THE NIGHT WATCH presents:
EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE – A Concert of Baroque Music
Works by Pachebel, Telemann, Vivaldi, Caldara, Handel, Zelenka, Buxtehude and Willaert
The Night Watch
Andrew Doyle (alto and soprano chalumeaux/baroque clarinet)
Mark Cookson (tenor chalumeau)
Lizzy Welsh (baroque violin)
The Won Kim (baroque violin)
Kamala Bain (recorders)
Imogen Granwal (viola da gamba/baroque ‘cello)
Douglas Mews (harpsichord/organ)
Pepe Becker (soprano)
Helen Acheson (alto)
Philip Collins (tenor)
David Morriss (bass)
Adam Concert Room, Te Koki, NZ School of Music, Wellington
Sunday, 14th July, 2019
2019 is turning into a “bumper” year for me as regards richly-stimulating and keenly-recalled concert experiences! As befits a place that likes to style itself as something of a cultural centre, Wellington has certainly played host to the efforts of some remarkable musicians performing some fascinating assemblages of repertoire so far this year, and with more to come, as a glance at any collection of concert schedules to hand will bear out with appropriate flourishes!
This present concert by an ensemble with the arresting name “The Night Watch” demonstrated a continuation of this happy state of affairs with flair, expertise and energy, as with the group’s first Wellington appearance earlier this year (which was reviewed by Rosemary Collier: https://middle-c.org/2019/02/from-the-night-watch-love-me-tender-a-baroque-style-celebration-of-loves-intangibility/ ). Each concert in its own way served to demonstrate the incredible richness of the music of the Baroque era, this second presentation having a kind of doubly unique distinction in, firstly, showcasing the qualities of the chalumeau, a single-reed wind instrument which predates the clarinet, and then presenting a New Zealand premiere of a little-known cantata by the Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka.
Beginning a concert of Baroque music with a performance of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue might have seemed on paper an almost cliched gesture, were it not for the way the music here grew from the ambiences of instruments being tuned and fingers being “warmed up”, with sounds coming from Douglas Mews’ keyboard which spontaneously activated firstly the viola da gamba, with its ground bass, and then the violin and recorder, with their canonic figurations, whose variants seemed to pour out from the composer’s fertile imagination as gaily as water gushing from a mountain spring. The following Gigue had a vigorous, almost animal energy, what seemed like gleeful “pouncing” on the notes and almost mischievous stringendo aspect enlivening each crescendo phrase.
Part of the concert’s charm was the musicians’ direct engagement with the audience (a delicate balance between information and entertainment) which, done sensitively, despite attendant hazards, can enrich an audience’s enjoyment, especially of something unfamiliar. Thus it was for me with the musicians’ demonstration of the chalumeau, a clarinet-like single reed instrument, here presented in three sizes, soprano, alto and tenor, between two players, Andrew Doyle and Mark Cookson, the former doing the talking and most of the demonstrating. When it came to the Concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann, the alto and tenor instruments were used, the timbres mellow and slightly “grainy” compared with clarinet tones, Telemann’s opening Largo conjuring up a ritual-like sobriety, giving way to a vigorous Allegro with the solo instruments in thirds for most of the time. Soft pizzicato strings allowed first the alto then the tenor chalumeau a gentle, sensitive vocal line throughout the Adagio, before the final Vivace, with the instruments again in thirds, the impression of playful but essentially small-scale voices most engagingly sounding their grainy and occasionally guttural tones in distinctive ways.
An aria from Vivaldi’s oratorio “Veni. me sequera fida” featured alto Helen Acheson, the vocal line low and conversational, enlivened by a few moments of declamation, the voice partnered by the soprano chalumeaux in gentle collusion, every sound soft-grained and beautifully mellow in effect, the ensemble moving as one throughout the music’s gentle undulations. Antonio Caldara’s “Nel mio coro” which followed, swopped the alto and a violin for a soprano, Pepe Becker, whose true and intensely-focused tones flooded our sensibilities with the song’s piteous sorrow “hope is dying….and constancy is weeping…..” – it was a relief to turn from such raw emotion to expressions of joy and confidence via Handel’s “Eternal Source of Light Divine”, a work intended for performance in vast spaces, thus being scored for baroque trumpet – but here, in more intimate surroundings, Andrew Doyle’s baroque clarinet brought a sweetness to the ceremonial outpourings, while Pepe Becker’s mellifluous tones added warmth, glory and lustre to the proceedings.
