For Richter’s recomposed Vivaldi, ABO boldly go where no baroque orchestra has gone before.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place
May 6, 2015

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is an ensemble that’s usually committed to preserving the musical traditions of the past, but for this opening performance of its second programme of the 2015 season, Vivaldi Unwired, the ABO boldly went where no baroque orchestra had gone before for the world premiere performance of Max Richter’s Recomposed – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons on period instruments.

Starting the concert in more familiar territory however, the ABO gave a dazzling account of J.S. Bach’s glorious helter-skelter of chromatic invention, Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G Major. Led by Paul Dyer at the harpsichord, this was bright, energised and unashamedly joyous music-making at its most uplifting. The visibility of Bach’s knotty, multi-layered counterpoint, passing from one musician to the next as it snaked its way back and forth across the ensemble afforded each member of the consort an opportunity to show off, but this was more than merely peacocking. The ABO’s playful interaction ensured Bach’s dense, frenetic textures were given a delicate contour so that this complex and harmonically intense music maintained absolute clarity. The fearlessly break-neck speed of the exhilarating final movement was thrilling and yet clearly effortless, but perhaps the most charming aspect of this performance was the palpable affection these musicians have for this extraordinary baroque masterwork. A conspicuous love of performance is unarguably the beating heart of any great concert, and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra delivered this in spades.

Next in the programme, an unfettered example of Vivaldi’s oeuvre, Concerto Op. 3 No 8 for two violins, featuring soloists Brendan Joyce and Ben Dollman. The slightly different instrumental timbres of these two baroque specialists offered a pleasing contrast that clearly defined the conversational back-and-forth of the antiphonal duet . The enlarged string forces beefing up the ensemble for this piece, once again led by Dyer from the keyboard, showed the same commitment, displayed so potently in the Bach, to delivering a nuanced and emotive performance.

Closing the first half, the first departure from the traditional in the form of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Concerto for flute in A minor, in a new version for soprano saxophone, arranged and performed by Christina Leonard. The son of the great J.S., C.P.E. Bach’s celebrity as a composer outstripped his father’s during his lifetime. His output was not only prolific (he wrote over a thousand works), but hugely innovative, and the chromatic and textural surprises this concerto offers are a clear display of his flair for the original. Perhaps some purists might find the saxophone sonority problematic, its naturally flat tone slightly jarring with the brightness of baroque string playing, but as an experiment I think it’s a bold and gutsy gesture that C.P.E. would applaud. Leonard has set herself a tough challenge in preserving so much of the original acrobatic flute solo –  the serpentine melodies of this part is orders of magnitude more demanding on the Saxophone – but she meets this task head on, giving a largely polished rendering.

Regardless of its ubiquity, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is undeniably one of the great accomplishments of the baroque. “Recomposing” this masterpiece might seem a bit of an arrogant gambit, and indeed Max Richter’s attempt fails on many levels. It’s fairly simplistic, often formulaic and lacking the kind of innovation that Vivaldi wove into each movement of his four seasonally inspired concerti. However as one of the most widely performed and recorded pieces of music in the baroque canon, giving The Four Seasons a refreshing facelift has provided a welcome addition to the repertoire, and Richter’s hybrid of baroque and minimalism has been a hit with audiences around the world since it was premiered in London in 2012.

When Richter came to the Sydney Opera House in November last year to perform the piece with New York’s Wordless Music Orchestra, the concert hall was duly packed, but personally I was disappointed to hear the ensemble amplified, giving the sound-world a deadened, inert, pre-recorded flatness. However in the hands of the ABO, when Richter’s music is allowed to exist in the visceral and vibrant space of acoustic performance, it comes alive. The piece takes on a subtler, more ethereal quality than Richter’s bludgeoned, mic’d-up account at the Sydney Opera House, and in my opinion is far better for it.

However, resisting amplification is not the only marked improvement the ABO make on this performance of Richter’s recomposed Vivaldi. Played on period instruments (a modern pedal harp, a synthesiser and a laptop are the trio of contemporary concessions allowed to remain), the ABO make an enlightening connection to the source material. The fragments of the original preserved in the piece shine, instead of feeling incongruous, and soloist Bredan Joyce is able to flit between the glassy sheen of baroque technique and a more contemporary, vibrato heavy timbre as the piece transitions from one aesthetic to the other. Occasionally, balance is an issue – another compositional shortcoming of Richter’s – but by faithfully preserving the baroque soul of Vivaldi’s great celebration of the changing seasons, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra give this piece a far more compelling and authentic identity. For this, Richter owes the ABO a great debt. 

The Austrlaian Brandenburg Orchestra present Vivaldi Unwired, on tour nationally until May 19.