United Kingdom Telemann, Boismortier, Leclair, Tartini, Bach: Devon Baroque Ensemble [Persephone Gibbs (violin), Elizabeth Walker (recorder and baroque flute), Barbara Degener (cello), Jonathan Watts (harpsichord)], The Great Hall, Dartington 16.11.2014 (PRB)
Georg Philipp Telemann: Trio Sonata in F major TWV 42 F8
Joseph de Boismortier: Sonata Op 51 No 2 in E minor
Jean-Marie Leclair: Flute Sonata Op 9 No 7 in G major
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata in G major BWV 1038
Giuseppe Tartini: Sonata in G minor B.g10 ‘Didone abbandonata’
Johann Sebastian Bach: “Sonata sopr’il Soggetto Reale” from The Musical Offering BWV 1079
Given its geographical location in the UK’s South West peninsula, the county of Devon is extremely fortunate in providing a home-base for Devon Baroque, a chamber orchestra specialising in music of the period played on instruments of the time and in appropriate style. It has given over 100 concerts in the South West since its formation fifteen years ago.
A variable-sized ensemble, which naturally depends on the demands of the music being played, it can comprise up to twenty performers, when wind, brass and percussion instruments are called for. Following a successful initial recital for the flourishing Totnes Early Music Society back in June 2013 – an important market town in the county, close to Devon Baroque’s spiritual home at Dartington, and a buoyant community that punches well above its size culturally – it also now functions independently as Devon Baroque Ensemble, for works requiring only six players or less.
Once you’ve appreciated period instruments and contemporary playing-practices, there’s perhaps only one thing better than listening to Devon Baroque, and that is its more intimate offspring, Devon Baroque Ensemble – a descriptor largely initiated to avoid any advertising confusion with the full-string, or multi-section rig-ups.
Of course, virtually everyone in the full ensemble is a soloist in their own right, so taking lead-violinist Persephone Gibbs, continuo players Barbara Degener (cello) and harpsichordist Jonathan Watts (Devon Baroque’s Artistic Director), and adding accomplished flautist and recorder-player Elizabeth (Liz) Walker to the mix, is sure to produce a mouth-watering recipe in any case.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the opening work, Telemann’s Trio Sonata in F, where treble recorder and violin combined their lines and melodic shaping perfectly, with seamless support from the harpsichord and cello continuo, which, while laying down a solid harmonic foundation and bass-line – the latter being a quintessential feature of baroque writing – were always sympathetic to the demands of the counterpoint being woven above.
Although today’s ensemble comprised just four players, there was a real attempt to provide as much variety as possible, by varying resources and instrumentation, where possible. After Telemann’s spirited and full-blown opener, the Sonata in E minor by Boismortier offered a different soundscape altogether. In this work for solo violin and flute – i.e. with the continuo absent – Gibbs and Walker proved perfect sparring-partners, both in the work’s lyrical sections, where dynamic balance and matched tone-quality were always well considered, and in the rapid-moving moments, where neatness of articulation was always well to the fore.
Leclair’s Sonata in G minor is for flute and continuo, and while it was a convincing performance overall, occasionally the cello line appeared to mask somewhat the essentially delicate strains of the flute’s low register. Of course, the flute in question is not the modern instrument, but the one-keyed baroque flute. Even though it is here paired with contemporary string instruments, with their admittedly gentler sound, the physics of sound-production necessitated by requiring many more cross-fingerings than the modern Boehm flute, does have perhaps a more significant effect on timbre and projection in different parts of the register, though this might have been factored in.
One of the good things about concerts today, is the willingness of most performers to say a few words to their audience during the performance. When this merely involves repeating what is already in front of listeners by way of well-researched programme notes, then this is uncalled for. But even with an informed audience, which early-and-period music tends to elicit, a few words about tuning and, in the case of Bach’s (Trio) Sonata in G major about to be played, scordatura – where the violin’s E string is here tuned a tone lower, allowing for enhanced sonorities from the use of open strings – were particularly apposite. In the event all four players responded as one to the demands of the writing, faithfully capturing the respective qualities of each of the four movements.
Gibbs’s superb playing in Tartini’s Sonata in G minor ‘Didone abbandonata’ was a model of concise, yet effect ornamentation, expressive in the opening ‘Affetuoso’, and deftly given in the ensuing ‘Presto’ and closing ‘Allegro’.
Again, with the briefest of spoken introduction coupled with a few bars on the harpsichord, Watts put the final work, Bach’s Sonata sopr’il Soggetto Reale from The Musical Offering clearly in perspective, challenging the listener not only to enjoy some truly fine playing in arguably the recital’s musical highlight, but also to try to keep track of the fugue subject as Bach, with his usual ease yet masterly skill and ingenuity, extensively explores its possibilities in various guises and across the instruments.
In times when the economic future viability of some mainstream, and much larger organisations is being questioned, it’s most reassuring to read that Devon Baroque itself continues to enjoy such robust backroom support, and which the high quality of its music so richly deserves.
Philip R Buttall