Style, Refinement and Diversity from ‘Apollo’s Fire’ – Explosive Musical Fire from Alina Ibragimova

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Proms Saturday Matinee 3: C.P.E. Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann & J.S. Bach: Alina Ibragimova (violin) Jeannette Sorrel (harpsichord), Apollo’s Fire, Cadogan Hall London, 15.8.2015. (CS)

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Violinist Alina Ibragimova performs with Apollo’s Fire, directed by Jeannette Sorrell, for the third in a series of Proms Saturday Matinees at Cadogan Hall c BBC/Sarah Jeynes

C.P.E. Bach – Symphony in B minor Wq.182 No.5 (‘Hamburg’)
Antonio Vivaldi – Violin Concerto in D major RV 234 ‘L’inquietudine’
Georg Philipp Telemann – Burlesque de Quixotte
J.S. Bach – Violin Concerto in E Major Violin Concerto in E major, BWV 1042
J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.5 in D major BWV 1050

“In our mind’s eye, and in the hub of Apollo’s Fire, we’re about to make a journey back to the early-eighteenth century, and to Gottfried Zimmermann’s well-appointed coffee house in Leipzig.”  Such was the invitation that BBC Radio 3 presenter Christopher Cook extended to listeners at home at the start of this attractive programme of Baroque music at the Cadogan Hall.

For those of us in the auditorium, the visual distraction of the entrance of the stylishly attired Apollo’s Fire, otherwise known as the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, led by their director Jeannette Sorrell, made a trifle more difficult the imaginative leap to the cultured ambience of Café Zimmermann – where an audience of middle-class men and women (the latter were permitted to attend public concerts, even if prohibited from frequenting coffeehouses) had enjoyed the first performances of many of J.S. Bach’s secular cantatas including the so-called ‘Coffee Cantata’.  A burnished red glow illuminated the platform, Sorrell’s black harpsichord was resplendently decorated in gilt and scarlet and the players’ ornate formal black was adorned with splashes of gold – most flamboyantly in the ornate bow restraining the flowing locks of concert-master Oliver Brault, whose gracious black neck tie and gilt waistcoat chain were worthy of the finest Hapsburg court.

But, the music certainly did its trick.  The opening work, C.P.E. Bach’s B minor String Symphony (1773), immediately revealed a refined approach characterised by a lightness of touch – which did not preclude occasional, judicious flashes of vigour and colour – and elegant phrasing without excessive emphasis or undue mannerism.  Apollo’s Fire projects with a bright, clean sound, which benefited from the acoustics of the Cadogan Hall, but which was more significantly influenced by the numerical dominance of the violins whose upper, embellished lines the bass playing of cellists Rene Schiffer and Rebecca Landell, though unfailingly decorous, could not balance.  Despite this, the expressive unanimity and uniformity of articulation were impressive.  Supporting the ensemble was the prudent, astute theorbo continuo of John Lenti.

Lenti exchanged theorbo for baroque guitar elsewhere in the programme, and the ringing incisiveness and rhythmic zip of the latter added a welcome dynamism to excerpts from Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte of 1739.  The link with Zimmermann was retained by this unusual work, being heard for the first time at the Proms, for from 1720 the Café had hosted concerts by the Collegium Musicum which Telemann had founded when he was a law student two decades previously, and which was directed by J.S. Bach for 10 years from 1729.

The tripartite overture had a persuasive forward momentum, with its tight dotted rhythms and flowing semiquavers, and led us into Don Quixotte’s awakening, followed by his helter-skelter attacks on the whirling windmills; in the latter movement the clarity and air of the repetitive semiquavers and abrupt leaps created a well-judged levity and humour.  In contrast, the first violins’ ‘sighs’, as the old Don yearns for his beloved Princess Dulcinée, hit just the right note between tenderness and sentimentality, and were alluringly answered by the gentle nudgings of the lower strings.  ‘Sanche Panse berné’ (Sancho Panza Tossed in a Blanket) saw bows swoop upwards and Brault almost take off from the platform.  The final movement accelerated excitedly at the close as we raced through Quixotte’s dreams of his adventures.

