Waikanae Music Society presents:
The Amici Ensemble
JS BACH – The Six Brandenburg Concertos
Waikanae Memorial Hall
Sunday, 23rd July 2023
Time can easily wrong-foot one’s perceptions of things through distraction and/or inattention – to read in Sunday afternoon’s Waikanae programme featuring the splendid Amici Ensemble that the group is currently in its 34th season was for me something of a jaw-dropping realisation, not the least because the performers themselves all seemed as imbued as ever with youthful zest and boundless enthusiasm! – how on earth could it be so many years’ worth? Where did all the time go?
And if that wasn’t enough, what a stupendous undertaking it all was on this present occasion! – one with which a music ensemble could justly demonstrate its capabilities and proclaim its calibre! I don’t know whether this was actually the first time all six of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos had been performed in a single concert in this country, but the music’s sheer variety of invention and its technical and interpretative challenges seemed to me the perfect vehicle with which a group could make a “who-we-are” and “what-we-do” statement that would resonate so readily and widely among audiences.
Pretty well every instrumental ensemble worth its salt world-wide would have had a “go” at the Brandenburgs at one stage or other, and the recordings on all kinds of carriers are, of course, legion! Longer-term listeners like myself have found ourselves living through different “eras” of style and performance practice that have variously established and then turned on their heads ways of doing things over the duration, but leaving us, I think, enriched in the process. I still treasure my 1950s Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra LPs of these works, for example, while being newly invigorated by some of the later and totally different efforts of various modern-day ensembles.
As is the case with all music performance the listener’s “individual preference” factor continues to lend a fascination to hearing performances that can differ to what’s hoped for and/or expected. Of the performances we heard, I can say that I unreservedly enjoyed every one of the “middle” concertos, Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5, while finding myself responding positively to PARTS of the First and Sixth Concertos – I simply didn’t want to feel quite so “rushed” in either of the latter two’s opening and (in the First Concerto) closing movements. (I’ll get such subjective niggles out of the way, first, in order to be able to express my unreserved joy regarding the rest of the concert!)
I did think the playing order that the group devised made good sense, particularly concerning No. 1 being placed last, this being the grandest of all of the concertos, with the most instruments and the greatest number of movements. It was an obvious choice for the concert’s finale, and especially with the horns making their only appearance across the entire set, and, in a sense stealing the show with their spectacular playing. Still, here, I wanted the tempi for the first and last movements to be “chunkier”, more bucolic and rustic-sounding, and not create quite such a “hurried along” impression as I gleaned. I found myself thinking “Why rush through such delightfully detailed music?” as, to me, if felt that that this performance of the “grandest” of the works didn’t evoke quite enough grandeur…..
My other bout of “modified rapture” came with the opening of No. 6, where I wanted the violists to phrase more “affectionately” and relaxedly together, instead of the crisp repartee it seemed we got – (this is a “preference” of course, as I’ve said) – and I straightaway must add that violists Nicholas Hancox and Beatrix Francis beautifully dovetailed their phrasings in the finale, which more than made up for the impression of undue haste in the first movement – I particularly enjoyed the ensemble’s’ wholehearted “plunge” into the minor-key section of the finale – real “temperament” at work here, and most enjoyable!
As I’ve said, the rest of the concert was sheer undiluted delight! Beginning with No. 2, and its joyous and energetic opening, we were enchanted by the stellar playing of trumpeter Michael Kirgan, whose dexterity upon his instrument was little short of wondrous, both here and in the finale, a single note during the latter at one point failing to “sound” being neither here nor there! His fellow-soloists (Donald Armstrong, violin, Bridget Douglas, flute, and Robert Orr, oboe) were not to be outdone in this work, as the slow movement gave them the opportunity to bring out a most touching melancholy, so creating something of this great music’s “eternity” in their evocations of sounds amid a deep sense of stillness.
No. 5 seemed to lap up the musicians’ energies with glee, with flutist Kirsten Eade and violinist Donald Armstrong at first sharing the solo limelight with harpsichordist Michael Stewart, whose “concerto” this work ostensibly is, and whose solo cadenza on this occasion was momentarily “held up” by a page-turning mishap which necessitated some quick rearguard action by the player to regain his place in the music before launching into the movement’s cadenza – which he eventually did with what seemed like unflappable surety! – (I noted one of the ensemble helping him out by becoming his page-turner for the next little while!) The slow movement of this work – harpsichord, flute, violin and cello – was gorgeously done; while the gigue-like Allegro finale resembled a dance to which all the players gradually joined, with both spring and girth making an irresistible combination of buoyancy and energy!
I remember my first “live” encounter with these works in earlier days was through the Third Concerto, a kind of Baroque “Concerto for Orchestra” played at an NZSO concert, though I can’t remember who conducted – in any case, it all made for a vastly different sound-world to the one which the Amici Ensemble recreated here at the second half’s beginning, a briskly energetic, light-footed dance with crispy-wrought lines and plenty of tonal and textural variation in the strings-and-harpsichord sound. It all worked so well, especially the finale, whose wonderfully-wrought crescendi were irresistibly grown out of the molto-perpetuo rhythms before scintillatingly breaking at their apexes like finely-modulated oceanic waves – all very exciting and visceral an experience! Incidentally, the famous “chordal modulation” that constituted the slow movement was made into a satisfyingly “mysterious and enigmatic moment” from which the work’s finale whirled us into those “other realms” outlined above.
This was followed by the contrasting No. 4, one probably vying in popularity with No. 3, and perhaps even surpassing the latter in terms of having singable melodies! Two flutes (Bridget Douglas and Kirsten Eade) and a solo violin (Donald Armstrong) were the soloists, supported here by strings and harpsichord. Light and vivacious on its feet, the music featured delectable duetting from the flutes, and some violin pyrotechnics from Donald Armstrong that caused sparks to fly, both in the first and last movements. In between were sequences of exchange between flutes and strings, creating a fanciful aura that evoked exchanges between mythical beings, such as Echo and Narcissus, Apollo and Daphne, or Pan and Syrinx. The finale brought the strings into the limelight via a brilliant Presto, during which all the instruments adroitly interwove their lines, while revelling in the sharing of songful expressions of joyful energies.
Certainly, such “songful expressions” and “joyful energies” were readily brought out by the musicians, keeping my sensibilities on the boil for practically all of the concert, a response obviously shared by the Waikanae audience, judging by their prolonged applause at the concert’s end. I haven’t mentioned all the musicians by name thus far, and want to pay tribute to both their individual and collegial skills in helping to make this “Brandenburg journey” such a delightful and resounding experience – Anna van der Zee (violin/ piccolo violin), Malavika Gopal (violin/viola), Andrew Thomson (violin/viola), Ian Greenberg (‘cello), Ken Ichinose (‘cello), Damien Eckersley (bass), Louise Cox (oboe), Michael Austin (oboe) Justin Sun (bassoon), Alex Hambleton (horn), Kate King (horn). All deserve acclaim for their part in making these works for our pleasure at once a wondrous evocation of an era and such living, thrusting expressions of timeless human relevance.