Devon Baroque dispenses its own brand of ‘complementary medicine’ to soothe fevered brows at Dartington

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Malady & the Power of Music: Devon Baroque, Persephone Gibbs (director/violin), Andrew Wilson-Dickson (director/harpsichord). Great Hall, Dartington,  10.11.2019. (PRB)

Devon Baroque with Persephone Gibbs (inset) (c) Philip R Buttall

Jean-Féry Rebel – Extracts from the ballet Les Élémens
Handel – Concerto Grosso in B flat Op.3 No.2
C.P.E. Bach – Trio Sonata in C minor ‘Sanguineus et Melancholicus’ H759
Charpentier – Music from Le Malade Imaginaire
Jan Dismas Zelenka – Concerto Hypocondrie

Over the last three years, Devon Baroque (DB) has included one of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concerti in each concert, culminating with a performance of No.6 in the summer. With that done and dusted, the ensemble has now set its sights on the Twelve Concerti Grossi by Handel, which appear in two sets of six, Op.3 and Op.6.

But Devon Baroque does not tend to do things by half, so each of the Handel works will be slotted into a differently-themed programme on each occasion. Two forthcoming concerts, for example, will feature music by friends of Thomas Gainsborough and music linked to astronomy, respectively.

To launch the new Handel series, the ensemble decided on a medical theme to link the other works in the programme. As is their regular practice, they always introduce each work with a brief description, often anecdotal and nearly always amusing. It is a lovely way of getting the audience on side before a single note is played. They were also able to make excellent use of an overhead projector, which variously showed images related to the works, and, in the case of the CPE Bach’s Trio Sonata to be enjoyed later, a blow-by-blow account of the respective mind-sets of the two protagonists as the music plays out.

Andrew Wilson-Dickson’s introduction to the opening work needed to make specific references to the four humours which existed as liquids within the body. They were identified as blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, which were in turn associated with the fundamental elements of air, water, earth and fire. But it was all conveyed in the best of humour – no pun intended – and most people’s midday meal had no doubt been fully-digested by the start of this afternoon event.

In his excellent programme notes, Wilson-Dickson wisely goes on to warn the audience about the start of the first work – a product of the ‘fevered imagination’ of the French composer Jean-Féry Rebel, one of the most adventurous composers of his time. The opening is an evocation of Chaos, which the composer achieves spectacularly for the time, by simultaneously sounding every note in the D minor scale, before four specific types of music emerge, representing the four elements. Furthermore, each of these is for a particular instrument or group of instruments, and features an appropriate musical idea, like falling scales for the flute so as to suggest water.

This was, in fact, the strangest start to any Baroque concert I have attended, and the effect Rebel created was indeed scarier than many a good horror film. What a tremendous sound DB produced here, itself feeling rather like an extended shock from a defibrillator. Les Élémens originally consists of ten movements, from which Devon Baroque picked a varied and representative sample. There followed the Loure, which produced some nicely-balanced playing between strings and the smaller wind contingent of oboes doubling recorder, and bassoon. There was taut rhythmic control throughout, something which this particular dance benefits greatly from in performance. In the  Chaconne, there was some very effective chordal playing, where winds were prominent, contrasted most effectively by some rapid and extremely well-articulated scales from the strings.

Rossignols features the woodwind, supported by a lower string line, in the format of a trio. As befits the title, there is significant imitation of the song of the nightingale. The 2ème Loure also pays hommage to its subtitle of La Chasse, with a number of allusions to the sound of the hunting horn along the way. DB ends proceedings at this point with a highly engaging Tambourin; a highly infectious tune is begun in the wind, and passed over to the strings for their comment, essentially over a basic tonic/dominant bass line. Again the playing is spontaneous and brisk, save for a rather bizarre section in the minor key, though it must be emphasized that it was the composer’s pen, rather than DB’s performance, that created the rather odd sound and timbre. Given that these are all dances, it might have added even more to the effect, had the occasional pitched percussion instrument been added in, as some groups favours, perhaps nowhere more so than a seemingly appropriate tambourine in DB’s final movement.

Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.3 No.2 in B flat marked the inauguration of DB’s new Handel project, and within the first bar or two, the ensemble just seemed to appear more at home and relaxed. Ever since American-born Persephone Gibbs assumed co-direction of the ensemble, she has made a tremendous difference to the playing, the repertoire, and, perhaps most important, the real sense of enjoyment and light-heartedness that pervades some a lot of music of the period, which is by no means stuffy and overly erudite as some audiences still believe. The opening Vivace was despatched with great panache, and featured some most impressive interplay between Gibbs, and co-principal colleague Sharon Lindo. The Largo could easily be a concerto movement for the oboe, and here Hannah Blumsohn played with great poignancy and expression, over a highly-sympathetic string accompaniment, definitely one of the concert’s musical high-spots. The Allegro is a typical fugal movement, of which Handel was a past master, and the ensemble paid particular attention to maintaining linear clarity in the contrapuntal writing. The fourth movement takes the form of a one-in-a-bar minuet, where woodwind make a telling contribution, With recorder/oboe player Katie Cowling and bassoonist Zoe Shevlin, Blumsohn could not have had two better or more reliable partners, either here or in the closing movement, a bright and breezy gavotte in all but name. Handel finally gives rapid passages in triplets to the violins, and additional ornamentation to the oboes, here most slickly despatched – all of which considerably heightens the excitement as the work reaches its close.

If the opening Rebel was pretty quirky, then CPE Bach’s ‘Sanguineus et Melancholicus’ is hardly your average trio sonata. The composer presents his trio as a conversation between a sanguine and a melancholic person, here portrayed by violinists Lindo and by Gibbs respectively. For this work to succeed in performance, it is essential to have not only two outstanding violinists, but equally two talented actors too. In Lindo and Gibbs, they had the perfect pair, and it virtually emerged as a comedy turn, except that the actual playing was of the very highest order. This in itself poses a problem, as Gibbs is a phenomenally accurate performer, and every passage she played, Lindo was often obliged to mimic with the same technical accuracy, something she managed to do extremely well. As mentioned above, it was particularly helpful to be able to project the compoed around 1673-1674. The playwright Molière was instrumental in creating a new form of entertainment which he called comédie-ballet. A comic play was interlinked with music – for chorus, soloists, and instruments. Le Malade Imaginaire was first given in Paris, but revived the year after Molière’s death to a reworked score. On this occasion, co-director Wilson-Dickson had assembled a suite taken from both versions, though, of course, without any of the vocal numbers. Once more the ensemble showed themselves to be very much at home in this type of repertoire, where they always appear able to encapsulate the particular stylistic nuance of each movement with real authenticity. This, in fact, was enhanced by projecting a colour image of the 1674 performance at Versailles during the work. This is always perfectly acceptable, when it does not descend into some kind of mini ‘son et lumière’ experience, or overly-busy multimedia presentation.

In a DB concert earlier in the year, the programme included an overture by Zelenka that apparently was a particular hit with the players, according to Wilson-Dickson. So, the decision was made to end today’s multi-faceted and unique programme with another of the Czech composer’s works, and one that would accord with the medical theme, his Concerto Hypocondrie. This, too, is a somewhat strange work: while it is clearly in A major, within a few bars it is gone off into the minor, and, in fact, there are many such incongruities throughout this relatively short single-movement work. In the event, this proved the ideal piece with which to close the concert. The degree of virtuosity and total commitment shown by each and every player were a joy to witness in the fast section, where any slip was simply not an option, and which resulted in as fine a performance of this extremely challenging work as you are likely to hear – except, perhaps for those few ensembles at the very pinnacle of the profession.

In an ideal world, it might have been advantageous if the players could have had just one more rehearsal. This is certainly not to imply that anything sounded untidy. Even so, when you are playing music of this complexity at this level of expertise, sometimes from parts that are barely decipherable, and more than likely on just one concentrated rehearsal, a little bit more time spent together would no doubt add a tad more certainty about matters like repeated sections or frequent tempo changes.

The fact that the players of Devon Baroque can achieve a performance like the final Zelenka, on the minimum of rehearsal, is a tremendous credit to all of them and, of course, to their co-directors Andrew Wilson-Dickson, and even more crucially Persephone Gibbs, whose unique talent, conviction and enthusiasm is always such a real privilege to behold.

Philip R Buttall

Leave a Comment