The concert started with some bad news. Andrew Wilson-Dixon was unwell and unable to attend. His harpsichord playing would normally provide the continuo for the group. However, Margaret reassured us that harpsichord continuo is not essential and the other instruments can be used in various combinations. I some pieces, like the Couperin, violone player Jan Spencer would play his viola da gamba with the two 'cellists Reinmar Seidler and Jonathan Rees. This meant a lot of extra work for Jan tuning his authentic baroque instruments. Without a machine head the violone, which is the size of a double bass, must have been very hard work. In fact none of the instruments have fine tuning pins either and have to be tuned by the wooden pegs alone, in true baroque style. Also there were no tailipins on the 'cellos or chin-rests on the violins and violas. These weren't invented until 1820 (Louis Spohr) and 1830 (Auguste Servais) respectively.
Margaret immediately began Corelli's Concerto Gross with some very ornate playing. As allegro gave way to adagio, Jan's violone added booming bass, but tenderly and carefully. In the Sarabande the bass even started to take up the melody. The final gigue finished with an impressive flourish by all the string players.
For the Couperin 'Concert dans le goût théatral' the 'cellos and Jan's viola da gamba moved to the right of the stage along with the violas. The odd little viola da gamba initially seems to be a 'cello, but it has six strings, cord frets and is held loosely, swaying around as it is played. The tone is quiet but penetrating. The music passed between the 'cellos, viola da gamba and Margaret's fiddle over and over again.
Muffat's Sonata V started very slowly and carefully. The tone was very light and ethereal and resolved gently. More Moffat followed the interval (and extra tuning work for Jan), this time with a beautiful 'cello solo by Reinmar. After a gentle sarabande the grave section built up to an impassioned bass roar from the violone contrasting the very high notes on the violin. After a slow soft resolution everything is happy again in the borea.
Part 2 of Couperin's 'Concert dans le goût théatral' brought back the viola da gamba. (Poor Jan - he had to do more tuning!) After a light and fast 'air' Margaret and Reinmar played the sarabande as a slow stately duet with the volume of the two instruments precisely balanced. After another air, the 'air tendre' started with Margaret, joined successively by Jean Patterson (second violin), Reinmar on his 'cello, Steve Gleed (viola), viola da gamba, then the violins, violas and 'cello all taking turns to come in - bewildering and delightful. Finally a fast lively 'air de baccantes' brought a spectacular piece to a spectacular conclusion.
The grand finale was the wonderful Concerto Grosso No 12 by Geminiani, a series of variations on the sixteenth century melody 'La Follia'. This theme has been reworked countless times. Lully, Corelli, Scarlatti and Vivaldi have all produced their own versions. Even local guitarist David Cottam amazed us with a new take on the old theme for 'Cello+Classical Guitar' with Hilary Boxer her at the library on 8th November.
Geminiani's version is a bewildering and amazing piece of rapidly developing complexity. Various duets and trios spring up among the players. Often it is not easy to work out where the melody is coming from. A viola, a violin, a 'cello - or even Jan's violone! In duet with Jean, Reinmar's playing became unbelievably fast and complicated. Then another variation started in stately fashion with the the two violas playing together tenderly. Then came the 'cello and a more exciting style - including very impressive 'richochet' playing. Then we had Margaret playing solo with all the other violins playing pizzicato. Then she played a duet with Reinmar on his 'cello, eventually joined by Jean Patterson for a trio. After more playing by the full ensemble the 'trio' took over again, and again. Jan's bass line came in as Reinmar's 'cello playing became more and more wild.
As the variations finally ended the audience were in a state of amazement and excitement and called for more. Fortunately someone had thought of that. Jan brought out some drums (a tabor) and one violinist grabbed a tambourine and the whole ensemble brought us down to earth with a lively, but gentle dance. I'm still not sure what they were playing, but it was the perfect finish to a perfect concert.
When violist Steve Gleed introduced me to Margaret after the concert, the subject of continuo came up again. Apparently, harpsichord continuo has only beome popular relatively recently. Using other instruments for continuo was common in the baroque period. The bass lines of the pieces Margaret showed me did not specify which instruments should be used. This had all been worked out at rehearsal the day before.
Steve then amazed me further by explaining that rearranging the music the day before a performance is not unusual. Baroque compositions allow for and encourage extensive improvisation by the ensemble. So I guess every performance is unique, with new arrangements introduced during rehearsal. All the more reason to rush to the next performance by Devon Baroque!
And there's not long to wait. Margaret was at the Chapter House with her smaller ensemble 'Music for Awhile' with Reinmar Seidler ('cello) and Andrew Daldorph (harpsichord) on Sunday this week. Don't worry if you missed that. Devon Baroque's next appearance will be with the Exeter Chamber Choir in the Cathedral next Saturday. This time Andrew Daldorph will be conducting.
Exeter Chamber Choir with Devon Baroque
Saturday 4 December 7.30pm Exeter Cathedral
conducted by Andrew Daldorph
(leader: Margaret Faultless)
J.S.Bach Christmas Oratorio
Amy Daldorph soprano
Nicholas Hariades counter-tenor
Nicholas Mulroy tenor
Thomas Guthrie bass
Tickets less £3 for children & full-time students:
Front Nave £22
Mid Nave 1 £18
Mid Nave 2 £15
Rear Nave £12
Side Aisles £8 (unreserved)
ECC TICKETS phone 01404 813041
or use the forms online at: www.exeterchamberchoir.co.uk
and at EXETER PHOENIX Box Office,
phone 01392 667 080 or book online at www.exeterphoenix.org.uk