Devon Baroque Come Home on the Prevailing Winds

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vivaldi, Boismortier, Telemann, Bach: Devon Baroque, Georgia Browne (flute), Sarah Humphrys (oboe/recorders), Oonagh Lee (oboe/recorders), Rebecca Hammond (bassoon), Emily White (sackbut), Persephone Gibbs (Artistic Director), Andrew Wilson-Dickson (Director), Great Hall, Dartington, 12.2 2017. (PRB)

Devon Baroque with Oonagh Lee and Sarah Humphrys (oboes); photo credit - Philip R Buttall.
Devon Baroque with Oonagh Lee and Sarah Humphrys (oboes) (c) Philip R Buttall

Antonio Vivaldi – Concerto in D minor for 2 oboes and strings RV535; Concerto in G minor for flute and bassoon (‘La notte’) RV104
Jean Bodin de Boismortier – Concerto a 5, Op.37 in G;  Premier Balet de Village (1734)
Georg Telemann – Concerto in E minor for flute and recordeR TWV52:e1
Johann Sebastian Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G BWV1049

Entitled “Prevailing Winds”, this latest treat from Devon Baroque did not, in fact, refer to the often blustery conditions that blow in from the Atlantic across the South West Peninsula, but rather to the high profile given on this particular occasion to wind instruments. As Director Andrew Wilson-Dickson so nicely put it in his extensive notes, the programme “redresses the usual Devon Baroque balance by placing their favourite wind players centre stage”.

The afternoon got off to a good start with Vivaldi’s Concerto for two oboes in D minor, immediately reinforcing the concept that today is all about wind—of the Baroque variety, of course. Both players were well-balanced within their parts, equally when sharing similar lines in harmony, or tossing imitative phrases across from one to another. It would be invidious, and indeed unnecessary, to suggest which player came out on top in this technical tour de force. Suffice it to say that it was a real pleasure to see Sarah Humphrys back playing at this level with such panache and flair. Sarah is a local girl who went away to study and subsequently forged a successful professional career as a baroque wind-specialist. Artistic Director and lead violinist Persephone Gibbs ensured that the overall balance between the two factions was well maintained, though with oboes, which were originally quite happy to play outdoors yet still be heard—quite unlike their string colleagues—there was never going to be the remotest possibility of getting swamped by bowed instruments.

One of the added delights along the way with Devon Baroque is the very informal way in which either Gibbs or Wilson-Dickson might briefly take time out to explain something not quite covered in the programme notes, or interject an especially witty and anecdotal remark, particularly useful today to help paper over the repositioning of music stands between items to accommodate the ever-changing instrumentation.

Boismortier’s Concerto a 5 for recorder, oboe, bassoon, violin and cello proved an interesting find, where again the ensemble was well-maintained throughout. They took into consideration the relative speaking-times of wind and string instruments in terms of initial note production, as well as in choosing suitable tempi in the outer Allegros, that could be clearly and accurately articulated on both families of instruments. Here, a special commendation must go to the precision and contribution from bassoonist Rebecca Hammond.

If the wind velocity so far had been something in the strong breeze category, then the appearance on stage of baroque-flautist Georgia Browne cranked things up a good few notches on the Beaufort scale. Wilson-Dickson had just told listeners that what he, and many of us when music students, were told about Georg Philipp Telemann—how his truly prodigious output meant that it was high on quantity but significantly less so on quality—was a complete fabrication. He went on to say that the Concerto in E minor was a particularly interesting specimen, in that Telemann set out to compare and contrast the long-established treble recorder with the new-fangled flute that would eventually replace it.

With the timbre and output of the side-blown flute totally different from the end-blown recorder, where the fipple mouthpiece directs the stream of air against a sharp edge, the potential for actual competition between both protagonists is immense. In the event there was a wonderful sense of “whatever you can play, I can match it—and with a few extra ornaments thrown in”, and yet delivered in the manner of two old friends in rapid discourse. In fact, Browne and Humphrys could simply not have done more to bring this highly-engaging work to life so vividly, and nowhere more so than in the rollicking, folk-like finale. Here Devon Baroque provided the perfect support for all the shenanigans and histrionics of the soloists, but always under the watchful eye of Gibbs, who ensured, for example, that the final accelerando created the maximum effect, but did not fall short of steam and compromise the denouement.

After such heady and intoxicating playing, the interval felt particularly well placed: before more Vivaldi, in the shape of his Concerto “La notte” for flute and bassoon, picked up where things had left off—well, almost. Again both soloists combined to great effect, so effectively characterising each movement of the work which, as Wilson-Dickson pointed out, is one of three related concertos the composer wrote, which evoke “spirits” and “sleep”, perhaps relating to the nocturnal life of the girls in Vivaldi’s charge at the Ospedale della Pietà, a convent, orphanage and music school in Venice.

Boismortier’s charming Premier Balet de Village, with its five movements pertaining to the pastoral tradition all the rage at the French Court of Louis XIV and Louis XV, provided the ideal aperitif to the afternoon’s final work, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. Devon Baroque have already planned to air all six concertos over the next two years, given the interesting ways in which each work departs from the more conventional concerto format at the time.

But how often do audiences still hear the Brandenburgs, or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for that matter, blown out of all proportions when played by ensembles of symphonic dimensions? To hear Devon Baroque perform the Fourth Concerto in this appropriately stripped-down scoring is truly to appreciate what period-instrument-playing is all about, and why this simply has to be the real McCoy. Basically a violin concerto of tremendous virtuosity, enhanced by a significant contribution from two “flauti d’echo”—usually, as today, played by recorders—the work actually makes great demands on each player, whether part of the concertino (solo players), or ripieno (orchestral tutti and continuo). Gibbs’s playing here was quite phenomenal, despatching the scarily rapid scale-passages with great élan and never putting a foot wrong, all the while sharing the direction with Wilson-Dickson at the keyboard. Likewise Oonagh Lee and Humphrys made seemingly light work of their respective recorder parts, combining clarity of articulation with a round, fine tone, particularly in the middle Andante.

Despite the excitement generated by the final Presto, the packed audience quite rightly wanted more, and all the players generously returned to the platform to reprise the finale from the first-half Telemann. After some earlier changes of leadership, Devon Baroque is now buzzing, and reaping the full benefit of the Gibbs/Wilson-Dickson partnership, that manifests itself not only in the highest quality of the playing, and the interest and variety of the repertoire, but—and, I would say, most important—in the sheer sense of shared fun and enjoyment between all the players, which they then convey so infectiously to the audience, and which is, surely, what music-making is all about at any level.

Like Devonshire Cream, a product well-known and admired across the UK well beyond the county’s geographical boundary, Devon Baroque similarly deserves a far wider audience, since it can now stand side by side with many of the more illustrious like-minded ensembles out there.

Philip R Buttall

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