This was terrific playing: characterful and captivating.  However, I must declare one misgiving.  Jeannette Sorrell’s conducting technique is unorthodox and dramatic: she beats first with the left, then the right arm, sometimes switching mid-phrase; mixes grand expressive sweeps with sharp jabbing points.  The obvious enjoyment of the players, and the musical evidence before our ears, suggests that one should get too exercised about this, but I did find it diverting.  Perhaps more important was the unpredictability of her shifts from conductor to harpsichordist.  I began to wonder whether it was foolish, or just unnecessary, to attempt to do both when the (evidently fastidiously rehearsed) ensemble seemed to manage just as well without any excessive gestural direction and the harpsichord’s contributions were sufficiently sporadic to add little noticeable difference to the overall musical result.

My hunch was confirmed when the (admittedly reduced) forces of Apollo’s Fire were joined by Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova for concertos by Vivaldi and Bach, and Sorrell took her place at the harpsichord to allow her soloist to lead from the front.  The only apparent effect was in fact an increased sense of intense engaging between all members of the ensemble, and a driving communication with the violinist.

Ibragimova is having a busy Proms season.  In addition to her two late-night Proms in which she has presented Bach’s unaccompanied solo partitas and sonatas, she is also performing Mendelssohn’s Concerto with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrew Litton (on 27 August).  Ibragimova seemed entirely at home with the refined, understated approach of Apollo’s Fire.  Indeed, in the first two, very concise movements of Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto, ‘L’inquietudine’, (1720) she seemed happy to take her place within the ensemble, blending her voice perfectly but not really emerging as a dominant voice in the texture.  The cantabile writing in the Largo was beautifully played, however, reminding one of the more familiar Four Seasons, and the two solo episodes in the Allegro molto hinted briefly at the virtuosic demands which would be made on the soloist in the astonishing final Allegro in which vigorous and ever-intensifying perpetual motion and arpeggios unleashed from Ibragimova a musical storm truly worthy of that Vivaldi staple, ‘Summer’.

Despite her obvious technical prowess, Bach’s E Major Concerto seemed to be a more natural fit for Ibragimova’s temperament, and she and Apollo’s Fire treated us to an unwaveringly tasteful and charming performance.  The Affetuoso in particular struck a heart-chord: playing without vibrato, supported by eloquent bass playing, the violinist dared to withdraw her sound to the very barest sliver of silver, which made the resurgence of warmth in the dancing triplets of the Allegro assai even more refreshing.

The final work was Bach’s Brandenburg No.5 in which Sorrell found her true niche in the harpsichord’s explosive first movement cadenza, which she performed with absolute technical assurance combined with a sense of spontaneity and delight – a joy which was reflected on the faces of her players as they listened to and admired her extravagant outpouring.  Brault’s gentle tone with light vibrato entwined pleasingly about Kathie Steward’s mellow flute lines.  I found the contributions of Schiffer and violist Karina Schmitz to be particularly pertinent and stirring.  Here, as throughout the concert, the sense of togetherness and accord was notable: details such as the natural elongation of the phrase at the approach to cadences were beguiling.

Cesare FertonaniI enjoyed this performance immensely: these familiar and not so familiar eighteenth-century works were performed with style, refinement and diversity – the programme wonderfully revealed the expressive range and sentiment of the Baroque.  Indeed, everything about this concert was meticulously prepared and immaculately executed, from the exits and entrances, and stage house-keeping, to musical performances of both soloists and ensemble.  It was a pleasure to see so many children and teenagers enjoying the performance, alongside the usual complement of middle-class/middle-aged music-goers, Proms’ aficionados and tourists.  All will have undoubtedly exited the Cadogan Hall well-satisfied, the glow of the music-making supplementing the gentle warmth of the afternoon sun in South Kensington.  But, in the final reckoning I think I’d have liked a few more risks.  It was left to Ibragimova’s phenomenally agile rendering of Vivaldi’s dazzling and impetuous representation of ‘Anxiety’– and a final surprising Irish folk-fiddle ensemble-encore – to inject some truly explosive musical fire.

Claire Seymour

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