Sunday, May 6, 2018

Two Concerts from the Canberra International Music Festival, I Bassifondi, The Fitters’ Workshop, Saturday, May 5th, 11am and Beowulf, The Fitters’ Workshop, Saturday, May 5th, 8pm

Clockwise from top: Benjamin Bagby - Beowulf. Frederico Tiffany, Gabriele Miracle and Simone Vallerotonda - I Bassifondi

Music review: Jennifer Gall
Images courtesy of Peter Hislop

It was a pleasure to hear I Bassifondi perform again in at the Canberra International Music Festival. Listening requires a slowing down and a willingness to focus intently on the softer sounds of the 17th century played on theorbo, guitar, colascione and chitarra bettente. The intricacies of ornamentation, harmonisation and percussive accompaniment of the repertoire are seductive, as gradually one’s ears become accustomed to the quieter instrumental voices and the sinuous melodic threads. For some reason the Fitters’ Workshop seems to facilitate this kind of musical time travel – perhaps something to do with the fact that the building itself is in a liminal state; it is the perfect host for sounds travelling from another era.

As well as skilful musicianship, the dedicated scholarship behind each performance by
 I Bassifondi is impressive. Director Simone Vallerotonda based Saturday’s concert on a 1606 text by Girolamo Montesardo: ‘A newly invented tablature for playing balletti on the Spanish Guitar’. This invention devised a notation system in which chords were identified by a letter of the alphabet written on a single stave, with superimposed rhythmic information. As well as the ordinary alphabet, the alfabeto falso appeared, subverting the original chords with additional more colourful notes and crushed notes – acciaccaturas, thus creating a highly nuanced harmonic structure.

Gabriele Miracle’s percussion maintained the rhythmic drive throughout each piece and he sustained interest by constantly varying the instruments he used, switching from small drums played with brushes to a circular cake-tin shaped drum filled with sliding seeds to a corrugated wooden block played with ‘thimbles’. The Capona by Ferdinando Valdambrini had a surprisingly modern flavour in its chord progressions. Passacaglia per la D by Angelo Michele Bartalotti offered some pleasantly surprising modulations and a complex duple cross-rhythm pulsing against the strumming to make this piece one of my favourites, closely followed by Corbetta’s Passacaglia per la X with the questing motif played by the Colascione, evolving into a canon and ending in a spirited jig. The absolute highlight was the silvery cascades and ethereal guitar chords of Alessandro Piccinini’s Partita sopra l’aria francese and Corrente.

In stark contrast, the evening performance of Beowulf by Benjamin Bagby swept aside the delicacy of the morning concert and transported the audience back into the dark and blood soaked imagined landscape of pre-literate times. With only his powerful voice and a 6-string harp on a darkened stage, Bagby, in the role of ‘scop’ (singer of tales and re-creator of epics) gave a thrilling retelling of the Anglo Saxon epic poem. Performed in the original Anglo-Saxon, the translation was projected above the singer onto the back of the stage which worked well to keep the audience abreast of the unfolding narrative. Bagby modified his voice to declaim, shout terrifyingly, chant and sing with phenomenal dynamic control, holding our attention through the mighty tale.

The harp is a painstaking reconstruction of an instrument excavated from the grave of a 7th century Alemannic nobleman’s grave, and strung according to medieval modal theory, suggesting a gapped octave containing three perfect fifths and two perfect fourths, creating a web of sounds in which to weave the words and gestures of the epic. That someone would dedicate such time, research and practice to re-creating the telling of the ancient battle between the heroic Beowulf and the monster Grendel is miracle enough, but that such a performance should be heard in Canberra is a not-to be forgotten experience. It was a joy to hear so many of the audience reminiscing about Sweet’s Anglo Saxon Primer, to discuss Old and Middle English classes from university days and remember my Year 7 history of language teacher introducing Beowulf to the class back in the 1970s. I wonder if this still happens?

It is the research and scholarship behind many of the performances; the number of new Australian works performed and the depth and breadth of the offerings that make the Canberra International Music Festival an event that is vital to the musical life of the national capital. We are lucky to have the world of musical ideas come to us for one week every May to inspire and revitalise both listeners and performers. Long may it live!