Music / The Berkshire Review in Australia

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra Plays Johann Sebastian Bach and His Contemporaries

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Dorée Dixon and Darryl Poulsen play horns for the Telemann concerto. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Dorée Dixon and Darryl Poulsen play horns for the Telemann concerto. Photo by Steven Godbee.

City Recital Hall, Sydney: 9 May, 2012
Continues in Sydney until 19 May.

J. S. Bach – Sinfonia from Cantata Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 29
J. S. Bach – Chorale “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (“Jesu joy of man’s desiring”) from Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147
J. S. Bach – Orchestral Suite No.1 in C major BWV 1066
J. S. Bach Opening chorus from Cantata Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110
Jan Dismas ZelenkaKyrie from Missa Sancti Josephi, ZWV 14
Telemann – Concerto for two horns in D major TWV: 52: D
I. Largo – Allegro
II. Vivace
III. Affetuoso
IV. Allegro

Darryl Poulsen and Dorée Dixon – Baroque horns

Handel – Coronation Anthem No. 2 “My heart is inditing” HWV 261
Handel – Coronation Anthem No. 4 “Let thy hand be strengthened” HWV 259

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Paul Dyer – artistic director and harpsichord

Brandenburg Choir
Belinda Montgomery – soprano
Tim Chung – alto
Eric Peterson – tenor
Simon Turnill – bass

Paul Dyer says he sees playing Johann Sebastian Bach as the “ultimate experience for a musician,” rightfully so, the same goes for a listener too, and in naming his orchestra after the most famous of Bach’s instrumental works, he puts his money where his mouth is, but more importantly so in the fine, detailed playing, expressiveness and unforced enthusiasm, which show much care and thought in the preparation of this program. Sydney perhaps is not and never claimed to be a great Bach town, but either way, as a lover of his music, I can feel sorely deprived of him, despite the odd performance on period instruments or otherwise over the last two years. So it felt like a parched walker coming upon a water-hole to hear a program where the whole first half was devoted to Bach and the rest to contemporary (with a small ‘c’) music. The ABO has pulled out many of the stops (within reason), assembling a larger-than-usual group of 10 violins, four violas, three cellos, one bass, two flutes, three oboes, one bassoon, two horns, three trumpets, theorbo, timpani, organ and harpsichord, as well as a choir of about 35, though of course not all of these for all pieces.

The larger group is capable and has a tendency towards a noticeably larger volume than in some of the group’s recent concerts, often overwhelming in themselves. The textures were generally smoother than usual too, mostly because of the larger violin section, also with a little less transparency in the middle and top range, though ‘smoother’ is a relative term and, especially with the strong oboe section, and first violin Rachael Beesley’s very expressive and moving solositic phrasing, the voices of the period instruments and gut strings were still distinctive in the lush setting. Though a little more “festive” in this way from Bach’s ideal minimum orchestra, the setting and context, the acoustic of the concert hall were quite different from Bach’s original too, though interestingly the acoustic of this very much secular concert hall, sounded nearly church-like when excited by this ensemble, to help along a very touching concert; this orchestra worked very well for the Handel Anthems and the warm-blooded Telemann Concerto.

They launched themselves warmly into the first canata excerpt, the (instrumental) sinfonia from Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 29, whose main player is the obligato organ part in flowing eighth notes. The full sound of the orchestra with the different contrapuntal parts added up to a generally quite thick texture, fairly loudly played, not using the full dynamic range of the ensemble, but still the music had detail, rooted in Heidi Jones’ subtle and seemingly effortless playing of the little positive (maybe not so little compared to the medieval variety)‚ which has a beautiful tone, mellifluous yet very distinctive, especially when juxtaposed with the bassoons, trumpets and oboes next to it. The music’s quick and nuanced harmonic progression and lively but fairly even rhythm (though not quite as even, perhaps, as it may appear on the page to a person trained solely on romantic music) allows, or rather requires very thoughtful care over the articulation of the larger phrases as well as the arc of the quadruple groups of eighth notes, to meet in close conversation the other voices in the orchestra. The style of the detail and address of the conversation itself was all of a piece with the style of the ABO, which has very distinctive voice, even for a period instrument group.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with Choir. Photo by Steven Godbee.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with Choir. Photo by Steven Godbee.

The second cantata excerpt is maybe the most popular of Bach’s music, rightfully enough (as long as it doesn’t get worn from over-familiarity), and disembodied from its cantata like this, not to sound too curmudgeonly about it, one is more aware of the fact. The orchestra, with Paul Dyer conducting with free hands now, took a more cohesive approach which suits their take on the music, the chorus (with women sopranos and men altos, tenors and basses) singing serenely but expressively with a rich texture and a overwhelming effect from the massed voices mostly in balance with the instruments. The chorale means much more in its context when arrived at at the end of its cantata, and the ABO I’m sure could play a wonderful and moving interpretation of the complete cantata — or any or all of them —, a complete cycle of the cantatas would be an immense undertaking, but would be just as, or more, rewarding.

