Vibrant Concerti Grossi old and new light up a refurbished Old St.Paul’s in Thorndon

Baroque Music Community and Educational Trust of NZ, in partnership with
University of Canterbury Music presents:

Mark Menzies – Solo Violin / Tomas Hurnik – Solo ‘Cello
Ensemble of participants in Baroque Music Workshop 2021
Rakuto Kurano, Ashley Leng, Leo Liu, Henry Nicholson, Jack Tyler, Thomas Bedggood (violins)
Rebecca Harris (viola) / Daniel Ng (cello) / Frederick Bohan-Dyke, Oliver Jenks (harpsichord)

Old St.Paul’s, Thorndon, Wellington

Monday, 16th February, 2021

I was thrilled beyond words when told that this concert would take place in the breathtakingly beautiful Old St/ Paul’s Church in Thorndon, a building which extensive earthquake-strengthening renovations had closed to the public for so long! So for me it was like greeting an old friend when walking through the church’s entranceway for the New Baroque Generation’s Wellington concert, one which concluded the ensemble’s enterprising “11 concerts in 16 days” tour of the country.

This initiative, set up by the Baroque Music Community and Educational Trust along with the University of Canterbury Music included an intensive week-long workshop on baroque instrumental practices as well as the aforementioned concert tour. At the forefront of the project were two well-known professional musicians – violinist Mark Menzies and Czech baroque specialist and cellist, Tomas Hurnik – under whose guidance the musicians who attended the workshop were able to put their newly-honed skills into practice over the duration.

The concert included a new work especially commissioned for the tour, one specifically designed for the project, a neo-baroque work by emerging composer Rakuto Kurano, a violinist in the touring ensemble. The work formed the finale of a concert devoted to that most baroque of all musical forms, the Concerto Grosso, of which we heard various representative examples from that “era”. Apart from Rakuto Kurano’s splendid work, the one which surprised me the most was by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), a composer I’d hitherto associated almost exclusively with vocal works.

Basically a “Concerto Grosso” features a small grouping of instruments interacting with a larger ensemble, instead of a single instrument being pitted against an orchestra in a standard “concerto”. My introduction to the “Concerto Grosso” form was via Handel on a 1967 set of Decca recordings made by the then world-famous Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, under the leadership of Neville Marriner – such a delight! – and not least due to Handel’s freely “borrowing” from his own music, some of which I already knew. In his Op. 6 set of 12 Concerti Grossi, for instance,  No.9 (HWV 327) and No.11 (HWV 329) both contained delightful reworkings of parts of the composer’s organ concerti, most prominently the famous “Cuckoo and the Nightingale” Concerto (HWV 295).

We did get some Handel in this evening’s presentation, one of those Op.6 Concerti, though, alas, not either of those already referred to. Instead we got the first of the set, No. 1 in G Major (HWV 319), for which the composer again “poached” some of his previous music, an Overture from one of his “Italian” operas, Imeneo, as well as freely imitating passages in one of fellow-composer Domenico Scarlatti’s newly-published “Harpsichord Exercises”. Handel’s work came as the penultimate item on the programme, a kind of “state-of-the-art” example of a Baroque form.

I made a lot of performance notes in the “heat of the listening moment”, which would be too tiresome for anybody to read in full afterwards, so will attempt to summarise my impressions – of the Handel, I thought the opening “A tempo giusto” beautifully sounded, the terracing of dynamics  between the duetting violins and the ensemble exquisite – then, in the “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba-like” Allegro which followed, I thought the players amply demonstrated in places that Handel seemed almost to have invented the “Mannheim Crescendo” before the musicians of that august ensemble did! I loved the detailings in the Adagio, such as the elaborate trills which introduced some of the cadences; and relished the different trajectories of the two concluding Allegro sections, the second one particularly exuberant, with plenty of “joicks! – tally-ho!” kind of stuff, thankfully with no horses, hounds or unfortunate fox present!

Of course, I have things the wrong way round, here, as the concert opened with the M-A Charpentier work, the H.545 “Concert pour 4 parties de violes” – two Preludes, each as shapely and flowing as the other, played in the “authentic” manner with little vibrato, but not without warmth and expression, and plenty of dynamic variation. The following Sarabande took our sensibilities to solemn, thoughtful realms at the outset, the Trio section (2 violins and ‘cello) alternating with the ripieno (the full ensemble), with a sweetly-toned piano conclusion. By contrast the Gigues gave off terrific energies, first the “Angloise” in ¾ time, contrasting with the “Francois” in common time, the whole ceremonially rounded by the concluding “Passecaille”, varying the textures between trios of instruments and full band, before concluding the work with a hushed version of the theme – so very lovely!

