Van Diemen’s Band – Borderlands
Monday 9th May, 2022
Musica Viva National Livestream – City Recital Hall, Sydney
For Julia Fredersdorff (Van Diemen’s Band’s Artistic Director) living in Tasmania, the initial idea for Borderlands arose from the shutting down of Australian state borders, which led to thoughts of isolated lands and country extremities. Then, with the military attack on Ukraine – the name literally means ‘borderland’ – the programme swiftly gained deeper significance and frightening contemporary relevance. Now shared experiences, we listen, better understand and empathise with notions of isolation, separation, loss, hunger, anxiety, bewilderment, fear, disease, brutality, death, longing, hope and healing, as they are so emotionally expressed by composers of the past.
The European wars which ran for thirty years from 1618 ravaged populations, destroyed cultural centres, affected movement, trade, religion and the lives of the C17th composers featured here. Musica Viva’s Artistic Director Paul Kildea, Van Diemen’s Band, and programme note provider Christopher Lawrence have given the conception excellent, detailed context, with the music framing clearly defined national styles, yet also exhibiting an overlap of genre boundaries.
The nature of the compositions awarded each member of the string chamber group equal attention, which lent an exemplary richness to the five-part instrumental writing. Julia Fredersdorff and Simone Slattery performed singingly and with consistently velvety textures on violin, while viola player Katie Yap and the bass viols of Laura Vaughan and Anton Baba (also cello) formed an intimate nucleus with an unceasingly consolidatory Donald Nicolson on harpsichord.
Dietrich Becker was an organist, violinist and important composer of his day, who travelled and gained employment in a number of cities and foreign countries before settling in his native Hamburg. Christopher Lawrence noted his “acquaintance with other national styles beyond the border, notably the Italianate contrasting of fast and slow sections, and the French predilection of the time for writing in five instrumental parts” which the Sonata No. 5 thoroughly espouses. Solemn homophony contrasted attractively with bouncing vitality and added stylish flourishes, the final dance-like fugato leading to a pithily assured ending.
A “Borderlands suite” fancifully formulated by Julia Fredersdorff involved short dances or movements by different composers for a commentary on war and its aftermath.
Born in Halle, Samuel Scheidt endured distressing repercussions of warfare and plague. He studied with Dutch composer and organist Sweelinck in Amsterdam before returning to Germany, where he was to lose his Kapellmeister position at court due to conflict, and resorted to teaching (not on Zoom). His Galliard Battaglia of 1621 was propelled along by short antiphonal phrases in the two upper melody parts, beautifully sonorous with their imitative trumpet calls, making for a rather tasteful battle cry. A pavane (Paduan) by Becker received an exceptionally sorrowful performance, its gradual descending lines suggesting a funeral procession. Some musical ideas were handed around the players, while at other times all joined in unified rhythm. Les Pleurs (Tears) by the famous violist Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe was given a desolate reading by the bass viols in a duet overloaded with expressive French ornaments. Next was a rapidly athletic Courant by Scheidt, before harpsichord alone introduced the stately and elegant Chaconne from an Overture by Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. Erlebach lived and worked in Germany, yet was conversant in the French style as this movement wholly demonstrated, with the players adding inégal phrasing in fitting manner for Julia’s ‘happy ending’.
Christopher Lawrence described Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni’s early musical style as “something of a bridge between the five-part string writing …..and the more overt virtuosity of his near-contemporaries Vivaldi and Locatelli”. Mainly a composer of opera, Albinoni was born in Venice and evidence of his talent as a melodist was heard in both the Largo and Grave of his Sonata in C major. These were most delicately ornamented by the two violin players, discoursing above the more static lower instruments. Fugal Allegros were interesting for their staggered instrumental entries, the final one ending with gently supple bariolage.
As the programme put it, “Georg Muffat’s life and work represents a traversal of borders in every sense.” Born in France of Scottish parentage, he spent time in several European countries, becoming particularly known for his cosmopolitan musical approach which united international stylistic conventions. Composed in Italy, the Sonata No. 1 from Armonico Tributo (Tribute to Harmony) showed a distinctly Corellian influence with its contrasting dynamics and alternating Grave movements replete with dissonance, as well as hallmarks of the French style such as the overture-like opening, dotted rhythms, and elegant dances. Van Diemen’s Band performed with plentiful imagination, fine sophistication and impressive rhythmic poise, Simone Slattery adding sweet recorder playing as she had done on occasion earlier in the evening.
Composer and violinist María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir performs in an indie band, and lives on the edge of the Arctic Circle in far-flung Iceland. Her piece Clockworking (2013) represented a mixed music genre with its combining of pre-recorded electronics and use of gut strings. An entrancing cosmos of ethereal sounds played alongside hypnotic oscillations of the string ‘trio’ – Julia Fredersdorff, Katie Yap and Anton Baba – performing in atmospheric blue light. The piece gradually gathered in animation and swiftly dropped off to its close.
The highly diverting Sonata Jucunda of unknown authorship (although most probably by Heinrich Biber, so akin is it to his works of a similarly madcap nature) began conventionally enough, the music later taking on a folky guise complete with drone and a grating insistence, some jarring dissonances, ethnic influences including clangorous Turkish military music, and elements of the virtuosic and exciting stylus phantasticus.
The programme notes best explain the final reflective work in this exceptional concert: “Donald Nicolson’s Spirals (2022), commissioned by Van Diemen’s Band specifically for this program, is an attempt to refract an observation of the present day through ancient materials and musical form. Taking the passacaglia, a repeated descending bassline that throughout the 17th and 18th centuries frequently connoted loss or grief……. Nicolson weaves in the melody of a Slavonic Orthodox lament, well known throughout that religion’s Eastern diaspora: Dusha moya pregreshnaya (My sinful soul/Why don’t you weep?).” The music took on a sadness and beauty with harpsichord encased amid shimmering strings who later added to the melodic variations. Finally, the band strummed as Simone’s lone recorder gave voice. A Chaconne called The Night Watch by Biber was given as an encore, ending with Donald Nicolson falling asleep at his keyboard.
While the concert manifestly defined the mood of current times, this was a superb and gratifying unification for the musicians and audience alike. Wishing the Van Diemen’s Band all the very best for their New Zealand tour now that that the country’s borders have finally opened up, with prayers for connection and recovery around the world.