Devon Baroque Flourishes under New Director

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  J. S. Bach: Amy Carson (soprano) and Julian Rippon (baritone), Devon Baroque / Jonathan Watts (director),  Great Hall, Dartington., Devon, 17.2.2013 (PRB)

J. S. Bach:
Suite No 1 in C major, BWV 1066
Cantata: ‘Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen’, BWV 51

Cantata: ‘Ich habe genug’, BWV 82
Suite No 3 in D major, BWV 1068

Devon_Baroque; photo credit: Philip R Buttall
Devon Baroque; photo credit: Philip R Buttall

In the autumn of 1999, a group of professional string-players invited Margaret Faultless to the south west corner of England, to direct a workshop devoted to baroque performance style. The venue for this was the Dartington Hall Estate near Totnes, which encompasses a charity specialising in the arts, social justice and sustainability.

Ten years later Devon Baroque, the result of that first meeting, was a highly-respected chamber orchestra, performing on baroque instruments, with a reputation for exuberant and polished performances of baroque repertoire, and has since established itself as an important addition to the artistic landscape of the South West and beyond.

A great deal of the initial inspiration, and subsequent development almost up to the present day, was due to the expertise, guidance and sheer inspiration of Faultless, who subsequently became its Artistic Director. With years of experience as a solo violinist, as well as leading the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra under Tom Koopman, and co-leading The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Faultless’s practical credentials were second to none.

Academically she is equally in demand as a lecturer on performance practice, and has been variously Director of Studies with the European Baroque Orchestra, co-founder of Cambridge University Collegium Musicum, and Director of Performance Studies in the Faculty of Music there, herself a graduate of Clare College in the university.

However, with the newly-created appointment of Head of Historical Performance at London’s Royal Academy of Music last summer, Faultless felt obliged to stand down as artistic director of Devon Baroque, with the hope to make occasional guest appearances in the future.

Baroque-specialist, organist and harpsichordist Jonathan Watts, who has made his home in the county, was appointed as Faultless’s successor, and the orchestra gave its first concert in Dartington at the end of 2012 under Watts’s artistic direction and lead.

Devon Baroque is essentially a chamber orchestra, but, in the spirit of a true baroque ensemble, can augment its resources to reflect the demands of the repertoire it undertakes. For its return to the Great Hall, Dartington, wind and timpani were added, for which the glorious acoustic is ideally suited. The Great Hall itself forms part of the original manor house built in 1388 but which, when Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst purchased the Dartington Hall Estate in 1925, was in ruins, just four walls without a roof. It was then restored for use as a performance space from 1926 to 1937, and now features in the annual International Summer School held on the estate.

Devon Baroque’s decision to sandwich two contrasting cantatas between two Orchestral Suites in this all-Bach programme proved an astute piece of programming, even if it necessitated a little extra scene-shifting, to accommodate a chamber organ in the former and harpsichord in the latter. The symmetry thus achieved not only made for a well-balanced concert, but also reflected Watts’ interest in both vocal, as well as instrumental music of the time, and something that will surely form a mainstay of future planning.

Opening with the Suite No 1 in C, here was a taut, well-balanced performance, where the unique qualities of each dance movement were finely pointed, and all taken at a brisk, though perfectly-managed tempo. The addition of oboes and bassoon made a telling contribution here, perfectly complementing the string sound with their equally neat articulation and phrasing.

Soprano Amy Carson proved an accomplished soloist in Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen. Bach’s occasionally uncompromising writing for the voice here seemed to constrain slightly the singer’s ability to communicate the nature of the text fully, despite the most precise German diction. However, the robust trumpet obbligato from David Staff ultimately played its part in reinforcing the work’s essential joyful sentiments.

Baritone Julian Rippon’s fine voice conveyed the poignant sentiment of Ich habe genug with great empathy, singing with the minimum of fuss, yet never short on emotion and again with real concern for clear diction. In this he was admirably assisted by Gail Hennesy’s perfectly-poised oboe-playing.

Bach’s Suite No 3 in D emerged as arguably the concert’s highlight, and brought out one of the best performances from the ensemble heard for some time, especially with the addition of woodwind, brass and timpani.

There was an excellent use of dynamic shading, which ensured that sufficient interest was always present in sections where repeats were obligatory. The well-known Air had just the right amount of onward motion to allow the glorious melody to blossom naturally, without any suspicion of over-sentimentality, while the final rip-roaring Gigue sent the packed audience away with a real spring in its step, even if many present were hoping at least for some kind of reprise, by way of an encore.

Apart from a truly delightful afternoon’s music-making, two important facts emerged from this event.

Firstly, Devon Baroque would seem to have found the ideal leader in American-born violinist Persephone Gibbs, whose total empathy with Jonathan Watts is evident throughout. Never dominating the proceedings, Gibbs provided the essential link between director and performers, and clearly helped to engender such an obviously enjoyable playing environment for her co-instrumentalists.

Secondly, while violinist Faultless would be an extremely hard act to follow in any musical context, Devon Baroque is in safe hands with keyboard-specialist Watts. It’s just that the ‘grip’ will be somewhat different.


Philip R Buttall