By Dr. Luis Dias
Stephanie Bosch: Transverse flute & treble recorder
Julia Belitz: Baroque oboe, recorder
Christof Boerner, Violin
Johannes Rapp, cello
Even in the rarefied circles of classical music, musicians devoted to the “early” repertoire (read Middle Ages and Renaissance, through to the Baroque era) are a miniscule subset, the geeks of the music world if you will. So it was a singular treat to have a whole evening dedicated solely to music of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
“La Gioia Köln” is a five-member period-instrument ensemble. And they were at the Kala Academy (courtesy the CMM Group Pvt Ltd at their year-long centenary-fest, and Kala Academy) at 4/5ths their strength, with Alexander Puliaev (harpsichord) rather conspicuous by his absence.
The concert commenced just a few minutes beyond the stipulated time, a welcome trend. Antonio Vivaldi featured at the start and finish, like book-ends to the rest of the programme, in which music from the 1650s-1750s predominated, with the exceptions of Tarquinio Merula (1595-1665) and a Suite of Dances from the 15th century, of obscure parentage. Remarkably, there were no less than three composers in the programme (J.S. Bach, Händel, and Louis Antoine Dornel) sharing the same birth year (1685).
Vivaldi’s Concerto in F major RV 99 is actually scored for flute, oboe, violin, bassoon and strings (or cembalo), but worked well in this arrangement for treble recorder, oboe, violin, and basso continuo (cello). This three-movement work follows the typical concerto convention fast-slow-fast (Allegro- Largo- Allegro). The treble recorder (Bosch) was the showcased instrument, with the rest coming to the fore in the tutti sections of the outer movements. The middle movement, featuring just Bosch over Rapp’s cello, stood out for its plaintive lyricism.
Next up was Händel’s Trio Sonata in B minor (Op. 2 no. 1 HWV 386b), arranged this time for transverse flute (Bosch), violin and basso continuo (cello). Written around 1720, it follows the Corellian sonata da chiesa pattern of four movements, slow-fast-slow-fast (Andante- Allegro ma non troppo- Largo- Allegro).
Louis Antoine Dornel’s Sonata for three voices (in this case horizontal flute, recorder and violin) was delightful in its contrast of woodwinds against a weaving violin melody, more often providing a backdrop than being an equal partner in the conversation. This was especially the case in the opening movement (Vivement).
We then had two Chaconnes (set of musical variations on a repeated short harmonic progression, underpinned by a repetitive bass line, or ground bass) played back-to-back. This sequence made interesting listening, as it contrasted the styles of two different schools (English vs. Italian) and centuries (16th and 17th respectively).
Henry Purcell’s anglicised “Chacony” in F major was the more stately of the two, and more suited to dancing. It is easy to imagine it performed at the English royal court, complete with powdered wigs, ruffled lace collars and hand-held fans. In the central portion of the work, the bass line temporarily abdicated its supporting role, and joined the fray, prompting an echoing line in the other instruments.
Tarquinio Merula’s Chiacona (arranged for two soprano recorders and cello) in contrast, is set at a much brisker pace, giving additional meaning to the term “walking bass”, with virtuoso passages for both woodwind voices, requiring utmost co-ordination. Bosch and Belitz acquitted themselves well here, although the coloratura runs in the Purcell seemed smudged in comparison.
The four-movement Suite of Dances from the Renaissance featured all four musicians, in a series of extremely short, and rather forgettable, pieces. The opening movement had the dignified feel of a Pavane, while the second was a variation of the first.
Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758) although a rather obscure composer today, was apparently highly regarded in his time, and Johann Sebastian Bach made manuscript copies of several of Fasch’s compositions, the better to study them. His Sonata in G minor (Andante- Allegro- Poco allegro), arranged for oboe, violin and cello, was dispatched by La Gioia with articulate playing and disarming finesse.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata in C major for treble recorder, violin and basso continuo is a transcription of the BWV 530 organ “trio-sonate” in G major (1732), with one voice each for right hand, left hand, and pedals. Its ever-forward propulsive momentum brought to mind his fifth Brandenburg Concerto, scored for violin, flute and harpsichord (1719). The use of period instruments in this work underlined their vital importance in matters of balance and timbral distinctiveness, something that more modern instruments employed for the purpose cannot always achieve with quite the same fidelity.
The concert was rounded off by Vivaldi’s “La Pastorella” Concerto in D major RV 95 for treble recorder, oboe, violin and basso continuo. This three-movement work (Allegro- Largo- Allegro) was quite democratic in its allotment of bravura passages to all voices, perhaps especially so in the case of the deepest-register basso continuo.
The encore piece was the last movement (Vivace), of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Concerto in A minor. Telemann, like Vivaldi, has been unjustly accused of lack of originality, merely because of his easy facility as a composer and his prodigious output. This vignette, charmingly tossed off by La Gioia, did much to challenge that.
Wherever one stands in the debate (“Should early music necessarily be played on period instruments, or can one be just as true to the spirit of the music, when it is played on modern instruments but in the appropriate style?”), La Gioia’s credentials as a respectable period-instrument ensemble were quite evident throughout the concert. The non-use of vibrato in early music is subject of yet another debate, although most experts seem to concur that it was used only ornamentally, if at all, at that time. Indeed Leopold Mozart is known to have criticised string players “who tremble constantly as if they had the palsy”. Nevertheless, La Gioia’s sparing use of vibrato (even more sparing in the violin, but the cello did use it a little for longer notes), made for a drier overall sound palette, although it lent more authenticity to the works. It also brought their intonation more sharply into focus, and it is a credit to them that it did not falter, playing as they did on non-tempered instruments, in different keys. For obvious logistical reasons, there was no harpsichord support, but it was sorely missed.