Baroque music-making of the highest order from Concentus Musicus Wien at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Biber, Telemann, Vivaldi, Purcell: Concentus Musicus Wien / Stefan Gottfried (director). Wigmore Hall, 6.2.2020. (AK)

Concentus Musicus Wien (c) Daniela Matejschek

Biber – Sonata I in C; Battalia
Telemann – Ouverture in D TWV55: D1 from Tafelmusik
Vivaldi – Concerto in F ‘L’autunno’ RV293
Purcell – Suite from King Arthur Z628

What could have been a somewhat monotonous programme of baroque music turned out to be not only very well played but, in fact, was also very well planned.

Heinrich Ignaz von Biber, born in Bohemia in 1644, is known to have been perhaps the finest violinist of the 17th-century. From 1670 until his death in 1704 he was in the service of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg who apparently liked stringed instruments. Biber composed and dedicated a set of twelve string ensemble sonatas to the Archbishop. Sonata I is one of the three within the set which adds two trumpets to the strings.

I am not certain if Biber specified any of the string instruments for Sonata I although ambitus (range) of music and clef notation would be indicative. The score I have access to – ed. Erich Schenk, 1963 – specifies two trumpets, two violins, four violas and basso continuo. Concentus Musicus Wien divided the parts differently, using nevertheless also six string players (as well as the two trumpets and harpsichord). Apart from the cellist and harpsichord player they were all standing, looking as well as sounding majestic throughout.

The players for Biber’s Battalia still stood throughout (apart from the cellist and harpsichordist), this time without trumpets but more string players. The piece could be deemed sad, as it deals with a battle, but it is also very entertaining owing to Biber’s daring and humorous inventions. The eight-movement composition starts with a fanfare, then depicts soldiers singing different songs at the same time, moves on to a march and continues with a sad aria, then resumes a furious battle and concludes with a lament. The technical difficulties demanded from the players are significant and, to me, almost dangerous. Hitting the strings with the bow (col legno) and plucking the strings hard to make them fall back loudly onto the fingerboard is tricky even with current modern instruments, let alone with delicate historical gut strings. However, the players were fearless and their performance fascinating.

Before the wind players joined the other musicians for Telemann’s Overture – which in fact is a substantial suite with a three-part overture and four dance movements – Stefan Gottfried, that is harpsichord/organ player as well as director, rearranged the music stands on the stage. In my long decades of concert going this was the first time that I saw a conductor getting on with such tasks on stage. Later on, during the interval, several of the players joined him and acted as stagehands, bringing on chairs and rearranging music stands to suit the programme in the second half of the concert. Evidently profound musical knowledge and humble pragmatic approach characterise the Concentus Musicus Wien. Thus the ensemble truly follows the example of their founder, the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

There are various musical groups in Telemann’s Overture; the dialogue between them that is between string and wind and also between smaller ensemble and larger group was clearly articulated by the players. The elegantly played frequent echo effects, specified or assumed, also enhanced the contrasts which were important in maintaining variety in a composition with four fast dance movements in succession.

For the Vivaldi violin concerto all ensemble player (minus the double player) were seated with the solo violinist (leader Erich Höbarth) standing in the middle. The virtuosity, musicality and stamina of the soloist combined into a highly enjoyable performance, enhanced in the slow movement by Stefan Gottfried’s beautifully spaced arpeggios on the harpsichord.

The King Arthur suite allowed a slot for Purcell, thus representing English Baroque on the programme. The suite brought on all players on hand, sixteen in all. As in the earlier pieces, the placing of players was not only down to the available space but also to musical considerations. Oboe and flute were in the middle of the front, bassoon and trumpets (one of whom also played tambourine with great skill) on the side, harpsichord/organ at the back, string players all round. The players were all seated (minus the bass) and produced a great variety of dynamics. I don’t think I have ever heard such large sound from a Baroque ensemble and, indeed, at the Wigmore Hall. Big sound on its own is not necessarily beautiful but when presented among such contrasting and varied dynamics, it is of great artistic value.

I was surprised and disappointed that audience interest in this concert was not greater than it seems to have been and there were more empty seats in the Wigmore Hall than usual. Yet the Concentus Musicus Wien is an excellent, highly skilled group with music-making of the highest order.

Agnes Kory

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