The challenge, the risk of counter-tenor singing, still fairly young as a revived technique, seems to appeal to modern audiences; it is a peculiar type of virtuosity just by virtue of the technique. It is only natural that the the counter-tenor revival took off in the 1950’s and developed in parallel with the historical performance practice movement. That was Alfred Deller who helped it take off, who started as a boy in a choir in the 1920’s and as an adult helped the Purcell revival in singing alto, and gave recitals of Italian madrigals and Elizabethan songs, but also singing contemporary opera, creating the role of Oberon for Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream.[1. See J. B. Steane writing for Grove Music Online.] Philippe Jaroussky cites Deller’s very distinctive voice, and also James Bowman, who too inspired Britten, creating the role of Apollo for Death in Venice, as voices he listened to in forming his own, and forming as an artist, Bowman especially. Bowman gave his farewell concert in Paris only last November, and many good recordings exist of Deller. Now with some hundreds of professional counter-tenors in the world and they inching up into the soprano range, the hole in the Baroque and classical “instrumentarium” left by the extremely distinctive and castrato voice which tickled so much enthusiasm in audiences — and composers — in the 17th and 18th century is filling, or at least better circumscribed, without needing to resort to a false general preference or dichotomy determined by fashions between counter-tenors and sopranos en travestie, in recital or in opera, or between counter-tenors and contraltos.
The stuff of music is not stuff. Music’s physical presence, like dance’s too, is gone forever almost as soon as it is played. As Christmas and the planet Earth become more and more burdened with stuff, permanent stuff at that — at least permanently in the landfill — and people seemingly more and more frantic that they’re not spending enough money, you can feel more and more by contrast how music had to have such an enormous part of the festival. To fill an honest need of another person you love is another thing, but even if there is a physical thing involved, it is not the thing itself but the love to which the thing is a mere shadow and the mutually filled need itself. Carpeting one’s wants and feelings of insufficiency with stuff will always miss.
It wouldn’t necessarily be very difficult for historic performance practice to degenerate into the “flavor of the month” endlessly seeking novelty, ironically enough, in newest old bizarre instrument never before heard by modern ears, or into a cliquey “earlier than thou” competition. Perhaps we are just beyond this stage, or perhaps the 20 years since Pamela Poulin’s exciting discovery of the appearance of Anton Stadler’s basset clarinet — we haven’t found a surviving original specimen of the ephemeral instrument — has given time for experimentation and to rediscover the technique and the soul of the instrument and the “novelty” part has worn off a bit. The beauty of the basset clarinet’s voice, not so much unfamiliar or even unique, as even more clarinetish than a usual clarinet, is exactly fitting to Mozart’s music, giving a fascinating insight into the idea that a period’s instrumentarium exactly befits the period’s music, and the question whether the instruments evolve to fit the new music or the music evolves to take advantage of the new instruments, or both at once. The clarinet generally speaking having such a “normal” tone between the extremes of the more penetrating and sharp older cousin oboe and small-bird-like ancient cousin flute, fills in an aching space in the orchestra and makes it hard to believe (in retrospect) that it became a regular in european orchestras as late as it did. Indeed Mozart’s life coincided with this change. His letters home from Mannheim, where he first encountered clarinets in orchestral music, read like a revelation he was so enthusiastic about them, and he immediately took to composing in the new woodwind texture. Anton Stadler (his son Johann played the other clarinet in some of Mozart’s symphonies, as in Mozart’s last public concert in early 1791) as a friend and “early adopter,” or perhaps only adopter, of the basset clarinet, such a perfect solo instrument, too perfect, at least for its virtuosic possibilities but more importantly for its expressive voice, no doubt created inspiration and opportunity to write a concerto for it. It is also thought that Mozart and Stadler intended a basset clarinet for the clarinet quintet of two years before (K. 581). Perhaps a shade of that original inspiration sparks performers today. Mozart hadn’t written a concerto for three years (the last piano concerto K. 595 was probably begun in 1788 and finished in late 1790[1. see H. C. Robbins Landon’s 1791: Mozart’s Last Year]), having practically “perfected” the piano concerto (but no doubt he could have had more ideas, judging from the depth of those he wrote), the following concerto turned out to be for clarinet. If the violin concerto would take the 19th century to “perfect” — according to conventional wisdom anyhow — Madeleine Easton’s performance of Mozart’s third violin concerto brought that notion into question (see below). And between the very human piano and violin, it is not common to hear concertos for the stringless family, so it is surprising and amazing to hear such a satisfying concerto for clarinet, as satisfying as any for piano or violin, or at the least it distracts a listener from making the comparison. This is in a large way due to the presence of the resurrected basset clarinet in such a deeply satisfying performance with such a close, understanding rapport between the less familiar clarinet and the more familiar orchestral members.
