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Camerata’s latest “Haydn in the Church” concert – joyous antiphonal splendours, heart-rending beauties and al fresco hi-jinks!

By , 13/12/2018

Camerata presents “Haydn in the Church”

J.S.BACH – Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins, Strings and Basso Continuo BWV 1043
Soloists – Anne Loeser and Malavika Gopal (violins)

J.S.BACH – “Erbarme Dich, mein Gott” (from St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 )
Soloist – Maaike Christie-Beekman (soprano)

Josef HAYDN – Symphony No.8 in G Major “Le Soir”

Camerata, directed by Anne Loeser (violin)

St.Peter’s-on-Willis-St., Wellington

Thursday 13th December, 2018

I couldn’t remember when I’d last heard JS Bach’s Double Violin Concerto “live” when first posting this review – thanks to violinist Anne Loeser, who reminded me of a 2012 performance by the NZSO strings, I’ve had to sheepishly modify my previous “never before live” declaration; but, to my shame, it gets worse! – I actually reviewed the performance in Middle C! Oh, dear! – I’m dumbfounded as to how I could have forgotten the occasion, particularly as it featured not only the violin-playing of the wonderful Vesa-Matti Leppanen, the NZSO’s concertmaster, but the considerable instrumental skills of the then Music Director of the orchestra, Pietari Inkinen, as his violinist partner! People who wish to revisit that auspicious occasion, in addition to confirming what seems to be oncoming decreptitude on my part may do so by clicking on the following link – https://middle-c.org/2012/11/js-bach-and-mahler-worlds-of-sensibility-from-inkinen-and-the-nzso/ – where they will find what seemed to me to be an interesting idea at the time (perhaps as befits a concert with a double concerto) a “double” review!

Nevertheless, despite my having to admit to witnessing  “twice as many” performances in Wellington of the concerto in recent times as I previously had thought, I still maintain that baroque music of this kind has, during my concert-going life, become more what one might call “specialist” repertoire, which I believe isn’t generally to its advantage in terms of dissemination to a wider audience in the concert hall. There are so many baroque masterpieces which symphony orchestras used to perform than seem now of late confined to “period performance” situations, governed by strictures which frown upon any attempts to realise the music away from certain prescribed conditions.

Of course it’s wonderful to encounter presentations which attempt to replicate actual instruments, player numbers and playing styles from this music’s era – but our attempts to slavishly reincarnate these actualities in an exclusive manner would probably be viewed with astonishment by the average Baroque composer, who might think it odd to have his or her music thus perpetuated, instead of being treated more as a “living entity” of work. For reasons too elaborate to go into here at great length, I feel that the “purist” approach to music performance of any era has its pros and cons, and that Baroque composers would possibly have been far more interested in hearing what subsequent ages did DIFFERENTLY with their music rather than merely having it religiously replicated.

In any case, one only has to look at the extent to which these people unhesitatingly “borrowed” music from themselves and from one another to pick up on an intensely pragmatic attitude to the whole business held by composers, performers and audiences alike. Obviously, getting on with the prime concern of making music was paramount – and when something new came along, such as the fledgling pianoforte, for example, people such as JS Bach were straightaway interested in it (not uncritically, it must be said), rather than bent on rejecting it as merely “newfangled”.

I’m beginning to hear the “banging a can” aspect creeping into this diatribe, so I’ll stop – but I’ve always loved the reported comment of Sir Thomas Beecham, who, upon being told of the publication of a new edition of Haydn symphonies, immediately remarked, “Are they scholarly, or musical?” In principle, my feelings exactly – and what better over-riding consideration could one apply to any kind of activity that involved music?

All of this has very little to do with Camerata itself and the group’s performances, which I found by turns, joyously, heart-rendingly and exhilaratingly musical! From the very beginning of the Bach Concerto, when Malavika Gopal’s violin brought in the lower-end instruments of the ensemble, to be thereupon answered by Anne Loeser’s like instrument together with the higher-toned players, the music fairly crackled with exuberance and open-heartedness, the playing judiciously alternating energy with warmth, and strength with subtle nuance. The St.Peter’s Church acoustic instantly gave us back an amalgam of resonance and clarity which played its part in lifting the music up towards what seemed for this listener all-too-brief transports of pleasure and contentment.

Gopal’s violin again led the proceedings in the work’s heavenly slow movement, her warm, open tones followed by Loeser’s more nuanced sounds, the latter’s flecked with half-lights and barely-concealed impulses, the pair’s combination imparting a fascination in the blending of their exchanges, highlighted all the more by the reduced accompaniments, one instrument from each section providing a sensitive supporting network.  The whole resembled a kind of celestial vision on earth, one which, as with the first movement, we all wished could have endured for longer.

Of course the composer recognised the need for a “return to life” after these transports; and the ensemble certainly took him at his word, with playing in the finale whose attack and rhythmic swing had an exhilaration, almost a risk-taking element that brought me to the edge of my pew! Though when compared with the serenity of the first two movements the trajectories suddenly seemed almost “turbocharged” (the opening three-note figure sounded almost like the gruff warning bark of a guard-dog!) the control of the ensemble under Anne Loeser was exemplary, the notes “clicking over the points” with breath-taking precision. I still thought the music as much “combated” at this speed as “relished”, the various exchanges equally daring as they were joyous expressions of energy.

