Of all the great things about cities with thriving cultural scenes, their churches and community buildings are perhaps the least praised (no pun intended). Between them they provide an endless stream of live music events – enough to give the big venues a run for their money. What’s more, many such events feature extraordinarily talented artists, cutting their teeth before hitting the big time. In London travelling is frequently a drawback. Gigs on the far side of town require a tedious journey followed by a long period sitting in buttock-numbing seats. You really hope for quality performances in those situations!
Royal Baroque‘s concert at St John the Evangelist in Kensal Green last weekend was, I’m pleased to say, well worth the trek. The line-up was gorgeous: baroque violin, harpsichord, baroque cello, recorders and baroque harp (an instrument I’d never heard until Saturday). The performers originally met at Guildhall School of Music and Drama having completed undergraduate degrees at some of Europe’s finest musical institutions. Their conservatoire pedigree really shows. Royal Baroque’s playing is committed, knowing, seemingly effortless and brimming with genuine affection, both for the repertoire and each other’s musicianship.
The programme was all Italian and included lots of pieces built around repeating basslines: two chaccones, two passacaglias and three versions of La Folia. The danger here is tedious similitude, but the ensemble’s playing was sensitive, devoted and varied enough, not just to maintain our interest, but to make the concert a compelling experience.
There was a stroke of ingenuity: running the two chaccones together as one long piece. Both Bertali and Merula built their music using similar foundations, so the sense of continuity held up. The danger of tedium is even greater in a situation like this, but the slightly different musical languages plus the addition of recorder in Merula’s chaccone, absent from Bertali’s, provided enough variety to keep the merged music afloat. The rest was down to brilliant execution. Perhaps the idea could be extended, placing a short, contrasting recorder piece between the two chaccones to build a giant ternary form. Just a thought if an alternative is ever needed!
The Bertali stood out for other reasons, too. I was surprised by its chromaticism and enchanted by its meandering course, which is charted with whimsical caprice. On the other end of the scale, Marini’s Passacaglio in G was restful, even staid, but searingly beautiful. Both pieces are ones I would happily hear more often.
It’s nice when performers speak to the audience. Each member of the group took their turn introducing parts of the repertoire (wisely, not every piece was introduced). My only concern here was the occasional reliance on specific bodies of knowledge. Generally, I’m against everything being over-Romanticised, but it’s possible to go too far the other way. Referring to technical challenges or the history of sonatas, say, is hard to do in a compelling way while also being pithy. You can’t always be sure your audience is well informed in the history of music. So what do you do? Say something historically dubious because you don’t have time to contextualise your point? Or perhaps highlight some technical facet of the music that’s probably more interesting to performers than your average audience member? Royal Baroque were good at maintaining an informal tone, I just wondered how much people were getting from each of the introductions. This has become of an industry-wide phenomenon and so, in that sense, Royal Baroque did nothing wrong. They were far better at it than most!
But back to the music – that’s what’s important. St John’s turned out to be the perfect venue. It’s interior is simple, whitewashed walls flooding the basic rectangular space with light. The acoustic is a tricky one, defined by the church’s big flat walls and large pitched ceiling. Bass instruments could become overpowering here, to say nothing of brass and percussion. Voices would resound fantastically, I’m sure. Royal Baroque sounded astonishing. Every note glided aloft with grace and well-wrought beauty. Put simply: the venue and performers were a perfect match. And, if that wasn’t enough, the warmth exuded by the on-stage personalities – who, I might add, obviously enjoy playing together a great deal – kept smiles on our faces and our ears enraptured. As the ensemble said their farewells, one audience member was moved to announce her gratitude publicly. ‘Thank you’, she said, ‘thank you so much. I shall be skipping home’. I couldn’t put it better myself.
Royal Baroque are:
Baroque violin: Christiane Eidsten Dahl
Recorders: Rebecca Vučetić
Baroque harp & recorders: Kaisa Pulkkinen
Baroque cello: Kate Conway
Harpsichord: Katarzyna Kowalik
Their programme was:
Marini: Sonata sopra ‘La Monica’
Marini: Passacaglio in G
Uccellini: Sonata Decima
Vivaldi: La Follia
Uccellini: Aria sopra ‘La Bergamasca’
Castello: Sonata seconda
Corelli: La Follia
Falconieri: Folias echa para mi Señora Doña Tarolillia de Carallenos