The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is a fine collective of local musicians specialising in historically informed performance – or HIP if you like acronyms – of mostly 18th-century music. As a testimony to its popularity, the ABO is currently presenting a series of subscription concerts a total of ten times in three cities in less than two weeks, a gruelling schedule by any standards. In this programme, titled "Vivaldi unwired",  the orchestra made a courageous step away from their traditional programmes and combined Baroque music with innovative contemporary influences.

Christina Leonard and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra © Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Christina Leonard and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
© Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Fittingly, the concert began with one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, no. 3, BWV1048. With nine equally important string parts (three violins, violas and cellos) and the obligatory continuo, this is one of the most democratic Baroque concertos: everybody is a soloist. The ensemble was jointly led by the first of the violinists (she was not identified in the programme notes) and by Paul Dyer, the orchestra’s Artistic Director, at the harpsichord. It was a well-balanced and executed performance without an apparently distinct approach, but with an unusually fast last movement. Taking such a ferocious tempo undoubtedly showed off the ensemble’s technical abilities, but at the same time, it all but excluded any subtle shaping of the melodies.

As a contrast, elegant phrasing was one of the strong points of the next item, the Concerto for two violins Op.3, no. 8 from Antonio Vivaldi’s collection of twelve concertos L’estro armonico. Two principal players of the orchestra, Ben Dollmann and Brendon Joyce, took evident pleasure in carrying out a musical conversation. Their delicate duet in the slow movement was at times overshadowed by four instruments (cello, double bass, harpsichord and theorbo) sharing the continuo part. Using carefully selected combinations of these instruments at various times would have probably been more effective and could have offered a more refined tone colour to the essential accompaniment.

The fusion of old and new began with the A minor concerto by Bach’s oldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, featuring on this occasion a soprano saxophone as the solo instrument. This exuberant work exists in three different versions, all written by C.P.E. Bach. Why these authentic versions would be placed to one side by an orchestra that claims to be different from many other chamber orchestras on account of its consistently authentic approach to its repertoire, is hard to understand. A possible reason could be the delicate and supremely confident playing of Christina Leonard, who also prepared the arrangement. Her artistry was admirable and would be most enjoyable in works actually written for her instrument. But the soprano saxophone wasn’t even invented until about a hundred years after this concerto was composed in 1750, and its moody, evocative timbre sounded simply incongruous with that of a period orchestra. While transcriptions were historically always accepted as a chance to introduce older compositions to new audiences (Bach himself transcribed several works of Vivaldi, including the Concerto for two violins heard earlier in the evening), such arrangements work best if they remain within the original composition’s stylistic framework. As an experiment it was interesting indeed; as a concert experience of an undeservedly rarely heard flute concerto, it was less than satisfying.

Converging venerable classical compositions with different instrumentation, a contemporary sound and an alternative, popular performing style is an idea that has been around for several decades. In the past, it has produced some remarkable results (Hans Zender’s “composed interpretation” of Schubert’s Winterreise for tenor and chamber ensemble some 20 years ago springs to mind), but the German-born British composer Max Richter stepped even further in his re-composition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. He kept enough of the original four violin concertos for the audience to recognise motives, sometimes even substantial sections of Vivaldi’s music, but the large majority of the notes and rhythms are his creation. These include electronic sounds: Paul Dyer’s “instrument” for the second half of the concert was a synthetiser. As the violin soloist and the orchestra with over 20 players performed without a conductor, much of the artistic effort was spent on staying together; at times, like in the first movement of Autumn, this wasn’t entirely successful.

Brendan Joyce had the difficult task of re-learning what was left of the original concertos with the addition of the music of Richter’s imagination. He delivered many strong and beautifully performed passages, although his playing was occasionally undermined by intonation problems. In the slow movement of Winter he matched the eerie atmosphere of the rewritten work with an appropriately blending sound; however, the same tone quality sounded odd and out of place in the first movement of the same concerto.

Whether or not one finds such re-compositions appealing, that much is a question of personal taste. However, the performance of this work seemed to me incompatible with a period orchestra’s unique technique. Fundamental musical questions and the ABO’s thoroughly researched and rehearsed style became temporarily redundant. Vivaldi’s music does not need to be unwired when they perform it.

***11