“How exhilarating is this?” Dame Quentin Bryce asked the audience at City Recital Hall, gathered to celebrate the opening of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s 30th anniversary season. Dame Quentin was at the first performance of harpsichordist Paul Dyer’s period instrument band at the Sydney Opera House in 1990, which – among works by Handel, Telemann and Mozart – included the third of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the works from which the orchestra takes its name.

Almost 30 years later, Paul Dyer’s orchestra opened its 2019 season with a concert featuring not one but five of Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos – and exhilarating it was. With the Concertos’ varied instrumental colours and combinations – Bach showing off what he could do with the modest forces at his disposal, in a job-interview type submission to a prospective patron, the Margrave of Brandenburg, in 1721 – the Concertos were the perfect medium to show off the musicians of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

Australian Brandenburg OrchestraShaun Lee-Chen, Mikaela Oberg and Melissa Farrow with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo © Steven Godbee

Concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen and recorder players Melissa Farrow and Mikaela Oberg took the first spotlight as the Concertino soloists in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 4, Lee-Chen giving a bustling account of the virtuosic violin lines. If there were moments when Bach’s florid writing seemed to stretch his technique, there were many fine moments as he raced across the cushioning of the recorders in the third movement, while Farrow and Oberg’s phrasing in the Andante was nicely shaped, Oberg offering some bright solo moments.

The colour shifted to the darker palette of the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto, written for lower strings, with violas Monique O’Dea and Deirdre Dowling and cellist Jamie Hey emerging as soloists from the veiled textures of the ensemble. Hey’s sound was dark velvet in the Adagio ma non tanto while O’Dea and Dowling traded brisk, hot-potato runs in the finale.

Violinist Ben Dollman, Melissa Farrow (this time on transverse flute) and Paul Dyer were centre stage for Concerto No 5, Dollman’s sound a striking presence that deftly ceded focus to the sweeter baroque flute, both underscored by Dyer’s harpsichord filigree, which itself moved to centre stage in the first movement’s mammoth cadenza. Bach had earlier written an 18-bar cadenza, but he pulled out all the stops for the Margrave of Brandenburg, penning no less than 64 bars of solo – and Dyer made the most of every one. If there were occasional imperfections, Dyer made up for them with a wild, unrestrained panache, dispatching cascading flurries of notes with such flair that the ecstatic audience – in authentic Historically Informed Performance style – forced him to take several bows before the second movement could get under way.

Australian Brandenburg OrchestraThe Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Ben Dollman, Paul Dyer and Melissa Farrow. Photo © Steven Godbee

With the three soloists on very different instruments, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra found an exquisite clarity and balance in the Fifth Concerto that hadn’t been quite achieved in the more challenging orchestrations of the earlier works. This clarity reached its apotheosis in the stripped back texture of the Affetuoso slow movement, the lights dimmed on Farrow and Dollman, whose affecting performance – in tandem with Dyer’s sensitive harpsichord lines – was a highlight of the evening, before the lively dance of the Allegro ended the concert’s first half on a festive note.

Australian Brandenburg OrchestraThe Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo © Steven Godbee

A rich blaze of natural horns announced the opening of Brandenburg Concerto No 1, Michael Dixon and Dorée Dixon bringing plenty of warmth to the sound of the orchestra, arrayed in larger forces for this Concerto. Christopher Palameta’s oboe and Matt Bruce’s piccolo violin were highlights, duetting lyrically in the Adagio and furiously in the third movement’s Allegro. A slightly dragging tempo in the two-oboes one-bassoon Trio of the final movement was offset by the refined sound the three musicians (Palameta and Kirsten Barry on oboes, Brock Imison on bassoon) brought to the music.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s string section was on show in the final number of the evening, the Brandenburg Concerto No 3, which saw lively playing from the whole section and some wonderfully muscular moments from the lower strings. Bach mysteriously wrote only two chords for the Concerto’s second movement (a Phrygian cadence, for those playing at home) and interpreters have taken these variously as opportunities to take a longer or shorter cadenza, or even drop in a movement from another work by Bach. Dyer embraced the freedom Bach implies in the cadence, taking the opportunity to perform – with the lights down – a solo harpsichord improvisation with a slightly Minimalist feel to it, a moment of intimacy before the vibrant gigue of the final Allegro.

Australian Brandenburg OrchestraThe Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. Photo © Steven Godbee

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s season opener had a festival atmosphere, and while some might have missed the fiendish trumpet part of the Second Brandenburg Concerto, the five Concertos chosen were ordered effectively to give the concert a compelling shape and momentum – and to showcase the talent on offer from the band that blazed the HIP trail in Australia 30 years ago and is still going strong today.


The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra performs the Brandenburg Concertos at City Recital Hall, Sydney, March 1, 2, 6 & 8, at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 4, and at Melbourne Recital Centre March 9 & 10

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