When classically-trained musicians break the shackles of the printed score and enter the realms of world music and improvisation, the results don't always convince. Blinded by freedom, they can freeze. The good news, then, is that in its Balkan-Baroque! programme, Geneva Camerata – inspired by clarinettist Gilad Harel – really found their groove in a variety of dances from the Balkan regions. From a Macedonian pustseno to a Turkish shepherd dance to roaring klezmer, it was exhilarating stuff. In their home Baroque repertoire though, it was all a little bit prim and proper.

Gilad Harel, David Greilsammer and Geneva Camerata © Céline Meyer
Gilad Harel, David Greilsammer and Geneva Camerata
© Céline Meyer

Their Vivaldi was a good case in point. It was Italian period instrument bands like Il giardino armonico which taught audiences just how bracing – and abrasive – the Red Priest's music could sound. Geneva Camerata, performing on modern instruments under conductor David Greilsammer, caught too little of the sirocco's heat in a tepid overture from L'Olimpiade. The central Andante came across as dainty. More Italianate fire was needed.

Johann Christof Friedrich Bach's Symphony in D minor found the string and harpsichord ensemble marginally loosened up, but the famous Double Violin Concerto by Bach Snr suffered from slipshod ensemble and uncertain intonation, with outer movements taken at breakneck tempi. Telemann's Oboe Concerto in E minor was by far their strongest Baroque suit, arranged by Harel for clarinet and featuring an imaginative first movement cadenza which transferred some of the Balkan improvisatory spirit to the 'straight' half of the programme.

Gilad Harel, David Greilsammer and Geneva Camerata © Céline Meyer
Gilad Harel, David Greilsammer and Geneva Camerata
© Céline Meyer

Rooted in earthy pigments, the Balkan dance numbers went with a vibrant swing. In the Macedonian dance, Harel made his clarinet grind, whoop and scream, employing slap-tonguing and outrageous note-bending. Violinists Simos Papanas and Jonathan Keren each contributed solos before intertwining their sinuous melodic lines. Krivo Sadovsko Horo, a slinky Bulgarian number in 13/8 time wove its irregular beat infectiously and the Çoban Cirto whirled and wailed – a Turkish delight, opening with a crazy, improvised solo from the extravagantly moustacheoed harpsichordist, Jacopo Raffaele. More note-bending from Hiral was met with spiccato attack from the dozen strings, their bows vigorously bouncing, and a delicious false ending. The finale was a lively medley of Balkan songs and klezmer dance. It felt like a friendly jam session, the Camerata exuding a spirit of delight.

Yet that delight was rarely reflected back from the audience and that’s not necessarily because we weren’t enjoying it. Greilsammer had devised a sequence where one bit of Baroquery segued into a folk dance and then back into Baroque, meaning that, apart from after the Bulgarian dance, there was no opportunity for applause. In a concert without an interval, this gave the performers no chance to gauge the temperature of the hall, no chance to build a rapport with an audience that seemed keen to will them on. Only in the closing minutes, with brief flashes of L’Olimpiade returning for a neat symmetrical feel, did they break the barriers down. Harel noodled an improvisatory commentary over the Vivaldi and then Massimo Pinca opened an encore with a jazzy pizzicato bass solo. With more of a nightclub atmosphere, this could – and should – have been a wild Balkan night out.

***11