Never before heard/seen/smelt/felt….
Plus ca change.Whether it’s the 1700s or the 2000s, we’re all suckers for novelty. The overseas star, the new commission, the next big thing. Even in the sometimes fusty arena of classical music, ensembles entice us to their concerts with tantalizing promises of something a bit different.
So when the Australian Brandenburg offers up a concert with no headline star, no gimmick, not even program details, just a promise of ‘blazing baroque’, it’s curiously unsettling. The music starts, soloists stroll on stage, in the middle of the music, we’ve never heard of half the composers, we clap at all the wrong moments… Is this deliberate obfuscation, to shake us out of our comfort zone?
Whatever the intention, it has the effect of bringing a fresh mind to the music. The racy clatter of a Sammartini (Giovanni or Guiseppe? Not sure) overture, the juicy textures and crunchy harmonies of a Vivaldi Concerto (which one — oh, y’know, just one of ’em), the pomp and thunder of Fasch (who he?), the poly-stylistic Telemann… Two hours of random baroquerie from those eighteenth-century workhorses who wrote music by the metre, day in, day out, for a pre-Spotify audience. And we’re there with them, listening avidly.
There is plenty to hear.
Vivaldi’s Concerto for several instruments in F major, RV 569, for instance, puts the spotlight on multiple soloists, all drawn from within the regular ensemble, including ludicrously difficult breaks for pairs of oboes and horns, for solo cello and bassoon, all led by a solo violin. Telemann’s Concerto for flute and recorder in E minor, (TWV42:e1) is exquisitely beautiful — those liquid lines entwining around each other — but it is also peculiarly fascinating, because of the closeness in timbre of the two solo instruments. Same but not quite same. Worth listening to really closely. And of all the works on this program, the final movement of this one delivers the biggest surprise, as the ensemble overcome the lead weight of a rustic drone, using it as a springboard into dance.
Two other highlights: Telemann’s Grand Concerto in D major (TWV deest), featuring a pair of baroque trumpets, played with thrilling edge and clarity; and, throughout, the leadership of the Brandenburg’s new concertmaster, Shaun Lee-Chen. Just his presence on stage seemed to amp up the energy of the ensemble. As for his solos, they were something else. Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin in D major ‘Grosso mogul’ (RV 208) is weird and wonderful, with a notated cadenza in the first movement which would make Paganini’s eyes water. Lee-Chen delivered it with mesmerizing pace, like a spontaneous flood of invincible virtuosity. Then, in the recitativo, he stepped it back, lingering over awkward suspensions, taking dangerous liberties with the line, to deliver something strange and beautiful.
The Brandenburg’s usual practice of building programs around visiting soloists is sound: it brings inspiring new voices and ideas to Australia. However, from the evidence of this concert, there is plenty of inspiration to be heard from within this fine ensemble. Leave your expectations and the door and just enjoy.