Brecon Baroque at Live at LICA
Thursday, 13 March 2014
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University
Reviewed by Henry Prince
Those who had googled this ensemble in advance will have had a growing excitement as the hour approached for the commencement of Thursday’s Live at LICA concert. There have been a number of very good chamber music groups on the programme this season but this small Baroque orchestra, modelled on the one in 18th century Leipzig directed by J S Bach himself, seemed to promise to be the icing on the cake.
Possibly others in the audience shared my belief that the concert would include at least some works by Bach, Telemann, Purcell or Handel and would not be confined to the advertised Vivaldi, but we were wrong. Just a touch nervously, we heard ourselves being congratulated from the stage for having been “brave” to attend an all-Vivaldi evening.
We soon agreed that the programme choice was not scary at all but in fact wonderful. Nine superb Vivaldi violin concertos played by nine excellent musicians! The audience loved it!
Led by its founder Rachel Podger, the Brecon Baroque ensemble, comprising four violins, 2 violas, cello, double bass and keyboard, chose works from the opus 3 set of 12 concertos known as L’estro armonico. By the close of the evening, we had become ‘experts’ on the popular ritornello form of the period and had begun to appreciate the boundlessly inventive skills of Vivaldi in being able to create such diverse musical textures from rhythms and tempi alone.
Nearly everyone these days is aware of the Red Priest’s set of concertos known as ‘The Four Seasons’. What is perhaps less well known is the fact that those pieces were all composed for solo violin and strings. In contrast, the opus 3 set contains equal numbers of concertos for solo violin, two violins and four violins, in some cases with added cello.
In the Great Hall, we were treated to a mixed selection of these. In every case, the instrumental combination was thrilling but the enjoyment generated by those concertos particularly scored for four violins with cello topped the bill. No doubt the visual clarity of the four interacting violinists added greatly to the pleasure of the performance. Not only could one hear the texture of the music, one could see it as well.
I was surprised that the balance of sound was not as good as it could have been. For some reason, the two violas, usually simply doubling a single ripieno part, played far too loudly whilst the keyboard continuo part was always underplayed, whether on harpsichord or organ. Why the harpsichord lid was left closed is anyone’s guess.
I especially enjoyed the four concertos in which the cello abandoned its traditional Baroque continuo role and was allowed to contribute to the concertino. Clearly the player herself also enjoyed her unfettered freedom.
So, no Leipzig Café Zimmerman experience but one instead somewhere in Venice. I never imagined I would ever confess that I was pleased not to have heard any Bach, but I was. By the time it was clear that there would be no further encore and the exit doors had opened, it seemed there had never been any other Baroque composer but Vivaldi, Vivaldi, Vivaldi. A great finish to a remarkable Live at LICA season of chamber music events.
Artists’ websites: http://www.percius.co.uk/clients/brecon-baroque
Vivaldi Concertos from L’estro armonico Op.3, Nos. 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11
Tickets were priced (web advance): Adults £21.50, Concessions £18.50, Young person/student £7.50
Future musical events at Live at LICA: https://www.liveatlica.org/whats-on