In the orchestral suite, the orchestra’s full sense of drama, breadth and litheness emerged more strongly, especially from the Menuet II where the full dynamic range including the very soft end came into play, a flexibility held up through the end of the concert, perhaps partly because the musicians had the complete works to chew on. The varied but interconnected movements of the piece give much for such fine musicians to chew on and their interpretation’s sense of the overarching drift and purpose of the Suite came across clearly (despite some inter-movement applause from the slightly restless audience, some of whom were talking quite loudly, egregiously enough, while a baby seated with his father near me behaved very well! Let’s hope he represents the new generation of classical music audiences.) Some of the dances (the Menuet here, for example) are more stately, dignified, what is now thought of as ‘courtly’ or even ‘majestic’ (a specific quality which would come back for the Handel Anthems later), while others come from outside the city walls, closer to their peasant ancestors. These contrasts and the contrasts in the orchestration and the dynamics within dance-movements, and the repeats of the movements’ opening themes, gives great clarity to the piece and these changes, juxtapositions and repetitions were handled very expressively by the musicians involved in each section. Quite a grueling piece in this way with its technical requirements, emotional demands, its shear length though offering very little repetition, with the musicians’ thoughtfulness and concentration, the musicians didn’t hold back in the slightest, giving their usual generous energy, control and full-blooded address.

Soloists from the Brandenburg Choir. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Soloists from the Brandenburg Choir. Photo by Steven Godbee.

The choral Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, which opens a third cantata, BWV 110, showed some of the dramatic sense of the group, again, which bodes very well for their performance on Monteverdi’s Orfeo in concert later this year — and makes more sense on its own as an excerpt performed as a complete piece in a program. The soloists were well balanced with the orchestra and sang very fine ensembles, the energetic, sunny quality of the music and its subject suit their style very well. The orchestra too gave a full send off to the singers their with the instrumental trumpet opening. The chorus’ words for the opening lines were quite clear, but not so clear afterward, but this was the opening night of the program, so no doubt as the nuanced dynamic and tonal changes become second nature in front of the audience, they can concentrate more on the words.

Paul Dyer obtained a copy of the autograph of Zelenka’s Mass for St Joseph from Prague and though badly damaged, it has been reconstructed and here we hear its Kyrie. With the timpani and horns and trumpets, a very bright rhythm now comes out and a less smooth texture, still with tonal clarity which brings out the distinct voice of the Bohemian composer who we seem to get to hear more and more of lately. The choir and soloists sang the repeating words of the text with thoughtful gravity and nuanced feeling.

Telemann’s concerto for two horns clearly shows Darryl Poulsen and Dorée Dixon’s enormous ability without putting it on display through a show-off, obvious style of virtuosity. The horns’ melodies seem fairly simply but are very vocal and capable of expressive depth from such fine chops. The Baroque concerto, and this one in particular, is not designed to display a single musician for the better part of an hour, but rather a conversation between them and voices in the orchestra and the orchestra as a whole. They seemed perhaps a touch nervous on this opening night of the program, fidgeting a bit between entrances with their tubing, but their intonation was spot on and they gave a very human performance in both the slower largo and affetuoso as well as the vivace and allegro. Telemann’s skillful use of the slight difference in tuning between the strings and the woodwinds, the keyboard, and the slightly obstreperous natural scale of the horns are extremely well composed, and fascinating in itself. Contemporaneous listeners would have had generally better music education and would have been used to differences in tuning systems and in the scales within systems. The difference in pitch shows up particularly strongly to our equal tempered ears trained on romantic orchestras, albeit more strongly than Telemann might have intended, but in a way, like how a beginner learning a new language, less distracted by associations of meanings, is more aware of the unfamiliar words’ sounds than a master or native, we have a peculiar advantage in appreciating this aspect of Baroque music, though of course it can’t hurt to train the ear in the old pitches, to know the scales and tuning systems backward and forward by ear. Rachael Beesley’s violin solo deserves mention too, for being extremely expressive and she has so subtle a touch.

Handel’s Anthems, these two both written for King George II’s coronation, again show Paul Dyer’s orchestra’s special sensitivity to the dramatic. These anthems in closing the program had a sense of occasion and the orchestra played them with seriousness and weight, while showing a festive sense, a sense and understanding even beyond the more personal occasion of gleeful musicians having played so well such difficult music of a favorite composer, J. S. Bach, but something of the ‘old’ spiritual connection of a leader with their land and their culture, something which can sometimes be missing both in government and in this music when played today. It is much more varied in mood over a short period than that description may imply and the very warm musicians sang with very supple and nimble expressiveness throughout.

Paul Dyer directs the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra from the harpsichord. Photo by Steven Godbee.
Paul Dyer directs the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra from the harpsichord. Photo by Steven Godbee.
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