Thoroughbass is a group centred on the harpsichord, played by director Diana Weston. Much of their repertoire is therefore based on early music, but they also perform and commission new works featuring the harpsichord. This concert in the cosy Recital Hall East at the Sydney Conservatorium presented a fascinating mix of baroque and twentieth century music. In both halves of the program we heard a cantata telling the story of a woman from classical antiquity, doomed to death by her own hand as a result of horrific sexual guilt.
Handel’s setting of the story of Roman matron Lucretia
The first was Handel’s setting of the story of Roman matron Lucretia who was raped by ‘the evil Tarquin’ to disprove her husband’s assertion that she was the ‘purest of wives’. This featured soprano Hester Hannah in a performance of great intensity. The virtuosic melismatic writing and lyrical expressive passages were radiantly expressive. This piece was bookended by two sonatas for 2 violins, by Handel and Vivaldi played by Dr Shaun Ng and Julia Russionello on baroque instruments which had had very contrasting timbres, one bright and penetrating, one darker and warm.
Gorecki’s fascinating one-movement Concerto
The second half opened with Gorecki’s fascinating one-movement Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra composed in 1980. It has two distinct sections: the first characterised by restless scales in the harpsichord which seem unable to reach their destination and the second in which dense chords are played on the harpsichord at such fast tempos that the instrument starts to sound purely percussive as the pitches mingle. It is an astounding piece, which I had never heard before and I will never forget it. Harpsichordist Diana Weston was joined by an 8-piece orchestra conducted by Sarah Penicka-Smith.
Britten’s operatic monologue Phaedra
The final piece on the program was Britten’s Phaedra, an operatic monologue for soloist and small ensemble of strings, harpsichord and percussion. Hester Hannah returned to the stage (in a gorgeous Greek-inspired white dress) and was dramatic and stunning as the mythological Phaedra, who fell in love with her husband’s son. The drama was heightened by red lighting, which cast interesting shadows on the walls of the hall and seemed to intensify the inner tensions of this tragic, dignified woman.
Look out for Thoroughbass’ next concert in the series at St Luke’s Mosman – they will be presenting an all-French baroque program there on November 9th.