★★★★☆ Crowd-pleasing snippets of JSB prove perfect showcases.

Concert Hall, QPAC, Brisbane
April 9, 2016

Last year Brisbane Baroque binged on Handel for its blockbuster concert. This year it blitzed Bach, another Baroque big-hitter. A series of snippets from the mighty catologue of the German genius proved an excellent showcase for conductor, choir and soloists in an evening of period pops.

Leading the honours was Australian-British maestro Jessica Cottis, a former assistant to Vladimir Ashkenazy in Sydney, and a familiar face to Queenslanders who have seen her conduct regularly in recent years. Not a Baroque specialist as such, her background includes organ studies at ANU, standing her in good stead in this repertoire. Accordingly, she led a select subset of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in considerable style, her every gesture sparking with energy.

Conducting sans baton, her highly watchable physicality on the podium drew some finely crafted results, whether intent on unravelling Bach’s complex textures or conjuring some high-voltage playing and singing with an almost palpable strength of will. The orchestra, playing on modern instruments, were generally excellent, the modern string tone only occasionally obscuring the delicate woodwind writing. A special mention should go to the three trumpeters, led by John Foster, who put in a magnificent performance, grappling with Bach’s remorselessly stratospheric writing.

Soprano soloist, Greta Bradman

The choir for the evening was the Australian Voices. Beautifully prepared by AD Gordon Hamilton, they displayed a fresh, natural tone and exhibited enormous discipline and attention to text and detail. Their clean attack to the opening of the Magnificat and their sense of engagement in the knotty fugal development of Ein Feste Burg were among the many pleasures on display. The sopranos, in particular, were standouts as Cottis raised the roof at the end with the Dona Nobis Pacem from the B Minor Mass – a fitting climax to the evening.

The other highlight of the concert was the stellar interpretation of the D Minor Double Violin Concerto by Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache. Their historically appropriate approach to tone and vibrato gave a perfect demonstration of period style, and there was a delightful rapport between the two as they bounced Bach’s numerous ideas back and forth. The beautiful Largo was especially memorable, the pair practically minuetting in an elegant musical dance, before despatching a dazzling Allegro finale.

Completing the entertainment were soloists Nicholas Scott and Greta Bradman. Scott was warm and lyrical in the elegant Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten (from Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern) and phrased his Zion Hört die Wächter Singen with style. Bradman was sweet-toned and winning in Bist du Bei Mir, and again in one of Bach’s most sublime arias, the ravishing Schafe Können Sicher Weiden (a lovely flute duet here as well). Christopher Wrench opened proceedings a little shakily with the solo from Wir Danken dir, Gott on the QPAC organ.

There was the occasional misfire as not every ‘bleeding chunk’ of Bach sits effortlessly next to another, and it might have been more enjoyable to hear a whole cantata, or a whole Brandenburg Concerto, for example. A better flow might have been achieved if there had been fewer comings and goings between excerpts. Nevertheless, a crowd-pleasing night that left me keen to hear more, particularly from Cottis, Winther and Tache, and whet the whistle for a week packed with Baroque pleasures ahead.

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