Monday, August 13, 2018

BLOCK SOUNDS GOES FOR BAROQUE!, Block Sounds Recorder Ensemble. At Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, August 12. Reviewed by TONY MAGEE

Baroque recorder music is somewhat neglected today, partly because there are so few really skilled players. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, David Munrow led the charge for revival with his Early Music Consort of London and a few ensembles today continue with early music recordings and performances, notably Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XX and (since 2000) XXI, in Europe and Latitude 37 in Australia.
Bass in F.  Photo courtesy
S. Kunath, Blockfloetenshop,
Fulda, Germany.
Canberra’s Block Sounds directed by Robyn Mellor contains just four members, all recorder players and they are very skilled indeed. Combined with special guest artists Rachel Walker on viola da gamba and Peter Young on harpsichord, this concert presented an excellent variety of Baroque recorder music with basso continuo.

Scarlatti’s Sonata for 3 Recorders opened the program. The “three” were all trebles, played by Olivia Gossip, Elana Leske and Shae Leske, plus a fourth bass recorder played by Mellor, which combined with the harpsichord formed the basso continuo. The ensemble displayed excellent tuning and intonation, delicately shaded dynamics and superb phrasing.

Mellor’s bass recorder is worth mentioning here. It is a modern instrument manufactured by Kunath, after a design by Paetzold and is a unique and stunning looking instrument - very 21st century.

The Deuxième Suite by Telemann saw the addition of Walker on viola da gamba, actually a cello sized instrument with seven strings, and bowed. One of the treble recorders switched for tenor and the ensemble sound was certainly rich and full, although I found it obvious that the piece was not originally written for recorders. It is an arrangement by someone else and something about the harmonic balance didn’t quite gel with me.

Molter’s Concerto No.11 is written in the style of call-and-response like an antiphon choir setting, with two treble recorders on one side and another two on the other, plus basso continuo. This was an excellent showcase for the dynamic capabilities of the ensemble.

The Suite No. 3 by Matthew Locke was one of the most charming and delightful pieces in the concert, delivering sounds of extraordinary beauty and filled with frequent Tierce de Picardie cadences, the tenor recorder delivering the robust major thirds.

Telemann’s Trio in F major brought forth Walker’s viola da gamba as a solo instrument, contrasting well with Mellor’s solo treble recorder, supported by harpsichord continuo from Young. The piece was very well played and beautifully balanced, the recorder and viol parts weaving in, out and around each other in varied textures.

viola da gamba, 7 string. Photo courtesy
Christian Laborie, Varacieux, France.
Walker’s instrument is a fascination too. Made in 1998 by Melbourne luthier Ben Hall, it is a re-creation of the Renaissance and Baroque viola da gamba, a member of the ancient viol family and quite rare these days. During Easter 2019, Canberra will host a national symposium of viol playing and manufacturing, including concerts, venue to be announced.

J.S. Bach’s Trio Sonata in B flat was the most difficult of the pieces presented, featuring multiple melodic parts contained within a complex polyphony, and was less successful. The piece is not originally written for recorders and had to be transposed to suit their range. Pitch varied somewhat and in addition, phrasing and rhythmic precision were occasionally ragged, although the basso continuo held things together admirably. 

Little know composer Johann Schickhardt’s Concero V in E minor closed the program. Purpose written for recorders, it gave the group a final opportunity to showcase their excellent ensemble playing, phrasing and dynamics, with very tight harmonies. It was a highly successful finale. 

Throughout the concert, the group was tuned to Werckmeister temperament I / III, governed by the harpsichord, which is an authentic baroque temperament giving a pleasing sound in all keys, but also revealing unique and distinct tonal qualities and textures, giving each key a musical “flavour”.