 1720’s and 1730’s (or in a similar style). They have also invited Roman violinist Riccardo Minasi to direct and conduct the orchestra with a program of interesting Vivaldi concerti as well as the much more obscure Jan Dismas Zelenka, who was only rediscovered around the middle of the last century, though his 300th birthday in 1979 passed without any celebration from the recording industry (according to Early Music). A Bohemian originally, Zelenka played double bass for the Dresden court orchestra, later composing for the royal chapel, then for a short while acting as Kapellmeister. The ABO plans to play a bit more of his music next year, a sample of his church music. They have also announced for their 2012 season Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in concert, which is wonderful news for Sydney operaphiles who now at least have three operas to look forward to next year — L’Orfeo, Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades with Ashkenazy and the Sydney Symphony and the Pinchgut company’s production in December. Baroque music, especially in the serious and exuberant way the ABO plays it, is lively, vigorous and sanguine but without violence or forcefulness. In this way Baroque music has much to teach humanity of the 21st Century.

Zelenka’s Sinfonia from the Serenata Il Diamante, written for a royal wedding, calls for a relatively full orchestra including two horns, flutes, oboes and bassoon as well as the full strings, so it was a good display of the capabilities of the orchestra and the guest conductor. They picked up beautifully the playful energy of the occasional music, the celebration of love; the very first note seemed to leap out loudly but not too abruptly. Mr Minasi’s judgement of the dynamics was spot on throughout, the instruments — all period with strongly contrasting voices rather than the continuous smoothness later symphonies often strove for — were balanced but played boldly, for example Mr Minasi gave the horns a fairly loose rein, letting them project out loudly and they neither dominated nor drowned out the others by virtue of their unique voice which stays within its niche in the orchestra. The bright texture of the stings and the soft texture of the flutes, oboes and bassoon remained audible. You could draw an analogy with complementary colors in painting. It is a remarkable coincidence how the baroque woodwinds’ warble, with the softness of the flutes and bassoon and the bright presence of the oboes, with the completely contrasting (though no less valid or desirable by being less beautiful) chattering horns, recall the magpies and Channel-billed Cuckoos respectively, which one hears around Sydney at the moment, singing and chattering as they teach their young to fly. The musicians, by Minasi conducting from his bow, also articulated their parts thoughtfully, their simultaneous phrasing of long and short arcs of melody fitting together naturally, and so the contrasting parts within the music came together into a conversational, vocal, complete whole. The pastoral sense of the music came through very strongly perhaps because of the sunny clarity of the orchestra’s style and timbre, and this pastoral sense adumbrated Venus’ aria at the end, which also finished the original Il Diamante.

The transition into the aria seemed smooth, with a short but well timed dramatic pause while Siobhan Stagg and Mikaela Oberg walked out, with an instrumental introduction leading into the singing. The poem is very simple, but very sweet and unsentimental and Ms Stagg sang her goddess in a soft unobtrusive style with attention to the words. The aria is a sort of duet with the flute and Ms Oberg was nearly as articulate despite her instrument’s inability to pronounce words. She also interwove her lines with the singer in a fine equilibrium, supporting the brighter edge of the human voice and complementing with the generally more mellifluous tone of the baroque flute, though for soft mellifluousness, Ms Stagg met the flute half way. In the faster second verse the words were a bit less clearly sung, but in the cadenza, sung solo a cappella, she sang with thoughtful, natural ornamentation (erring, if at all, on the side of too little) though showed her capacity for virtuosity from the few great jumps in pitch, the short trills and short cascades of faster notes, with one very loud climax.

Melissa Farrow plays the Vivaldi flute concerto. Photo: Steven Godbee.

Melissa Farrow played sensitively for her Vivaldi concerto. She had a good feeling for the odd, mystical quality of the music, whether the serene larghi or the mysterious rushing and flowing presti, here and there playing with the mystical quality of a snake charmer, recalling the deeper mythological aspect to the piece’s inspiration.

Frederico Maria Sardelli is a 20th (and 21st) century composer who makes music in the spirit of Vivaldi, to whose music and history he is devoted. I can certainly sympathize with the desire to compose in this genre, and his music is original and fresh, at least judging from this cello concerto. It hears its world première at this series of concerts, being commissioned by cellist Jamie Hey who studied in Australia and with Phoebe Carrai in Boston. The concerto follows a pattern which sounds somewhat like a classical sonata form with rapidly modulating developing passages following themes played in the orchestra and by the soloist. The solo cello part is fascinating and absorbing such that one almost forgets how technically demanding it is. It is also moving, especially the way Hey plays, really savoring the wonderful sounds of his cello and the dissonances in the music. He plays with intensity and vigor but unselfconsciously too, seeming to let off relaxedly extended strings of fast left hand finger work, with very natural rubato, and bowing some earthy growling notes without seeming to cause his instrument any pain. A second cello in the orchestra also plays an important part in the piece, here played by Anthea Cottee, the interweaving and tension and release of the two together creates great depth and lucidity.

Jamie Hey plays Sardelli's cello concerto. Photo: Steven Godbee.

The Fasch Ouverture Grande brought the full group of musicians back with woodwinds and horns. They didn’t shy away at all from the vigor of the music, playing it with great strength and power but completely without forcefulness. The horns in particular sounded very ready to come back onto the stage, even chomping at the bit, playing as in the Zelenka Sinfonia with wonderful unreserve and varying shades of timbre, perhaps at times sounding a little too loud under the brightish acoustics of the concert hall from towards the side of the stalls. The orchestra contrasted the different pieces of pan-european dance music with good judgement of dynamic and tempo changes and rational but well-felt phrasing.

The Vivaldi violin concerto in E minor finally showed how Riccardo Minasi plays solo. His technique is clearly excellent, the piece being horrendously difficult with amazing virtuosic passages. His violin had a sweet tone generally so didn’t push itself forward too much. The continuo, which I haven’t yet mentioned but this is valid for all the pieces in the program, grounded the piece nicely, but harpsichordist Paul Dyer, who usually conducts the ABO from the keyboard, played with an enthusiasm, even wit, with shining cascades of notes and strong bubbling chords which never crash but he fits his niche in the orchestra like a glove. It would be nice to hear him play some sonatas in recital sometime. Tommie Andersson’s theorbo playing contrasted in a satisfying way being mellow but well seasoned, relatively unpercussive. They, with a fine double bassist in Kirsty McCahon form a solid but well-sprung and textured core to the orchestra’s voice. Mr. Minasi for all his precision played movingly too, his style of phrasing rather Heiftizian, deliberate and collecting momentum rather gradually, with careful long phrasing with a clear mind to what’s coming in the music. Though he’s a bit of a comic, playing for an encore a few bars of a Johann Ludwig Bach piece after rehearsing the audience in the percussion part, he generously and more seriously played a second encore with his “favorite violin piece,” J. S. Bach’s last work in an orchestral arrangement, Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit.

Riccardo Minasi leads the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo: Steven Godbee.

About Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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