★★★★☆ Baroque trio and friends take us where court meets pub.

City Hall, Brisbane
April 13, 2016

Ever heard of Davis Mell? Thought not. But thanks to Latitude 37, Brisbane Baroque audiences had a chance to get to know some of the hidden gems by Mell and his contemporaries as they shone a light into one of the darker corners of English musical history – the ‘lost’ period between the Jacobean dolours of Dowland and the Restoration glories of Purcell. With a little help from the Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1600-1800 (Volume 10), I now know that Mell, a Salisbury born composer and violinist, was a respected court musician to Cromwell and “not given to excessive drinking” – clearly a quality in short supply at the time. As demonstrated, his variations on John Come Kiss Me Now are a perfect example of when popular (ie folk) music meets high art – in other words, when the pub rubs shoulders with the court.

The core players of Australia’s premiere baroque trio comprise gifted violinist Julia Fredersdorff, Laura Vaughan on gamba and Donald Nicholson on keyboards. Each is a true master of his or her craft, having studied and honed their skills at the very best Conservatoria and played with the finest period orchestras in Europe. For their Royal Consort programme they were complemented by Matthew Greco on violin, Josep Maria Martí Duran on archlute and guitar, Joel Raymond on recorder and oboe, and tenor Brenton Spiteri in vocal items. Between the seven of them they spread before us a thoughtful, wide ranging smorgasbord of the rare and the just about known with lashings of style and flair.

The ‘court’ music first, and the high-art end of things was where the core players of Latitude 37 were able to show maximum mettle. Joined by the excellent Greco, they played an engaging Four Part Consort by Matthew Locke (Nicholson flitting nicely from sprightly harpsichord to sonorous chamber organ), an Air and Courant by the underrated Civil War master, John Jenkins (Fredersdorff’s elegant decorations matched by Vaughan’s perfectly-phrased, skittering gamba line), and an unorthodox (and unpublished) Fantasia by Orlando Gibbons’ son, Christopher. Apart from the evident sense of collegiality, they were impressively sensitive to each other’s changing moods and movements as well as being beautifully in tune, both emotionally and, crucially with those devilish period instruments, in terms of pitch. This was intimate consort music, designed for a accomplished players in a domestic setting, given depth and meaning by exemplary musicianship.

Sitting somewhere in between were works by Dowland and Holborne, plus a cleverly merged pair of nimble divisions on the famous Greensleeves. Josep Maria Martí Duran has impressed mightily throughout this festival and was equally winning here, whether adding rhythmic vivacity on baroque guitar to the up-tempo numbers, or with his immaculate fingerpicking in the more reflective lute songs. Vocally, Brenton Spiteri was most successful in the livelier numbers, if a little too confined to the score. At other times his tight, bright tenor became somewhat relentless, unnecessarily short on tonal and textual variety.

The ‘pub’ music was where most fun was to be had. The aforementioned Davis Mell led the way, and there were some lively variations on Woodycock, Playford’s take on Paul’s Steeple and Van Eyck’s Variations on Dafne (a tune that I think I know as Packington’s Pound). This was foot-tapping stuff, music of the masses ennobled by the sheer class of the players. Joel Raymond was especially impressive here, his dextrous recorder playing injecting the prettily pastoral numbers with energy and spirit, while switching instruments to become delightfully doleful in the slower numbers.

For those whose taste isn’t for lollipops by JS Bach and his fellow masters, Latitude 37’s eclectic choices, perfectly played, made for an ideal evening. And by the way, back to Davis Mell, apparently one of his children was cured of a crooked back by the touch of a dead man’s hand. Now who said reviews couldn’t be educational?