MCO: The Virtuoso Recorder

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Published: 30th April, 2015

If the mark of a fine orchestra is its guest artists then The Melbourne Chamber Orchestra did well to attract the esteemed recorder player Genevieve Lacey to its recent concert, The Virtuoso Recorder.  Lacey brings with her the expectation of Baroque music, and the audience was given it in good measure, with recorder concertos by Telemann and Babell, and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.4.

Balancing the Baroque was music by Ravel, arranged by Australian composer Nicholas Buc, and a work by Buc himself, commissioned by the MCO. A quite daring mix, perhaps, but one that worked to produce a delightful concert that showed the power of imaginative programming.

The orchestra took the opportunity to set the mood with a spirited rendition of Handel’s famous Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, from the oratorio Solomon HWV 67. As the program notices remarked, since 1749 the piece has been used to celebrate the arrival of a great lady (In modern times, often announcing the arrival of a bride!). Director of the orchestra, William Hennessy, set the pace exactly right – brisk but manageable so all elements could be appreciated. This included the birdlike recorders, which were a foretaste of what was to come from the soloist. Balance was good, and although phrasing at first could have been better, it improved noticeably once the orchestra got into the piece.

Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D Op 6 No 5 gave the players something more substantial to demonstrate their skills. The lead given by Hennessy was faithfully followed, right to the precise dotted notes. With the upper strings in fine form, they established a fugal Allegro, soon to be matched by the cellos and bass –smaller in number but still significant. Hennessy played a double role as soloist and leader, (something that is not always so easily managed). The performance delivered music that was quintessentially Handel right to the final, graceful minuet.

This was followed by another minuet, albeit music of two centuries later. Romantic composer Ravel’s Menuet sur le nom Haydn (originally for piano) not only recalled the Classical period but was arranged for string orchestra by the 21st century composer Nicolas Buc. The effect was to lift it out of the confines of such classifications into the realm of music to simply be listened to and enjoyed. The strings appeared to revel in the rich string sound that Buc’s arrangement afforded them. Depth was lent by harpsichordist Ann Morgan who was evidently absorbed by the music as she swayed in time with it!

The next concerto fulfilled the promise of the title of the program, as it featured the virtuoso recorder player Genevieve Lacey in the Telemann Recorder Concerto in C TWV51:C1. The MCO paved the way with strings and harpsichord and switched to a more delicate pizzicato when the melody was first articulated by the recorder. Lacey has lost nothing of her ease with her instrument, trills and other ornamentation part of the flow in quite long passages. The second movement brought birdlike sounds from the recorder, and a beautiful duet with the cello. The third movement, Andante, is well known as an independent piece with Lacey’s recorder soaring above the orchestra and, interestingly, the work finished with another minuet. Lacey set such a cracking pace, albeit delicately, that this sounded more like a presto, but “separate” statements prevented the orchestra from overpowering the recorder. Lacey is certainly master of her instrument – but so are the artists of the MCO.

More Ravel (and another minuet!) followed, in the shape of Buc’s arrangement of Ma mere l’oye: Le jardin féerique /Menuet antique, and then a gem of a recorder concerto: Babell’s Concerto for Recorder in C. Both works had plenty to recommend them and were performed beautifully but the greater interest at this point was in the final two works. The first was an original composition by Nicholas Buc, his St Mark’s Scherzo, which appeared quite filmic in its concept. An immediately appealing piece, it featured a fast solo for Hennessy that at the same time appeared yearning, with plenty of urgent movement leading to fugal passages and a strong chord to end.

For a truly big finish however, the concert presented Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 4, with three soloists: recorder-players Genevieve Lacey and Hannah Coleman, and violinist Shane Chen. Like many of the works which Bach re-purposed with different emphases, this showed the winds in a stronger role than they are sometimes heard. The winds were most noticeable at first as the violin solo was echoed by the orchestra, with Chen and the other soloists  giving a fine performance.

The lovely phrasing of the second movement was faithfully delivered by all, Lacey playing an ornamental passage before the third movement upped the tempo to pacy but not frantic. It is hard to find a better word than “brilliant” to describe the soloists, including in an extended trio, and the orchestra itself as they moved towards a series of emphatic notes that signalled a great finish to the work – and to a thoroughly enjoyable concert.