Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
Wednesday 15th September 2021
At a time when a whole raft of period-instrument and other performances have been erased from the Australian scene, it took little hesitation to be back watching a Melbourne Digital Concert Hall livestream where Baroque Duo musicians – Neal Peres da Costa (harpsichord) and Daniel Yeadon (violoncello and viola da gamba) – sat ensconced in the historic sandstone-walled Cell Block Theatre at Sydney’s National Art School. The concert presented fives pieces spanning almost 300 years, featuring a fine mix of pre-baroque forms (Sonata, Ricercar, Toccata, Passacaglia, Trio), beginning with a Sonata in E minor by Vivaldi, the 5th in a set of 6 which were published in Paris in 1740.
An attractively compact work, its opening Largo was evocative of a sorrowful operatic aria to which Daniel gave particularly expressive reading, bringing out a contemplative and sombre quality, alongside an appropriately restrained and uncluttered accompaniment. The following highly vigorous Allegro was well contrasted, its agile leaps and swirls of semiquavers performed with enthusiastic ebullience. A lovingly paced Largo in the style of a siciliano, described in Nicholas Kennedy’s programme notes as “[exploiting] the expressive, singing qualities of the cello’s tenor register to touching effect” certainly displayed Daniel’s beautifully cantabile tone. Repeats were delicately embellished, while the harpsichord’s buff stop provided a pleasing change of texture. The final Allegro had a dance-like buoyancy, with further ornamentation heard in the cello.
The Toccata which prefaces J S Bach’s Partita BWV 830 for solo harpsichord is another piece in E minor. In his welcome to the viewers, Neal mentioned the importance of tonality in the baroque era and the view that certain keys provide an emotional effect, with this Toccata showing “elements of display and a sighing quality”. A toccata (referring to the gesture of touch) is usually a virtuosic piece for keyboard which requires a high degree of finger dexterity. Here, the languishing nature of falling appoggiaturas and semitones throughout, clearly associated E minor with the notion of sighs accompanied by a few tears. Neal opened the movement with a flamboyant gesture followed by nimbly delicate runs. An extended and intricate fugue submitted an earnest tone, with the whole piece in continual flow, exuding Bach’s typically unparalleled contrapuntal imagination while simultaneously creating music of considerable beauty. An ascending sequence led to an ending on the bright tones of E major.
Daniel introduced the Ricercar by 17th-century Italian composer and cellist Domenico Gabrielli, the second from a set of 7 Ricercars for solo cello which pre-date Bach’s Cello Suites by 30 years, pointing out its intentionally improvisatory character. The piece consisted of transient motifs, little vanishing wanderings which gently faded into hushed cadences in the home key. There was something warm and pleasant about the key of A minor – tender and resigned, with a tinge of sadness. In addition to singing phrases and bouncing rhythms, the solo covered an imposing melodic range, its wide leaps and virtuosic passages all negotiated with invigorating agility. A final gigue danced its way down to journey’s end.
Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s Passacaglia ungherese for solo harpsichord was prefaced by some words from Neal who described it as a 20th-century homage to the old passacaglia form, a repeated bass figuration with variations on top. He described the piece as an “emotional journey [which] gets more involved and gets frenetic but then finishes in E major”. Eight slowly descending minims yielded a slightly glum theme, reminiscent of Pachelbel’s famous Canon, but weirdly off-centre. Added to this ever-present subject, a jerky double grace note supplied the Hungarian component of the title. Dissonances became more prevalent as chords clashed, and after some speedy chromatics in the left hand, the Passacaglia gradually drooped to its conclusion. A favourable outcome of the digitally relayed concert was that one had continuous close-up shots of Neal’s hands on the double-manual harpsichord.
The performers returned à trois wth page turner Nathan Cox (presumably also the tuner of the keyboard) for J S Bach’s Sonata No. 2 in D major BWV 1028 with Daniel now playing a 7-stringed viola da gamba which he introduced as the bass member of the viol family. The instrument had a leaner sound and different (underhand) bow hold to the cello, and it took the middle line of the pieces’s trio texture. Above a quaver bass line, the gamba and right hand of the harpsichord engaged in melodic exchange for a tender opening Adagio, while the joyous exuberance of the Allegro’s three active lines was given a full-bodied reading. This movement effectively combined fugal elements with the breezier galant style, including some agreeable harmonising in parallel motion. A siciliano featuring a gentle upwardly caressing figure in the key of B minor was emotively expressed, before the final Allegro powered along in a welter of notes (we had been warned to fasten our seatbeats!) involving much imitation and swapping of the musical material, passages in parallel, and sparkling trills heard in all three parts. Towards the end the harpsichord came to the fore in an extended solo passage, to be taken over by the gamba’s solo of fervent intensity. The programme notes described this movement as “bathed in brilliant sunlight” and having a “spring in its step”. Hopefully this notion, along with the seasonal shirts worn by the performers are a portent of brighter things to come.
Thanks yet again to the fabulous Melbourne Digital Concert Hall for providing a programme of compelling pieces which invited attentive listening, and demonstrated such superb artistry of a musical partnership.