CAFFEINE AND CONTROVERSY
Music by Vivaldi, Handel, Hellendaal and J.S.Bach
Amelia Ryman (soprano) / James Adams (tenor) / Roger Wilson (baritone)
Anna Newth (flute)
Wellington Baroque Ensemble
Martin Ryman (director)
Gregory Squire (leader)
St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington
Saturday 1st October, 2011
As they say in the classics (and these pieces of music were themselves, for the most part “classics”), a happy occasion, brought about by skilled performances and innovative presentation of some extremely felicitous music – the reception given to the performers, both singers and instrumentalists, bore out the evening’s enjoyment and pleasure.
In the “old days” this event might have been styled merely as a “Baroque Concert”, from which the prospective listener would take what she or he would – very likely featuring Vivaldi, Handel and J.S.Bach, as here (though Pieter Hellendaal’s name would almost certainly have caused head-scratching among the punters). However, there’s a new presentation spirit coursing through the veins of classical music promoters these days, and the epithet “Caffeine and Controversy” seemed to promise the kind of titillation one might get from any reputable (or disreputable) “show and tell” publication.
I’m all for this kind of thing, with the proviso that the flash doesn’t get in the way of the substance, and is thus kept obligatory – in other words, at the end of the day it’s the music that is seen to provide the real thrills, rather than the accoutrements (unlike the case with many performances of opera one witnesses in this day and age, either filmed or “live”, well-and-truly subverted by ego-ridden directors).
Not that the first half of this concert had much to do with anything other than the music that was being played, to one’s relief – although Handel was certainly something of a controversial figure, Vivaldi was rather less so (despite what might seem to male sensibilities the latter’s good fortune in working at a so-called orphanage for young women), but around and about the Dutch-born, English-domiciled Pieter Hellendaal (whom I had never heard of, to my shame) there seemed nary a trace of trouble or scandal.
It was that pillar of the music establishment of the Western World, Johann Sebastian “Mighty Bach” (as Dylan Thomas once called him) who provided the “ginger” which enlivened the concert’s second half, in the form of the well-known “Coffee Cantata”. This work was possibly a semi-autobiographical treatise on the part of the composer about interactions between older and younger generations, the catalyst here being (in Bach’s case) a contemporary craze for coffee-drinking. Bach’s librettist was Christian Friedrich Henrici (better known as Picander, the author of many of the composer’s texts, including those for the St Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio), though it’s thought that Bach himself added the words for the work’s final trio – sentiments which any parent will empathize with in a general sense!
So, a well-constructed program began with Vivaldi’s “Goldfinch” concerto for flute and strings – Anna Newth was a skilled and long-breathed soloist, coping with some of the composer’s more demanding extended utterances with flying colours, and readily conveying both pictorial and stylistic aspects of the work. Though her musical interaction with the group was splendid throughout, I was distracted by her placement slightly “away” from the half-circle of musicians so that the ‘cellist (the excellent Katrin Eickhorst-Squire) had to constantly turn around in her seat to make contact with her (if she’d stood in the middle, out the front, there would have been no problem). I found also that both harpsichord and viola, though beautifully played by Martin Ryman and Leoni Wittchow, respectively, seemed to take the concept of “tasteful accompaniment” to extremes, so that they were in danger of being inaudible at times – though a concerto, I wanted the supporting lines to have their proper say, as well!
Each of three singers then gave us a well-known aria from Handel’s different oratorios. Amelia Ryman’s bright, agile, soubrette-like voice readily and characterfully conveyed a young girl’s excitement at her impending marriage, with “Oh, had I Jubal’s lyre” from “Joshua”. A telling contrast was made by James Adams’ heartfelt and true-toned “Waft her, Angels, through the skies”, the diction beautiful and the phrasings naturally and easefully unfolded (a slight shortness of breath at “forever reign” forgiven amid the rapt loveliness of the reprise).
Roger Wilson seemed in excellent voice throughout his clarion-like traversal of “Revenge, Timotheus cries” from “Alexander’s Feast”, the singer particularly relishing the horrors of the “Furies” with their reptilian hairstyles. Perhaps the coloratura figurations of “and the sparkles” creaked and groaned a little, first time through (they flowed more easily during the reprise), but the energy and excitement carried the day. As for the ghostly middle section, Wilson’s sepulchral tones conjured up real pathos at the evocation of the ghosts of unburied warriors haunting the plain on which their remains still lay. Appropriately grey, sombre string-playing most vividly underlined the scenario.
Vivaldi’s Op.3 No.4 Concerto for four violins enabled us to enjoy the contrasting tones of the instrumentalists, each projecting a differently-characterised kind of sound, though often playing in pairs, an antiphonally delightful effect. Again, I thought the harpsichord sound self-effacing to a fault, beautifully played though everything was, minimizing a dimension of baroque interaction which I’m certain the composer would have wanted to be heard.
Pieter Hellendaal’s Op.3 No.2 Concerto Grosso made quite a dramatic effect, dark and stormy at the beginning, setting a grave, strong-chorded opening against an energetic allegro. I enjoyed the bird-song carolling during the Affettuoso; and if the Presto had a slightly shaky beginning here, its reprise after a “mirror-image” episode had a more confident trajectory. The concluding “Borea”, a sturdy, but still lively dance in what sounded like 4/4 time cooled the passions and most tastefully restored equilibriums.
I liked the way the second half’s beginning was activated, with the musicians moving to the side of the platform and tuning up somewhat curmudgeonly, as both stage and auditorium got their respective selves prepared for the music’s commencement. Before we realized what was happening, James Adams (a kind of servant/retainer) was admonishing us to be silent, duly announcing the arrival of the master, Herr Schlendrian “growling like a honey-bear”, and his charmingly willful daughter, Lieschen. Roger Wilson’s Herr Schlendrian (translated variously as “Humbug” and “Jogtrot”) grumped away entertainingly, with wonderful ‘cello-and double-bass (Malcolm Struthers) playing in tow, while Amelia Ryman’s Lieschen was enchanting of both voice and manner, deliciously aggravating her father’s obvious frustrations. Despite a slight stumble at one point in the reprise, Ryman’s forthright and open singing of “Haute noch” was for me one of the evening’s many highlights.
Costumes and staging helped bring Bach’s and Picander’s mini-drama to life – Steven Anthony Wilding’s direction brought out the best of each of the singers’ obvious theatrical gifts, despite one or two places where the music’s distinctly undramatic progressions caused a hiatus or two – conversely the trio’s coming together for the final cadence had a slightly hair-raising “just-made-it” quality.
But these were minor quibbles when set against the whole – a rattlingly good evening’s musical entertainment, with great credit to all concerned.