At the helm of a quite large body of student musicians of the Australian National Academy of Music, Howard Penny directed a fairly dense program of bon-bons from the Baroque in its most expansive sense, stretching from the start of the seventeenth century until deep into the eighteenth century. This was a long program and, while some more substantial works were included — things such as one of the sonatas from Muffat’s Armonico tributoor one of the Handel concerti a due corior one of the C.P.E. Bach symphonies — the fact they are all made up of smaller segments really meant one only rarely heard longer paragraphs of music. To Penny’s credit, very little of the programme comprised bog-standard Baroque music, with maybe only the sinfonia from the second part of Bach’s Christmas oratorio and a selection of pieces from the second Water music suite by Handel fitting that bill. Occasionally well-known composers were represented by lesser-known works, including Handel’s concerto a due coriand the overture to Jephtha, but much more frequently we were exposed to less well-known composers and even lesser-known works. The strike rate with these works was mixed: Praetorius’ Terpischoredances were, as always, unfailingly delightful; Zelenka’s Hypochondrieand overture to I penitenti al sepolchro del Redentorewere certainly interesting, even if I did not share Penny’s seemingly uncritical enthusiasm for them; but the Vejvanosky sonata was a pretty weak example of the kind of Venice-influence multi-partite sonata better represented by Bertali or Schmelzer (the latter represented on the program by the balletto Di zingari).
I felt that the later the music was, the more attuned to the music the musicians seemed to be. Handel offered the securest ground, with muscular definition and incisive rhythm in the dramatic overture to Jephtha, control of the masses of sound in the concerto a due coriand elegance in the second Water musicsuite. Also fine was the sinfonia from the second Christmas oratoriocantata, with its braying quarter of double reeds. Zelenka’s Hypocondrie, with its sudden alternations of mood and juxtaposition of major and minor thirds, just hung together better than the frankly weird overture to I penitenti(maybe this overture makes more sense when not detached from its parent work?), but both were given strong, characterful and dramatic readings. The strongest of all among the eighteenth-century works was C.P.E. Bach’s symphony in F major, in which the musicians navigated the composer’s customary veering between the lyrical and the aphoristic with apparent ease.
The seventeenth-century works seemed less in the musicians’ home territory. The comparatively uninteresting Vejvanosky sonata and the Praetorius dances offered reasonably little for the musicians to sink their teeth into, but the Muffat sonata is core seventeenth-century expression. The tension between the two styles Muffat explores in this work should have offered rich pickings for the musicians, but their performance lacked tension in the suspension-rich slow movements, derived from Corelli, and drive in the faster movements, derived from the ballet music tradition typical of a composer like Lully.
I think I’m right in saying that performances of Baroque music on modern instruments are now surprisingly uncommon: at least they are in my experience. This concert, with multiple players per part on modern instruments, was certainly an exercise in expectation adjustment and, while I am prepared to concede that perhaps not much is lost in the translation to modern instruments and scale of forces in works such as the overture to Jephthaor Bach’s symphony, the Praetorius dances seemed much closer to Respighi in the scoring they were accorded and a work like the Muffat doeslose something when turned into a modern ‘orchestral’ work. The playing in this concert was always precise and disciplined and the engagement with the music almost unflaggingly sincere and well thought out. But the best results really came when the native scale of the music was better respected — in the Schmelzer ballettoin particular, reduced to a handful of players and in which individual contributions, the playing with and of polyphonic lines, and the sheer joy of the piece, could be heard in appropriate clarity.
Reviewer John Weretka heard Howard Penny in concert with ANAM Musicians at South Melbourne Town Hall on May 18