The works followed one another in more-or-less chronological order, Giuseppe Torelli’s “Concerto musicale a quattro in G Major Op.6, No. 1”, niftily throwing the figurations about in lively fashion at the beginning before calling order with a winsome Adagio sequence. I felt the music-making already had hit its stride in terms of a “naturalness” of utterance with the succeeding Allegro, nothing being “forced” or “squeezed”, the energies always expressive and properly “breathed”.  The first violin’s floridly-expressed decoration of the Adagio seemed to grow naturally from what had come before, transforming into a more energetic but still graceful Allegro movement, and seemingly to gather energy as it proceeded, until a wry, almost mischievous softer postlude ended the work.

While not named as a “Concerto Grosso” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto in B-flat for violin, ‘cello and strings RV 547” featured the violin and cello soloists as both collaborators and combatants, with great teamwork from the pair alternating trenchant and exciting exchanges, each player relishing the dynamic variation of his line both when interlocked with the other’s and when solo – so exciting! The slow movement brought out more co-operation than competition, each instrument seeming to “listen” to the other in an affecting way; while the finale seemed like a kind of “anything you can do I can do as well/better” kind of interchange, the violin in particular “digging in” during a central trenchant section, before both instruments surrendered to the sheer elan of the massed tutti ending!

Arcangelo Corelli, generally acknowledged as the “master“ of the concerto grosso form produced his set of 12 works in 1714 some years after they were actually written – in an “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” kind of gesture, Handel subsequently brought out his own set of works directly modelled on Corelli’s, effectively “bringing to fruition” the form, with younger composers already beginning to move towards the solo concerto and the sinfonia concertante kind of work. As we got from Handel’s Op.6,  we were given the first of Corelli’s set, No. 1 in D Major, a beautifully rich ceremonial Largo opening, the Allegro sections that  followed interspersed with the return of the slower music. The Largo that followed had beautiful “birdsong” elements in the figurations, which suddenly scampered off in “edge-of-the-seat” style, as if dancing on the edge of a precipice, the playing somehow conveying a whiff of dangerous excitement! The solo violin began the opening of the ensuing Adagio with the second violin attractively imitating, echo-wise, the phrases, and the cello steadfastedly counterpointing the progressions. What really delighted our sensibilities was the final Allegro, the two solo violins in thirds excitingly dashing away at the  music’s beginning, relishing the interplay between each other and with the ripieno strings, and turning to the audience as if “bringing us in” to add our breathed “Amens” to the final phrases!

At the conclusion of the already-described Handel work, we were given what promised to be the evening’s most thought-provoking work – a Concerto Grosso commissioned from one of the ensemble’s violinists, Rakuto Kurano. I wasn’t prepared for what seemed like the work’s complete absorption of the historical concerto grosso form but straightaway with its own distinction, the introduction tempestuous and arresting (almost “sturm und drang” in its mood), succeeded by a poised, breath-catching series of quiet gestures, the solo violin adding some stratospheric decoration to the line, then plunging into a fugue, hair-raisingly active and with some terrific dove-tailing gestures to boot! The Fourth section, Grave, sounded gorgeous, steadily-moving chords over which the two solo violins elaborated, bringing the solo cello briefly into the argument at the end. A boisterous Allegro gave the two violins a fine “duelling” sequence, the supporting players either dashing round about or soaring away with their own flights of fancy. The Adagio which followed was  a kind of freeze-frame or slow-interlude in a motion picture, and with the harpsichord, so discreetly balanced to a fault throughout the evening, allowed a brief moment of soloistic glory! The Allegro Vivace that followed – a boisterous, percussive dance, complete with tambourine – primed us up for the brief but exhilarating “The Birds”, antiphonal dialogues pithy but hair-raising! The Finale, energetic and involving, concluded with a trenchant tutti  that “grounded” the sounds in a satisfyingly conclusive way – a gesture of unequivocal and inspiring surety.

A brief encore piece was, I was told, Luigi Boccherini’s “Night music from the streets of Madrid” – if “more Courtenay Place than Thorndon” at that hour, it certainly returned us to our lives, and prompted more of the same enthusiasm and enjoyment. Very great honour and glory to the members of this ensemble, and to their inspirational teachers over the duration, violinist Mark Menzies and ‘cellist Tomas Hurnik, their leadership and encouragement here wrought of magic.


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