City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
January 17, 2016

It’s 400 years this year since Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog dropped anchor in Western Australia’s Shark Bay and nailed a pewter plate to a post before thinking better of it all and deciding to try his luck further north. It’s entirely appropriate then that Balmain-born Simon Murphy, one of Australia’s finest exports, should ‘sail’ south for this year’s Sydney Festival at the helm of The New Dutch Academy, an ensemble from The Hague, specialising in performing early music on authentic instruments. For some years now the violist and early music maestro has led this award-winning orchestra, which to date has produced five enlightening CDs on the Pentatone label celebrating the music of the 18th-century Dutch court, and very fine they are too.

In addition to being a skilled violist, one of Murphy’s super powers is programming. He’s also a dab hand at presenting, laying out his concert’s aims in entertaining detail and proving himself able to pronounce Dirk Hartog (sort of like Deerk Hartoch) into the bargain. Taking their cue from the place occupied by The Netherlands in European history and geography from 1650-1800 (and the part played by Dutch printers in preserving and circulating the works of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi), the object was to put the local composers into context.

Like in the case of English music of this period, it would appear there were far more first-rate Dutch composers than the average concert-goer has heard of. Examples included a beautifully phrased and richly lyrical Sonata a Quattro from Carolus Hacquart (1640-1701) – the composer of the first opera in the Dutch language (De Triomfeerende Min, or Triumphant Love) – a pair of charming movements from the German-born Johann Christian Schickhardt (1682-1762) contained in his L’Alpabet de la Musique, and a brooding nocturnal Andante and rollicking Rondo from a distinguished cello concerto by William V’s court hofkapelmeester Christian Ernst Graaf (1723-1804). Murphy led an ensemble of seven (five from the NDA and a pair of Australia’s best – violinist Julia Fredersdorff and bassist Kirsty McCahon) with an emphasis on tightness of ensemble and at times a breath-taking beauty of tone.

Solo contributions included some outstanding recorder playing from Anna Stegmann whose dazzling rendition of Van Eyck’s divisions on Wat zal men op den Avond doen (What shall we do in the evening?) was a real highlight. She also dueted superbly with the afternoon’s soprano soloist, Gudrun Sidonie Otto. With her pre-Raphaelite hair and bags of personality Otto was a striking presence and displayed a lovely, pure voice with easy top notes, masterful coloratura and great diction. Handel’s Meine Seele hört im Sehen (one of his nine German arias) was magical as was O! Had I Jubal’s Lyre (from Joshua, not Jephtha as stated in the programme). Her cheeky rendition of Tu Fai la Superbetta by Willem De Fesch (1687-1761) was equally engaging.

Occasionally the curse of baroque tuning struck – the cello intonation slightly scuppered the Graaf and Ombra mai fu was out of the sporano’s comfort zone – and perhaps the second half could have featured more of the unfamiliar Dutch works (another of Wassenaer’s superb Concerti Armonici wouldn’t have gone amiss). Having said that, a very fine time was had by all (City Recital Hall was packed to the gunwales) and as each of the Dutch pieces proved themselves a match for their starrier contemporaries, Murphy can congratulate himself on a job well done.

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