Venetian Carnival with the Wallfisch Band – Wellington

Eizabeth Wallfisch (violin), director / Raquel Massadas (viola) / Jaap ter Linden (‘cello) / Albert-Jan Roelofs (harpsichord)


Miranda Hutton, Kate Goodbehere, Shelley Wilkinson, Lara Hall, James Andrewes (violins) / Fiona Haughton (viola) / Emma Goodbehere (‘cello) / Rchard Hardie (double-bass)

LOCATELLI – Concerto in F Op.4 No.8 (à immatatione de Corni da Caccia) / Concerto in F for 4 violins and strings Op.4 No.12 / Concerto Grosso in E-flat Op.7 No.6 (Il pianto d’Arianna) / Concerto in D for violin and strings Op.3 No.1

VIVALDI – Concerto in D for 2 violins and 2 ‘cellos RV564 / Concerto in A Minor for violin and strings RV356 (L’estro armonico) / Concerto in A for 2 violins and strings RV519

Wellington Town Hall

Thursday 20th May 2010

Elizabeth Wallfisch is one of the great “characters” of early music performance world-wide, as her inspirational skills, enthusiasm, and down-to-earth sense of fun as a performer amply demonstrated in the Wallfisch Band’s recent Wellington Town Hall concert. This was no ordinary event featuring a standard “touring ensemble”, but the most recent in a series of projects by the Band, the idea for which was begun by Wallfisch in 2008. This was to bring together a core group of skilled seasoned performers and a number of promising younger players as a kind of “living masterclass” experience for the young musicians involving a number of concert performances by the ensemble as part of the experience.

The results were astonishing, the young New Zealanders responding to the challenge of matching the technical excellences and musicianship of the experienced players with well-founded poise and confidence, and in places, heart-warming élan. Under these circumstances the playing naturally lacked in places the seamless technical polish of crack professional ensembles; but there was not a jot of routine or an unmotivated gesture in the music-making throughout the evening. And moulding everything together with the strength of her leadership and warmth of her personality was the remarkable Elisabeth Wallfisch, a wonderfully star-spangled presence in tight-fitting trousers whose silvery scintillations probably drew as much audience attention as did her remarkable playing, an effect heightened by the player’s standing throughout and frequently moving across the platform to a microphone to talk to her audience (as a result of these uncharacteristic extra-musical musings, I look forward to the reproving “Letters to the Editor”!).

Speaking about the Band’s “masterclass” arrangement, Wallfisch had nothing but praise for the young players in the ensemble, on the face of things a somewhat predictable tribute, but one which her straight-from-the-shoulder manner, and the subsequent performances richly upheld. She said at one point, “We worked them hard!”, and I’ve no doubt that the musicians in question would have experienced, both individually and corporally, a unique kind of enrichment by association that no amount of conventional teaching could have approached.

To the uninitiated, the concert’s programme might have seemed on the face of it to be made up of pleasant but somewhat unvaried fare – all strings for one, and each work possibly difficult to distinguish from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concerti. However, Elizabeth Wallfisch set the scene for the distinctive qualities of the concert’s first item, by Pietro Locatelli, describing the opening as depicting “the mist rising over the lagoon”. The group beautifully built up layers of tone and impulses of animation as the music did its work of steeping our sensibilities in the glory that was, and still is, Venice. Further, more vigorous episodes found the players emphasizing an engaging out-of-doors flavour, with slashing szforzandi and vigorous attack suggesting rustic pursuits such as horse-riding and hunting. So, on the face of it, very like the “Four Seasons” concerti, one could say, except that Locatelli’s compositional style seemed more volatile and narrative-based than Vivaldi’s – less “pure” as music, but more anecdotal and unpredictable. As the group alternated Locatelli’s and Vivaldi’s works throughout the concert, one had the opportunity to instantly compare the two varied compositional methods.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Two ‘Cellos which followed featured plenty of melismatic duo work between the “pairs” of instruments. The violins’ articulation seemed almost a blur at the rapid speed set by the leader, an effect which the composer presumably wanted! The interplay between solo instruments was filled throughout with effects such as echo and canonic imitation, the duo pairings seeming to hunt as such to give each other support. Another concerto featuring four soloists was Locatelli’s for four violins Op.4 No.12, a work described by Elizabeth Wallfisch as “an acrobatic concerto of danger and excitement”, and one which certainly lived up to its description, most notably in the finale, with its rapid phrase-passing from instrument to instrument. Though the articulation was occasionally uneven between the players in the most quick-fire exchanges, the spirit never flagged, and the timbral differences between instruments, laid bare by such an exercise, were fascinating to register.

Such was the overall bonhomie of the occasion, that Elizabeth Wallfisch’s repeated attempts to sound the top note of one of her opening phrases in the Vivaldi A Minor concerto from “L’Estro Armonico” which followed met with great amusement and interest from the audience. I notoiced that Wallfisch’s tone, though largely vibrato-less, remained warm and pliable throughout this work, a sound somewhat removed from the steely, bloodless pin-pointed lines one finds on most recordings of baroque string instruments these days, a playing-style I confess I find it almost impossible to abide, “authentic” or no.

The Locatelli Concerto Op.7 No.6 that immediately followed the interval was a depiction in music of the Greek myth of “Ariadne on Naxos” – Wallfisch told us the music would depict calm seas turning tempestuous, deep lamentations as Ariadne is abandoned, and a tragic ending. Certainly the music’s descriptive and narrative capacities rivalled any such sequence in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, the playing by the ensemble making the most of the composer’s penchant for richly-wrought narrative textures. As cautioned, we were ready for the work’s conclusion when it came, a heart-rending single, rapt, long-held note gradually merging with a pitiless silence. After that we needed something a bit more ebullient, and Vivaldi came to our rescue with his Op.3 No.5 Concerto for Two Violins, with its brilliant, varied interchange between the soloists, the music’s volatility suggesting that Vivaldi could occasionally sound like Locatelli.. This was so brilliantly brought off that the group chose to encore the finale at the end of the concert.

But it was Locatelli who brought the scheduled music-making to its conclusion with his Op.3 No.2 Violin Concerto, Elizabeth Wallfisch making the point before this work was played that the composer had a reputation for a certain roughness of manner as a player, and that he tended to wear out his bowstrings before anybody else. It may have been due to tiredness that Wallfisch had a couple of intonation lapses in the first movement and seemed actually to lose her poise for a second or two just before the cadenza, though her ensuing filigree “soft as a whisper” playing could hardly be faulted. The slow movement featured some high-wire decorative work by the soloist, along with one or two confidently-played portamenti, a startling effect to these ears!  Still, it was in the finale that the virtuoso element was explored in all its “baroque-like” glory – Locatelli’s high writing required a spooky, almost skeletal effect, a distinctive timbre which the soloist brought off wonderfully, if not without the occasional spill – the cadenza allowed Wallfisch to conspire with the audience via a knowing look and a sudden plunge back into further complex figurations after the orchestra had readied itself for the expected cadential entry – all tremendous fun, and thrown off with great verve. The aforementioned encore rightly refocused our attention upon the collaborative nature of the music-making that had been such a distinctive and memorable feature of the concert.

Bravo, the Wallfisch Band and its associates for a splendid evening!