17 Oct 2018

Review: Christopher's Classics – NZ Barok with James Bush

From Upbeat, 10:07 am on 17 October 2018

It’s not often in New Zealand, and certainly not in Christchurch, that we get an opportunity to hear a genuine baroque orchestra that uses authentic period instruments and playing styles.

So, with huge gratitude to Christopher Marshall and his sponsors, this concert from NZ Barok was exceptionally welcome and The Piano was packed to bursting point.

NZ Barok

NZ Barok Photo: NZ Barok

These days it’s rare that recordings of baroque music are made with anything other than period instruments and specialist performers – to the extent that modern instruments and older recordings now just sound wrong.

The most obvious revelations (some aural, some visual) that last night’s audience was presented with, included the use of recorders rather than transverse flutes, cellos supported between players’ knees rather than by an end pin that extends to the floor, noticeably different coloured and sounding gut strings, distinctively shaped baroque bows, players standing rather than sitting (although a few modern ensembles also now do this) and an almost complete absence of vibrato.

Interestingly, however, cellist James Bush employed much more vibrato than the other players in both his solo and ensemble playing.

Cellist James Bush joins NZ Barok for its "Splendour of Venice" tour

Cellist James Bush joins NZ Barok for its "Splendour of Venice" tour Photo: Supplied

It could be argued that even the gender balance of NZ Barok has a certain authenticity (just two men among fourteen women) given that Vivaldi wrote much of his music for the all-female ensembles of Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà. 

NZ Barok also used an early baroque tuning temperament that proved especially noticeable in the thinly-textured Adagio of a Sonata by Giovanni Legrenzi ... if that’s what it was!

There was some discrepancy between the printed programme and what was actually played in the first half of the concert. And, with composers such as Legrenzi and Platti, both entirely new to me, there was no familiar reference point for this listener to identify some of this music.

Even Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto (RV 424) sounded unlike the style of that composer’s more familiar music, although the Ripieno for Strings (RV 156), earlier in the programme, displayed all the hallmarks of Vivaldi’s distinctive and engaging sound world with its descending sequences and fizzingly animated string writing.

The Piano

The Piano Photo: Supplied

James Bush proved an engaging and stylish soloist in concertos by Vivaldi and Platti, communicating a tangible sense of baroque elegance rather than the showier extravagance that some players bring to this repertoire; although I have to own to a liking for such flamboyant display when it helps to bring the music to life.

Bush brought similarly stylish polish to his playing as a member of the ensemble in the other works on the programme, always conveying a sense of vitality and involvement.

The visual ‘lift’ that he invested in even the simplest accompaniment figures transferred to an audible buoyancy in the overall effect of the music and, if his animation slightly outshone that his colleagues, there was never any lack of energy and commitment from the whole ensemble.

Having said that, and although the sense of charismatic exuberance that opened the Monteverdi Toccata which began this concert was particularly thrilling, there was a slight feeling of taste and restraint in NZ Barok’s performances.

The contrasts in dynamics and precision of articulation were always there, but not in the overtly cut-and-thrust way that I’ve become used to in period instrument performances of such repertoire.

I know that recordings can often bring a sense of immediacy that isn’t always possible in live performances, but that immediacy has been very present in other live performances that I’ve experienced by such groups as a baroque orchestra in Venice and, more recently, from the wonderful Italian-based Il Pomo d’Oro on tour in Singapore.

Even so, this concert was a unique chance to hear some of the riches from lesser-known corners of the baroque repertoire in authentic, classy and spirited performances, and I certainly look forward to any future opportunities to hear NZ Barok.

“The Splendour of Venice”
Christopher’s Classics – NZ Barok with James Bush (baroque cello)

The Piano, Christchurch – 16 October 2018