After the interval we were treated to the New Zealand premiere – a work by the enigmatic Jan Dismas Zelenka, a Bohemian composer who worked as a composer at the Saxon court of Dresden from 1679 until his death in 1745. Recognised by both Bach and Telemann as a composer of worth during his lifetime, Zelenka’s reputation and his music virtually disappeared after his death. But whereas Bach had a Mendelssohn who “rediscovered” and generated fresh interest in his work, Zelenka had to wait until the twentieth century for his achievement as a composer to be recognised, and his music’s astonishing qualities to be rediscovered.
Zelanka’s cantata Immisit Dominus pestilentiam (spelt “Pestilarium” in the programme) dates from 1709, when it was premiered not in Dresden but in Prague, with Zelenka himself conducting, making it one of the earliest pieces of the composer’s music that has survived. Even here, his approach to word-setting and to overall structure is remarkably distinctive – central to the work are the opening accompanied recitatives with soft string suspensions, from which “grow” the subsequent arias and instrumental solos, with many a vividly-rendered passage or detail, courtesy of both singers and instrumentalists.
The opening declamation of tragedy and deep mourning – “The Lord set a pestilence upon Israel” (sung in Latin, incidentally, the programme containing an English translation) was superbly delivered by Pepe Becker, the voice pitiless in its detailing and heartfelt in its focus. Equally overwhelming was bass David Morriss’s forthright “Voice of The Lord”, proclaiming “the end of all flesh has come before me”, to suitably chilling effect. The pleading voice of the alto at “Remember Lord”,coupled with the touching tones of the chalumeaux, and additional support from the bass viol, made for a properly sombre entreaty, rising to a passionate appeal at the end. A splendidly Handelian fugue, featuring all voices and instruments, brought out the resolve to “sacrifice to our Lord”, while the soprano solo that followed “Pray for me, with tears” brought forth lovely, heartfelt and sensitive phrases from Pepe Becker, with sterling support from Kamala Bain’s recorder-playing, both lines seeming to convey the “fallibility” of sin and the dignity of suffering.
More forthright tones came from tenor Phillip Collins, with cries of “Be merciful!” ably supported by the instruments, and again very Handelian in effect. Perhaps more distinctive and individual was the following “Cry out, drops of blood”, David Morriss delivering the text with sharp focus, augmented by Helen Acheson’s more sombre tones, the lines low and mutes, the instrumentation spare, creating great tensions, as the strings’ staccato notes depict the “drops of blood”. Two choruses rounded the work off, the first, “O God”, brief and declamatory, and the second fugal, “And grant”, the singers’ lines clear and compelling, given excellent support by the instruments, and the whole ensemble blending and conveying individual strengths and detailings magnificently!
Baroque violinist Lizzy Welsh introduced the next item, a Trio Sonata (Op.2 No.5 in A Major) by Dieterich Buxtehude, the Danish-German organist and composer. Renowned as the Lübeck organist whom the young JS Bach walked 250 miles from Armstadt to meet and hear play, Buxtehude was known more for his vocal and organ music than his chamber works, though as Lizzy Walsh told us with some relish, his contribution to musical history also involved his eldest daughter, whom none of the prospective candidates (including Handel and Johann Mattheson) for Buxtehude’s position on his retirement seemed to want to marry (at the time a common ‘prerequisite” of such an appointment!)
This was , I thought, a beautiful performance – the exchanges epitomised the whole of the evening’s music-making, having an improvisatory sense, but obviously with the music well under the fingers – the third movement was passacaglia-like, a violin solo with harpsichord, while the fourth movement featured the viola da gamba as if extemporising, most expressively. Even more “concerted’ was the fifth movement Allegro, with deft exchanges between violin and da gamba, leading to a recitative-like flourishes, and in a sequence marked poco presto some brilliant concluding passagework from all the players.
The remainder of the programme consisted of three songs of Italian origin, the first, Ninna Nanna, a lament of the Virgin for her Son, here hauntingly sung by Philip Collins, the violin joining in after one verse, then with the recorder, elaborating on the melody before the singer returned, repeating the verse. Then came Antoneddu, a folkish, if somewhat exotic-sounding ballad, featuring Helen Acheson being partnered by the sultry tones of the soprano chalumeau – the singer’s line was suggestive of trouble and tragedy, the da gamba’s accompaniment a heavily-accented pizzicato, all sounding earthy and fraught with danger. The entire ensemble took the stage for the final song, Vecchie Letrose, written by Adrian Willaert (1490-1562), a lively, angular item whose sentiments definitely belonged to a more repressive and discriminatory age, but whose music could still be enjoyed. Two of the singers played tambourines to heighten the impact of it all, and the spiky vocal line added to the heavily accented satisfyingly earthy instrumental playing.
“Every Breath You Take” having been a great success for “The Night Watch”, the group is already planning another presentation, that of French music – La Vie en Rose – for November of this year, which will be, on the strength of this fine showing, eagerly awaited.