No greater a contrast could be imagined as with the programme’s next item, the aria “Erbarme Dich, mein Gott” from Bach’s St.Matthew Passion, sung here by Maaike Christie-Beekman (described in the programme as a “soprano”, but variously elsewhere as a “mezzo” – the aria, incidentally, is listed as one for alto, or counter-tenor, in most recorded performances.) Despite all of these potential variables it seemed as if Christie-Beekman’s voice was one that could do almost anything, and certainly at her first entry, immediately conjure up the beauty and gravitas of delivery required by this aria. With Anne Loeser’s introductory violin solo finding a “dignified sorrow” in which to project the voice’s emotion, it was left to Christie-Beekman to float those opening phrases so very beautifully but capture also a kind of desolation of utterance – these are, of course, the words of the disciple Peter in the wake of his denial of Christ after the latter’s seizure, words which carry with them all of Peter’s guilt and shame, and here made to resonate down the singer’s long, richly filled lines to telling effect.

Throughout, ebb and flow of opposing emotions tugged at our heartstrings, here from the singer, there from the solo violin, the words pleading for mercy amid despair and sorrow – I thought Christie-Beekman and Loeser made the piece an intensely living experience, constantly and judiciously focusing and “colouring” their tones with hues that expressed these very conflicts, and thus making both texts and notes real for the listener, throughout what is surely one of Bach’s most sublime utterances.

In a different way to that which took place in the concerto, what happened next seemed like a kind of  absolution in the wake of such a deep and profound outpouring of emotion – Christie- Beekman returned to the stage after acknowledging our appreciation of her Bach performance, explaining to us that the opening movement of the Haydn symphony we were about to hear was based on an air by Gluck in his opera-comique Le diable à quatre (The Devil to Pay), “Je n’aimais pas le tabac beaucoup (I didn’t like tobacco much)”, and that she would sing it for us! She translated the aria’s words for us, to the effect that she was a young woman who didn’t like being told what to do by a husband – hence she smoked cigarettes! Her accompaniment was largely pizzicato strings, the delicacy of the sounds ironically adding to the “tongue-in-cheek” stroppiness of the character and the scenario – all beautifully characterised and absolutely delightful!

And, of course, when the Haydn Symphony began, there was the saucy minx flaunting her stroppiness all over again in the music for our delight! – (however un-PC it  may sound, I admit I ENJOYED writing that phrase!) – seriously, the music was here given a different symphonic urgency and drive than in Maaike C-B’s delicious rendering! This was, of course, the third work in the composer’s “Morning, Noon and Night” trilogy of symphonies, No.8 in G Major “Le soir”. Violins in thirds sounded the “Gluck” theme at the outset, one which went on to dominate the movement, the winds having a turn with it as well. The horns displayed plenty of flair, the instruments joining with the winds to help cap off the opening sequence most effectively. Both the bassoon and the double bass had great fun as well, counterpointing these and the development’s various goings-on with much relish, before the horns returned at the movement’s end with exuberant phrases, the spills as exciting and rustic-sounding as the thrills!

Two violins “duetted” the slow movement’s opening, answered by the lower strings and the bassoon – the  solo ‘cello relished a moment of glory before the pair of violins again joined forces, resonating their phrases across a sea of interactions, the antiphonal effects gorgeous! More melancholy strains sounded across the face of things in the development, with the gentleness of utterance led by the solo violin briefly tossed sideways in favour of some muscular unison string figurations, which just as quickly subsided – the solo cello then shared some of the crepuscular-like glory with the violin, with lovely work from both players.

A spirited, striding Minuet indicated that the evening was far from over, however, with the horns making their presence felt and the distinctive oboe sound adding colour to the mix. The brass and winds exchanged major/minor moments, with the contrasting dynamics hinting at winsome echo effects. Most engaging was the gemütlich-sounding Trio, with some fantastic solo playing from the double-bass, finishing high up on his top string – after which the Menuet returned with renewed vigour, the players taking care in sounding the repeatedly-echoing final phrase of the dance throughout as redolently as at the end.

Scampering tremolandi figures from the strings launched the excitable presto finale of the work, one depicting a storm, and inspiring tremendous energy and attack from all, complete with flashes of lightning (flute) and rumblings of thunder (tremolando strings)!  A “development” section took over the opening sequence and hurled it into a new space, joined by “whirling dervish” strings and whooping horns, and with the solo cello managing a special “moment” amid the lightning flashes and grumblings, and just before the horns raise their voices for a do-or-die concluding flourish.

At the finish, I was about to turn to my partner and say to her that I wished they’d done all of the repeats, when to my surprise and delight Anne Loeser announced that they would repeat the final movement! – just the job, I thought, as the music most satisfyingly whirled its way through the tempestuous moments for a second time, giving us an enriched sense of the piece’s infectious energy and dynamism, and leaving us marvelling at the composer’s flair and originality. What joy to have an ensemble such as Camerata performing such things for our pleasure, and in such a natural and unselfconscious manner, simply, one suspects, for the sheer delight of making music – for that, it deserves to be regarded as a “treasure” by those in the Wellington region who love live music-making, a treasure that one hopes will endure for many years to come.

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