NZSM’s Baroque Workshop at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

Music by Monteverdi, Jacob van Eyck, Dario Castello, Georg Böhm, Telemann, Bach

Amelia Ryman (soprano), Brendan O’Donnell (recorder), Oscar Laven (bassoon), Tom Gaynor (harpsichord and organ)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 20 July, 12.15pm

The Baroque Workshop took over, at relatively short notice I imagine, from other advertised performers; they revealed no evidence of being caught with little preparation time.

Baroque here stretched as far back as Monteverdi to as recent as Bach.

The Monteverdi was a quite short song written for one voice with harpsichord accompaniment from a set called Scherzi Musicali, of 1632. Amelia Ryman, with Thomas Gaynor at the harpsichord, tackled it with a pretty extensive array of ornaments which tended to tax her at times, affecting her ability to control dynamics and articulation; and she needs to watch her vibrato. But the general delivery was most attractive.

The concert opened with a solo piece for recorder by Jacob van Eyck who was born in 1590. It was played in a most accomplished way with careful and subtle dynamics and admirable agility by Brendan O’Donnell. It was so attractive that it struck me as a piece that might well be taken up by flute players looking for an alternative solo piece to Syrinx.

The variations from a Chorale Partita by Georg Böhm, an important early influence on Bach, was played on the church’s chamber organ by Gaynor. Though it proved a typically formal set of variations (only some of them), the varied registrations, shifts between common and triple time and enough flexibility of rhythm, lent them considerable interest. The distinct tempi of each variation indeed suggested the dance movements of a suite: hence the title ‘Partita’ seemed justified.

The next piece drew all three instruments together: recorder, bassoon and organ, in a ‘Sonata seconda à sopran solo’ by Dario Castello, born the same year as Van Eyck. The combination of the organ’s lower register and the bassoon created a warm, rich sound, and subtle rubato helped enliven its interesting, occasionally contrapuntal character.

If there were moments in the Castello when Oscar Laven’s bassoon seemed to be struggling, the reality became clearer in the Telemann Sonatina in A minor (two movements); the baroque instrument, with limited recourse to the use of keys, is clearly difficult to play and to produce even and comfortably articulated sounds. Laven did well, but I had to ask myself whether there are some cases where the pleasure of hearing authentic sounds from a very challenging early instrument is really worth the trouble.

The rest of the concert was Bach. Three short items: two arias from cantatas and a Duet from the Third Clavierübung, which contains a large collection of organ pieces. The other three Clavierübungen are for harpsichord (the first for example contains the six Partitas BWV 825-30). The third volume is known sometimes as the German Organ Mass; it opens with the famous ‘Saint Anne’ Prelude and Triple Fugue, BWV 552 and contains many chorale preludes – all those between BWV 669 and 689; and then four duets (two-part inventions), two of which (BWV 802 and 804) Gaynor played here. His performance might not have been immaculate but on this small organ they emerged with admirable clarity, with all their ‘art that conceals art’ as evident as possible (without lapsing into oxymoron). It occurred to me that I don’t hear the chamber organ, purchased through the enterprise of the former minister John Murray and organist Roy Tankersley at least 20 years ago, often enough.

The cantata arias were ‘Höchster, mache deine Güte’ from No 51 and ‘Höchster, was ich habe’, from No 39. Amelia sounded more at ease in these than in Monteverdi; the flowing lines with less call for florid decoration.

Both were quite short, but expressive of a sanguine optimism not always the stuff of Bach’s sacred music, and they balanced the purely instrumental pieces very happily; and the second aria, with its charming recorder obbligato, brought the concert to its end and stimulated a particularly warm audience response.