L’Orfeo is a performer’s piece. Composed at a time when the composition of music meant something quite different to what it does now, or in the 19th Century, though certain aleatory pieces of the 20th Century left very much of the act of creation to the performer these do seem to be considered somewhat freakish by many — to many programmers of concerts and some in audiences in particular — and popular opinion now gives very rigidly defined roles to composer and performer, to the point that many expect a very narrow field of professional activities of each. Perhaps it is partly the force of professional specialization which seems so strong nowadays, especially in the sciences. We wouldn’t want to turn into a race of Fachidioten, though.
The first three programs of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra this year have made a nice historical progression from the late Baroque of Vivaldi, to that of central Europe and England with Bach, Zelenka and Handel, now to the late classical period. The fortepiano has come out to replace the harpsichord and the orchestra grown with thicker string sections and clarinets to bring us Haydn and the Italian trumpet virtuoso Gabriele Cassone. For the Haydn G major Symphony, the so-called “Surprise,” Paul Dyer conducts from behind the fortepiano bench, and lays chords oftentimes too while using his body and shoulders to conduct. Though we can catch at times some of the period reproduction fortepiano’s beautiful sonorities, it is too large a hall really to do it justice and often it gets swallowed in the orchestra, but no matter, that is not its purpose here, though it does make a slight difference in color. What is important is that with the larger (late) classical orchestra, the conductor is necessary and conductorly music-making is readily audible here. With more dynamic possibilities from the backed-up strings, and timpani, and opportunities to use them thanks to Haydn (not to mention Gluck!) — and Maestro Dyer (though he never gives himself the label “conductor”) does know how to use it — the orchestra adapts naturally and readily to the new-sounding late 18th century palate. The strings have more solidity, they are still clear, very precise, with guest concertmaster Madeleine Easton leading them with her beautiful playing, but with more structure, polished but with a fine texture by virtue of the gut strings and the varied shapes and sizes of the violins. The orchestra is set up with cellos on the left next to the first violins, and basses, violas and second violins on the right, horns on the back left, trumpets (natural baroque ones) on the back right with the woodwinds in between.
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.
For a long time I was put off Vivaldi by the incessant repetitions of the Four Seasons on the local classical radio station. This was of course unfair, but it can be tricky to find performances of many of his other several hundred pieces (not least in Venice itself), and in fact the frequently encountered way of playing Vivaldi, with a certain edge, a forthright, frenetic sort of energy, which may display the technical virtuosity to maximum effect, is unfair too. Australian Brandenburg Orchestra artistic director and harpsichordist Paul Dyer and guest violinist and director Federico Guglielmo have constructed a program which is remarkably varied — indeed to present a program devoted to a single composer (or an exhibition devoted to a single artist) only really works with and artistic personality capable of a varied outlook lest we become oppressed by the artist’s obsessions. Some of these concerti have not been published and clearly the two musicians have put much deep thought and research into their performance. Here is a Vivaldi with subtlety of expression, which also puts to good use all of this orchestra’s skill across the instruments without showing off. All the concerti are “for several instruments” with some instruments re-apearing as soloists with a consistent personality and characteristically written parts, but with something quite different to say in each concerto. The program is carefully arranged in a kind of cycle, giving the sense of music taking us on a journey.
Having grown up in the northern hemisphere, the winter Christmas is ingrained in me, but the event is fundamentally connected to mid-winter. The pagan winter solstice festival with its strong connection to nature, namely the Sun, a celebration of the days starting to lengthen and a new year beginning, is tied to Christmas as the scriptural imagery is compatible with the older ritual’s. Zeus, Dionysus, Apollo, and Mithras are all also alleged to have been born on the (northern) winter solstice and St. Chrysostom said of the timing of the Nativity in the 4th Century ‘while the heathen were busied with their profane rites the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance’ but also thought it a suitable birthday for the ‘Sun of Righteousness.’ In that sense it naturally and intuitively doesn’t feel like the right festival for the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. So unique traditions evolve here and the more appealing ones are strongly connected to nature — spending all your time outside enjoying the long daylight while it lasts, roses blooming, surfing, eating seafood, fresh fruit, especially cherries, etc. —, but still are colored by the northern traditions. With his Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Sydney’s main squeeze for Baroque music and period instrument lovers, Paul Dyer provides the best music for this austral summer solstice Christmas, music which makes natural and festive sense. It is very serious, ‘scholarly’ music, but with the artistic spirit of the Baroque steeping it, it has a bright festive sunny quality too, especially in the style of their playing. Dyer has assembled a varied program of traditional carols played very thoughtfully, Spanish popular music from the 16th Century, late Baroque instrumental music and early Baroque motets and more recently composed pieces. Somehow Dyer’s enthusiasm, sense of occasion and serious-festive-art approach to music allows all this to hang together comfortably.