There’s always a sense of anticipation at a concert from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. The excellence of the orchestra is no surprise, but the works may be, and there is often a soloist who has a story as well as exceptional talent. On this night it was Swiss recorder player Maurice Steger whose close musical connection with Australia was only revealed at the end of the concert. Playing baroque recorders Steger was named as guest director, but it seemed throughout that the ABO’s Paul Dyer had that honour, with Steger in the no less important role of soloist par excellence.
The diverse program comprised:
Vivaldi Concerto RV 443 in G major
Gallo Sonata No. 12 La Follia in G minor
Telemann Concerto for 3 Trumpets TWV 54:D4 in D major
Fiorenza Sinfonia in A minor
Handel Overture to Judas Maccabeus HWV 63 in G minor
Vivaldi Concerto Il gardellino RV 428 in D major
Rittler Ciaccona a 7 in C major
Geminiani After Corelli’s Op. 5 violin sonatas Concerto for recorder No. 10 in F major
Vivaldi’s Concerto RV 443 in G major was a good choice to begin. The orchestra was given a few bars to establish a cracking pace before the soloist, with a surprisingly small recorder, released a flow of notes that could only be described as the sound of a tree full of birds. This was the composer of The Four Seasons as we have never heard him before and the excitement led the audience to applaud after the first movement (the first of many such interruptions!)
Things quietened down with the Largo and an opportunity to see a different aspect of Steger’s virtuosity – exceptionally long phrases requiring very controlled breaths. With Paul Dyer keeping a steady hand on the measured pace of the orchestra, the effect was of a stately barge making its way down the Grand Canal. The allegro molto was pure Vivaldi, as the orchestra appeared to race the enthusiastic soloist, as well as collaborate with him …. and the audience couldn’t get enough of it.
The heroes of the next two works, the first by Gallo the second by Telemann, were the trumpets, with the ABO artists well in control of the unpredictable brass instruments. Concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen gave the first of many exhibitions of fine playing that showed why he is worthy of his position as leader of the orchestra. The variety and changes in tempo and dynamics of the Gallo were very interesting for a Baroque work, although the comprehensive program notes suggested that the folio dance form was responsible for that.
The work by Firenze which followed narrowed the focus to the recorder and the two lead violins, the more reflective piece allowing for appreciation of beautiful harmony from the orchestra In the first and third movements, with the Largo having an air of Handel’s water music as well as a lovely sustained solo from the recorder. The final allegro in, which the orchestra set the pace and style and Steger embellished it, was all too short.
After interval the ABO re-established its credentials (which were never in doubt!) with a burst of sound in the form of the overture to the oratorio Judas Maccabeus by Handel. The concertmaster brilliantly introduced a contrapuntal passage, which all players appeared to relish. Their resonance and synchronicity at this kind of pace are among the outstanding features of this ensemble.
Steger and Vivaldi then rejoined the concert, with a work named for the goldfinch. It was a hint at the music we could expect to hear and indeed Steger played in the matter of a cheeky bird. The sound was rich and he played for laughs with single notes at the end of long challenging passages. The cantabile was extremely beautiful with its expected singing tone, Steger’s long breaths ensuring a smoothness of sound. The cello, bass, theorbo and harpsichord provided a sympathetic accomplishment, allowing the recorder to soar above them. This synchronicity continued into the final contrasting Allegro. Dyer set a furious pace for his orchestra, well confident that they and Steger would keep up the momentum with humour and style.
Before the big finale came a charming work by Rittler, Ciaccona a 7 in C major. Although it was written in the 17th-century this chaconne could easily be a contemporary work. With a reduced number of players it showed the excellence of individuals, too many to single out for mention. But to have trumpets and a tambourine combining to highlight a lovely swaying sound must surely be exceptional. This was one of those gems which are only ever heard at ABO concerts. Truly a highlight of the night, albeit short and unassuming.
You could hardly think of the greater contrast as Steger returned for the big finish – a good choice in Geminiani’s After Corelli’s Op. 5 violin sonatas Concerto for recorder No. 10 in F major. Most movements were named for dances, but the Prelude’s largo provided a rich accompaniment for the recorder. Playing in a high register Steger gave the runs his all with a piercing sound that demanded attention. The allemande was the first of four dances but it was the stately sarabande that charmed with the recorder melody. It was clearly demanding but Steger made it seem not so. As for the jig the soloist hardly seemed to draw breath, yet danced a jig as he played. He had a similar challenge in the final Gavotte, which appeared to incorporate unending trills at an impossibly fast pace. (My companion and fellow Classic Melbourne reviewer Heather Leviston reminded me that the artist is known as “the Paganini of the recorder”!).
There followed another Cantabile for an encore, and tributes for Australian instrument makers Alistair McAllister (harpsichord) and of course the late Fred Morgan. Steger left us in no doubt that Morgan was not only his recorder maker of choice but carried an international reputation. He gave moving insight into the warmth of the connection between instrument maker and performer. As a young man Steger was able to commission three recorders from Morgan; he now has eleven!
This was a night of beautiful music, generosity of spirit and excellence of performance. A typical concert from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, in fact, with that early sense of anticipation more than fulfilled.
The photo of the performance reviewed is by Steven Godbee.