Polished recital by Aeolian Players at Lower Hutt

Marin Marais: Suite in G minor; Telemann: Trio Sonata for oboe, viola da gamba and basso continuo in G minor; Psathas: Waiting for the Aeroplane; Bach: Trio Sonata No 4 in E minor, BWV 528

The Aeolian Players:  Calvin Scott (oboe), Peter Garrity (viola), Ariana Odermatt (piano), Margaret Guldborg (cello)

St Mark’s church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 12 October, 12.15pm

Our last reference to the Aeolian Ensemble is in a review by my colleague Rosemary Collier of their concert in the Mulled Wine series at Paekakariki, where the same Telemann sonata was played but otherwise, a different Bach work, plus pieces by Buxtehude, Hotteterre and Forqueray.

I was a couple of minutes late and missed the first and some of the second movement of the Marais Suite in G minor. It is one of the Pièces en trio pour les flutes, violon, et dessus de viole, published in 1692.  It’s only a short step from flute to oboe, though one could argue that the shift has a significant effect on the mood of the music.

My first impression, as always, was of the way this church so enhances the sounds of instruments (it does as well with voices). So that all four instruments were clear as individuals, yet the composition had the effect of according equal status to them all, and no one dominated the melodic line. Margaret Guldborg’s cello had a warmth that brought it closer to the sound of viola da gamba (on which Marais was one of the greatest exponents) and the sound of the piano in the hands of Ariana Odermatt detracted not the least from the feeling of baroque music.

This was an altogether charming piece, played with an admirable feeling for style and with the interest of the whole placed above that of the individual.

The Telemann sonata (originally for violin, viola and basso continuo) created a quite different impression. Here the indivual instruments carried more distinct lines, each taking turns with the tunes so that the characteristics of each could be enjoyed, as for the most part they could.  The presence of the oboe in place of the violin always has an emotional effect – giving a touch of plangency or sadness – and in most cases is not out of place, and it certainly wasn’t here, even in the brighter Allegro.  As for the piano v. harpsichord issue, the character of the ensemble  did seem to call up in my mind an expectation of the lighter, non-sustaining sound of the latter, though Odermatt’s playing was crisp and sensitive to the idiom.

The inclusion of a modern piano solo was not the least bothersome. Psathas’s early piece, Waiting for the Aeroplane has become a small New Zealand classic; there is nothing difficult about its style or harmonies and it pointed, very early in Psathas’s career, to a refreshing independence of mind, removed from the sort of academic and, shall we say, pretentious music that tended to flow from aspiring student composers 20 years ago (and still does to some extent). Odermatt’s playing was most interesting, handling the rocking fourth that persists hypnotically throughout, is dreamlike; the two notes are uneven in character, the upper note fluctuating in strength while the occasional outbursts produced a quite unsettling effect.

The Bach Trio Sonata
This is one of a set of six so-called ‘trio sonatas’ for organ which Bach compiled in the late 1720s. His manuscript for the six sonatas, BWV 525-30, prescribes two keyboards and pedal.

The Oxford Bach Companion suggests the six sonatas show Bach’s frequent interest in transferring styles and idioms from one instrument or ensemble to another (particularly the keyboard). Thus it can be inferred that it is not an outrageous step for musicians to make arrangements in the reverse direction – back from a score for the organ to the original ‘trio sonata’ concept, that involved two high register instruments and a bass, or basso continuo.

To indulge further erudition, the Bach Companion also notes that the three-instrument form relates more to the concerto than to the church sonata form; and it surmises that the technical difficulty of these six sonatas, and their distance from the most common idioms for the organ, suggest a pedagogical intention (for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann who became a distinguished organist), and that they might be considered a corollary to the collected works for unaccompanied violin and cello.

Earlier versions of all movements of this sonata exist. The opening movement began life as the Sinfonia to the second part of Cantata No 76 – and significantly, it is scored for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and continuo, composed at the beginning of his Leipzig years. That suggests, further, that other movements may also have been composed originally for instrumental trio. The Andante may date from his earliest years as it betrays the short-breathed motivic style of 17th century German music, as well as some of the ‘pathetic’ gestures of contemporary Italian opera, notably the chord of the Neapolitan Sixth.

The oboe part is again without direct authority apart from the oboe d’amore part in the sinfonia mentioned above, but it easily assumes the leading role, and in Calvin Scott’s hands fully justifies the adaptation. As the oboe and viola pass the theme of the Andante back and forth they create quite a strong and attractive emotional quality. The last movement, Un poco allegro, in triple time, creates a lovely curving line and I could again conjure a viola da gamba, together with a harpsichord in this movement, but the two talented players on cello and piano quickly dispelled any real hankering after a more historical interpretation.


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