A flavoursome taste of the “Baroque” at the St.Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
A Concert of Eighteenth-Century Chamber Music

Music by Georg Phillipp Telemann,
Johann David Heinichen, and Johann Sebastian Bach

Rowena Simpson (soprano)
Leni Mäckle (bassoon)
Calvin Scott (oboe)
Jonathan Berkahn (keyboards)

St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Wednesday, 13th December, 2017

These four performers, a singer and three instrumentalists, provided for this concert a goodly range of musical expression inhabiting that style we loosely know as “baroque”. The programme was framed by works from two of the “giants” of the era, Georg Phillipp Teleman and Johann Sebastian Bach, and also contained a sonata for oboe and bassoon by someone whose name was unknown to me, Johann David Heinichen (1683-1729) , a composer whose relative present-day obscurity belies the fame he once enjoyed as “one of the three important “H”s of German music”, the others being , in the writer Johann Matheson’s opinion, Handel and Hasse.

We began with Telemann’s music, an aria from a cantata written for the first Sunday of the New Year “Schmeckt und sheet unsers Gottes Freundlichkeit” (Taste and see the friendliness of our God). I wish I had known this work before hearing it performed, as I’m sure I would have relished all the more the performance given by soprano Rowena Simpson and the ensemble – alas that one’s “baroque cantata-listening” rarely has the opportunity to extend beyond the stellar creative achievements of “you-know-who”, as there are obviously treasures such as this awaiting a resurgence of appreciation – ironic that Telemann’s music, so popular in its day, is now having to undergo a kind of process of rediscovery via performances such as these.

The church’s acoustic served the music well, ample enough but still bright and focused, a bias towards treble tones enhancing the music’s clarity. As with German baroque vocal music, the voice is really another instrumental line, here sung characterfully and with the twists and turns of the figurations given plenty of vigour, even in the most demanding, breath-testing of places (no alcohol involved!), and by the agile and articulate phrasings of the instrumentalists.

Even more curious as regards the ebb and flow of fame is the case of one Johann David Heinichen, as mentioned above, something of a celebrity as a composer and theorist in his day, and obviously worthy of reinstatement as regards reputation and his music. We heard a Sonata for oboe and bassoon whose four movements provided both entertainment and thoughtfulness in contrasting ways. First, an opening Grave reminiscent in places of Purcell brought forth liquid lines from Calvin Scott’s oboe, supported by confident, well-rounded bassoon figurations. This was followed by an Allegro that sounded rather more like a “concert of equals”, the melodic figures and runs shared and alternated, and the players beautifully reflecting each instrument’s timbral character in their phrasings – Leni Mäckle’s bassoon readily demonstrating, for example, its own unique expressive world as feelingly as its more ostensibly “romantic” partner.

The Larghetto which followed had a gentle, Siciliano-like rhythm, the oboe taking the melody with plenty of light-and-shade in the phrasings and the bassoon flexible and expressive in its accompanying figures. Finally, the concluding Allegro was a sprightly, oboe-led dance, with some tricky bass repetitions and runs for the bassoon – a true and rewarding partnership indeed!

Rowena Simpson then performed a soprano aria from JS Bach’s Cantata BWV 21 “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” Bach himself was extremely partial to this Cantata, reintroducing it in revised versions on at least two occasions when applying for different cantorial posts. Bach’s conception is on a grand scale, taking as its subject the Gospel for the Third Sunday after Trinity, which contains the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-10). The soprano aria “Seufer, Thranen, Kummer, Not” (Sighs, tears, troubles and distress) uses a counterpointing oboe, and cello and keyboard (piano) obbligato, all of which here worked beautifully, the sorrowful oboe line working poignantly with the voice. The singer’s bright, engaging tones put the lines across to us with plenty of anguished feeling and focus, the slightly raw intonation of a couple of her notes enhancing the piece’s basic angst.

Jonathan Berkahn introduced the next item, a keyboard solo with the title “Pastorale in F”, which he played on the church’s chamber organ. He talked a little about the development of the “Pastorale” form, which was developed from the custom of the shepherds in areas around Italian cities and towns who came into the churches at Christmas time to play their musical instruments for the people worshipping before the Christmas cribs and mangers, in homage to the new-born Christ Child.

The piping style (or “Piffero”) in the first two movements imitated a drone bass and a bagpipe melody. (From this term comes “Pifa”, found in Baroque Christmas music such as Handel’s “Messiah” – and in a recent NZSO performance by conductor Brett Weymark, making splendid sense of the title by using a pair of oboes in that work’s “Pastoral Symphony”, despite Handel scoring the piece for strings alone!)

Jonathan Berkahn’s performance brought out lovely, gentle rocking rhythms at the outset, everything luminously-textured and beautifully “layered”, making an enchanting effect on the small organ. A bright-toned allegro second movement conveyed plenty of festive bustle, which contrasted with the third movement’s melancholy and solemn processional-like trajectories. Finally, we enjoyed a bright and cheerful outdoor dance, beautifully in effect and gorgeously registered, the repeat bringing heftier, even more celebratory tones, everything controlled with great aplomb.

To conclude the concert we were given an aria from the fourth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio “Flösst mein Heiland” (Does your name, My Saviour instill the tiniest seed….) – a splendid effect, the music steady and processional, with echo-effects at the ends of phrases, some of which were provided by Jonathan Berkahn on a recorder, in between his contributions at the piano. With singing that gracefully and easily filled out the spaces and worked hand-in-glove with the oboe and the ‘cello, besides the enjoyment to be had from the evocative echo effects, the piece made a suitably well-rounded impression. It brought the concert’s strands together in what I thought a satisfying and rewarding way.

After we had finished applauding the musicians for their efforts, a “surprise” presentation was made to the St.Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace concert organizer, Marjan van Waardenberg, on behalf of both audiences and performers over the years, intended as a tribute to her tireless work in facilitating such a varied and high-quality series of concerts at lunchtime for the delight of Wellington’s music-lovers during the previous decade.

The warm response of the audience to this tribute demonstrated the value and esteem these concerts have come to hold in the concert-going life of the capital.

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