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Angela angelic at Angel Place

City Recital Hall Angel Place
02/19/2005 -  
Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber: Battalia, Johann Sebastian Bach: Keyboard Concertos No.4 in A BWV 1055 & No.1 in D minor BWV 1052, Erkki-Sven Tüür: Passion, Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No.5 BWV 1050, Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round.
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Alison Mitchell (Flute)
Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti (Lead Violin/Artistic Director)

The Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) is a young, energetic group of musicians known as much for their casual all-black attire and their practice of standing while performing (cellists and harpsichordist excluded of course), as for the adventurousness of their repertoire and the excellence of their playing. They tend to develop strong and lasting relationships with their visiting artists that often lead to repeated visits and successful recording collaborations. Since she first played with them in 2003, Angela Hewitt has clearly developed such a bond.

Hewitt has now returned for a series of concerts with the ACO in Australia, a studio recording with them of Bach’s complete keyboard concertos for Hyperion, and a subsequent North American and Canadian tour with them timed to coincide with the release of the CDs.

This concert was the first of the ACO’s 2005 national concert season and comprised a generous and invigorating blend of Baroque and contemporary works. It took place in the City Recital Hall, Sydney’s equivalent of The Wigmore Hall. Named imaginatively by the City Council as the “City Recital Hall’ (in line with other council amenities, such as the “City Dog Pound” and the “City Waste Disposal”), Sydneysiders understandably prefer the more romantic name “Angel Place” - derived from the small lane that snakes around the front and side of the building.

The hall, built in 1999, draws upon 19th century typology and has a three stories high 'shoebox' form to provide what are purported to be outstanding acoustics. This reviewer believes that the acceptance by the Sydney public that Angel Place has good acoustics is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. The hall produces a muddy and submerged sound, lacking in focus. Pianists suffer the most, the shoebox producing the aural equivalent of playing at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. Fortunately Hewitt’s choice of her current favorite, a Fazioli, went some way to clarifying her tone, without the addition of the more resonant base that a Steinway may have produced. I was pleased to note that the Hyperion recordings have been made in the acoustically superior Verbrugghen Hall, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

The concert opened with Biber’s 1673 work, Battalia. The composer, reputedly a stupendous violinist, loved to use string instruments to produce new and interesting effects. Battalia is one of the earliest pieces of program music, vividly portraying aspects of military life with highly effective musical mimicry produced by a string orchestra.

The piece consists of seven short movements. The first is an introductory parade drill in which trumpet-like violins are accompanied by “drums” (violinists tapping the bodies of their instruments). The second parodies drunken soldiers by having different strings simultaneously “sing’ songs from different parts of central and eastern Europe – each a different key (and many off-key!). Such a delightful cacophony (Think: Ives’ Putnam’s Camp) may lead the audience to imagine the orchestra is having a bad night, so Richard Tognetti engaged in some ingenious subterfuge. He announced prior to the piece that some members of the orchestra had not yet arrived and were suspected of still being at the pub. As this particular movement got underway, the missing musicians staggered onto the stage, each playing his “song’ while wandering around in a state of feigned inebriation. The next movement, a march, involved “fife” (brilliantly imitated by Tognetti’s violin) accompanied by a “drum” (double bass with a piece of paper inserted between strings and board to give a percussive effect). A farewell lament brought to mind Bach’s ‘Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother BWV 992. The battle movement, though short, is terrifying. Violins miraculously become trumpets, cannon shots volley from one side of the orchestra to the other as the strings are violently snapped with the players’ right hands, and ferocious tremolos intensify the stile concitato mood to breaking point. A final lament for the wounded musketeers dies away in a chromatic descent. This is a piece of music that could have been written for the ACO and they relished every moment of it.

Neither BWV 1055 nor BWV 1052 were conceived for keyboard by Bach. BWV 1055 was originally an oboe d’amore concerto and the piano makes a perfect substitute for the oboe’s sonorous, plangent tone. The first movement was played by both Hewitt and the ACO with exquisite lightness. In the Larghetto, Hewitt’s elegiac singing tone dispelled all thoughts of the oboe. In the third movement she imparted to this music’s swirling energy the elegance of a court ball.

The concerto in D minor was conceived as a violin concerto and is, as Schumann stated, ‘a masterwork’. It must have been dear to Bach’s heart: he later used each movement in his cantatas. Hewitt uncovered numerous riches in the first movement, particularly in the rarefied softer sections. For their part, the ACO produced playing of subtlety and colour. The exquisite slow movement was used by Bach for a cantata movement to the words, We must attain the Kingdom of God through many tribulations and these words reflect its sense of devout resignation. Hewitt brings to her playing of Bach a devotional quality that is quite unique among present-day pianists and gives spiritual meaning to movements such as this. The final movement was brimful with exuberant vitality – orchestra and soloist obviously enjoying making music together.

After the interval, Bach’s Brandenburg concerto No.5 was book-ended by two contemporary works. The first of these was the middle movement of Tüür’s three-movement work, Action-Passion-Illusion, composed in 1993-4. The Passion movement is often played on its own and starts with a single double bass intoning a quiet melody. Slowly other instruments are added, layer upon layer, the cross-rhythms thickening like paints on a canvas. The texture continues to build, becoming deeper, wider, and more intense. This twenty minute movement is awesomely powerful and it is difficult to conceive that it could have been better played with Tognetti, as first violin, in total control of his forces.

The Brandenburg concerto saw Hewitt return to the stage accompanied by Alison Mitchell and Tognetti as her co-soloists. Mitchell, a Melbournian, is now principal flautist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. When played by harpsichord and baroque flute, this concerto grosso gives equal status to the three soloists. With a piano and a Boehm-flute, the latter can be overpowered. However, the delicacy of Hewitt and the tonal purity of Mitchell made for a delectable ensemble piece.

The final work, appropriately titled Last Round, was the first movement of Golijove’s 1996 tribute to his compatriot, the great tango composer, Astor Piazzola. The work was written after Piazzola died, at the peak of his creativity, in 1992. The Last Round is the first of two movements. Its name derives not from a dance round, as one may imagine, but from the boxing ring. The metaphor involves the notoriously pugnacious Piazzola being given a last chance to fight again, and originated in a short story by Julio Cortázar. The orchestra is divided into two string quartets on opposing sides of the stage separated by a centrally placed “referee”, the double bass. The two quartets engage in a dueling tango that also conjures up the image of Piazzolla’s beloved bandoneon, compressed and under pressure. It was a satisfying end to an unforgettable concert.

Try to hear these forces on their North American and Canadian tour if you can. If you cannot, there are always the CDs of the concerti. Hyperion informs me that they are due for release in July.

Mark Selikowitz



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