The Classic 100: Baroque and Before

Many Australian and international soloists, ensembles and orchestras
Classical, Early Music
8-CD box set, ABC Classics 482 0818
Reviewed by , September 1st, 2014

How fascinating it is that a classical audience should choose Handel over Bach as favoured Baroque and Before composer with The Messiah which came first. Worthy? Perhaps, but Bach does not rate a mention until his St. Mathew’s Passion which comes in at number five. Here we are privy to just a five minute snippet of it from The Monteverdi Choir. And yet the sheer audacity of Bach’s compositions, his incredible brain-work and technical skill as a composer of such complexity, his commitment to music as a life metaphor outranks every composer who ever lived, well, for me at least. But then I didn’t warm to Bach until I learnt the organ. It was one of those ‘aha’ moments.

The ‘100’ is very much a showcase of these contemporaries, Handel and Bach, who shared a shonky eye doctor and never had a visual encounter, though overtures for such a meeting were made by Bach. There are smatterings of other composers on this eight disc extravaganza, many who inspired these giants, including Vivaldi, Pachelbel and Monteverdi. Pachelbel’s Canon, written originally for organ, is a simple and very romantic piece of music for its time. It is taken at a pace by the ASO here and for my money, loses some of this romanticism as a result.

Conductor Antony Walker

Conductor Antony Walker

There is a lovely counterpoint between the bell-like clarity and purity of Sara Macliver’s voice and the lusty, gladiatorial fullness of Teddy Tahu-Rhodes’ bass on Handel’s Messiah, perhaps not the effect the composer sought in this instance, but nonetheless most effective. Cantillation and the Orchestra of the Antipodes truly shine in this rendition with their army-like precision in finely sculpted articulation under the baton of Antony Walker. This is particularly the case on sections with an emphasis on ornamentation, which Cantillation treats with such finesse it sounds like just another day at the office. The ornamentation can seem an unnecessary affectation in some of the solo passages detracting from melodic flow and emotive carriage. But this was an era where the voice could be treated by composers as a disembodied instrument. And then along came Mozart.

Cantillation shimmers on a number of performances as do other Australian solo vocalists. Jane Sheldon’s sublimely ethereal voice is extraordinary on Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere. More please. Mezzo-soprano, Sally-Ann Russell and Sara Macliver share a wonderful, measured and finely balanced relationship in their singing together and are featured on a number of tracks including Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Monteverdi’s Chiome d’oro and “Virgam Virtutis Tuae” from Vivaldi’s Dixit Dominus in D Major. Cantillation’s performance of Pallestrina’s Stabat Mater in eight parts is also a standout.

It is pleasing that a number of much earlier works made the list. Paul Dyer conducts the Brandenburg Choir in Hildergard Von Bingen’s twelfth century chant O Ecclesia with modal unison singing accompanied by a traditional drone on chamber organ. Eminent Australian theorbo player Tommy Andersson, here on lute, joins tenor, Paul McMahon and Daniel Yaedon on viola da gamba in a delicate and moving interpretation of Dowland’s Flow My Tears.

Macliver and RussellMacliver and Russell

The Australian Chamber Orchestra ‘gets’ Bach and fortunately for the listener, they too are represented on a number of occasions. Helena Rathbone and Richard Tognetti share the same musical intimacy as Russell and Macliver and here they are with that freshness, that ‘for the very first time’ effervescence and joie de vivre the ACO extracts from everything to which they apply themselves. It is also prevalent in Tognetti’s interpretation of the “Allegro” from the Violin Concerto in A Minor and the “Allegro Assai” from the E Major concerto. Pure heaven.

Slava Grigoryan is equally gifted and the “Largo” from what was originally the Lute Concerto in D Major by Vivaldi is sensitively performed with a controlled and balanced TSO. He joins his brother, Leonard, to perform the “Allegro” from the concerto originally for mandolins, also by Vivaldi. Benjamin Northey keeps the TSO nicely tethered but simultaneously expressive and again there is a familial nod and a wink between the guitarists. It is a highlight across the discs. We hear four minutes of this piece and if there is a criticism of the whole project, it is that there is too much of those works coming into the top five and not enough of many others. The diversity of Vivaldi representation is wonderful, from his very popular Four Seasons coming in at number two and performed on this album by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, to his Concerto for Two Trumpets, but most who voted for the Four Seasons will have several interpretations of the work already. They are less likely to have his Mandolin Concerto and it would seem to have been an opportune time to hear more of it. That is true of a number of pieces. What is a Toccato without its Fugue?!

Michael Goldschlager takes some beautiful poetic licence with the timing in the “Prelude” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 as he does with other represented Suites. It would be so lovely to know what composers thought of various interpretations of their works, but of course, once it is out there, it becomes a part of the performer as much as the maker. Purists may not agree. The “Et Incarnatus Est” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor which comes in at number eighteen is perhaps a closer rendition of the composer’s original intent with its measured solemnity, beautifully rendered by Britain’s The Sixteen and their accompanying Symphony of Harmony and Invention. They also do a splendid rendition of the “Jauchzet Frohlocket” from his Christmas Oratorio.

Cellist Michael Goldschlager

Cellist Michael Goldschlager

There are performances that make or break the conveyance of meaning and emotion in the represented works. Sometimes music, particularly from the Baroque, can sound tired, particularly if the performer is not willing to take risks with expressive intent, often not scripted by the composer in scores from this era. It is salutary to reflect on the importance of an integral knowledge of one’s musical self in addition to the work being performed. The individuals and ensembles we revere in Australia and Britain are stand-outs on this collection because of their unique musical identities in addition to their knowledge of the works and composers they are performing. In many instances you won’t hear better interpretations anywhere in the world. Enjoy the eight CD banquet that is Baroque and Before.

Baroque and Before ABC
The Grigoryan Brothers
The Australian Chamber Orchestra
The Brandenburg Orchestra
The Sixteen


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