Concert Review: ‘The Genius’

Sounds Like Sydney reviewed by Victoria Watson, 190224

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music
February 18 2024, 3pm

The performers: Anna Fraser (Soprano), Sally Melhuish, Alana Blackburn (Recorders), Sally Walker (Baroque Flute), Meg Cohen, Sarah Papadopoulos (Baroque Violins), John Ma, Baroque (Viola, Canberra concert), Suzie Kim, Baroque (Viola, Sydney concert), Tim Blomfield (Baroque Cello), Simon Martyn-Ellis (Theorbo), Monika Kornel (Harpsichord).

Salut! Baroque is a Canberra-Sydney based ensemble which draws its performers from around Australia. Co-artistic directors Sally Melhuish and Tim Blomfield are celebrating 29 years with this ensemble, committed to performing fine chamber music of the 17th and 18th centuries, with attention to accurate and lively performance practice.

The ‘genius’ of this concert’s title is none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. In twelve varied musical offerings, the group explored Bach’s musical influences, compositions of his contemporaries, rivals and his son Johann Christian.

Soprano Anna Fraser featured in a number of the works. A regular with the Song Company, Cantillation and Pinchgut Opera, Fraser brought a theatrical flair to the stage with her close attention to text and emotion and stylistic nuance through ornamentation.

A highlight was her performance of In this shady blest retreat from Vauxhall Songs by J.C. Bach. The jaunty dotted rhythms and bright happy affect were beautifully conveyed in these songs which were written in English for the outdoor London concerts at Vauxhall Gardens c.1769.

Of the Italian repertoire Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigal Lamento della Ninfa (1638) was most expressive and exquisite. Re-scoring the accompaniment for two recorders, baroque flute and theorbo, added a reflective spiritual quality reminiscent of a portative organ but with much more warmth and flexibility of tone colour. Simon Martyn-Ellis on theorbo superbly provided the simple ground bass on which the song extemporises. Fraser’s striking use of portamenti and register colouring to convey the deeper emotions behind the text displayed a close understanding of the poetry and Monteverdi’s own genius to convey the human condition with all its variety.

Bookended with this sublime work was Handel’s Occhi belli, voi sol sietel from Il pastor Fido (1712). Again, the orchestration was creatively reimagined as the strings accompanied pizzicato. This created a mood of delicate breathlessness and mirrored the image of twinkling stars evoked in the singer’s contemplation of the beloved’s eyes. Fraser’s clear sparkling soprano soared above with sighs and sobs reflecting the passions of the lover.

At the harpsichord was the highly experienced keyboard player and conductor Chad Kelly. Losing their regular continuo player to illness, Salut! could not have had a more fortunate last-minute substitute. With unflagging energy and rhythmic drive Kelly showed why he is in great demand since moving to Australia from the UK in 2021.

Sally Walker has an extensive list of credits in Europe as a virtuoso baroque flautist. The concert concluded with J S Bach’s well-loved Overture and Badinerie from the Orchestral suite No.2 in B minor which is virtually a flute concerto, likely written much later than often thought, around 1739.  Walker was masterly in her performance at a rapid tempo of the fiendish divisions, at times adding delicious ornamentation to the familiar roulades beloved of jazz arrangers and vocal scatters. This universal appeal combined with the intellectual brilliance of J.S. Bach’s mastery of counterpoint and polyphony assure his place among those considered true geniuses of music.

Salut! Baroque deliver to their dedicated audience a feast of delectable morsels in musical form ensuring them a lively future.