Thursday, 29 August 2013

PRUSSIAN WINDS / Music At An Exhibition / Review

Music at an Exhibition
National Museum of Singapore
Tuesday (27 August 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 August 2013 with the title "Music like fresh summer's breeze".

There is a painting by Adolph Menzel called The Flute Concert of Frederick the Great that describes the perfect setting for a concert such as this. It depicts the Prussian monarch standing and playing the flute, surrounded by adoring subjects and musicians in the glow of candle-lit chandeliers in his Potsdam palace of Sanssouci. This was the mid-18th century, the “Age of Enlightenment” when a warrior king could also be a Renaissance man, composer, consummate artist and patron of the humanities.

Among his entourage counted Johann Joachim Quantz, his flute master, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, his harpsichordist, who both assumed highly salaried positions in his court despite being humble servants. This concert was an imaginative recreation of such a soiree, with paintings from the Royal Collection of Liechtenstein as the opulent backdrop.

Baroque music, which does not get enough of an airing here, was served with an intimacy and immediacy that had its audience enraptured. Flautist Roberto Alvarez and oboist Audi Goh were the contrasted woodwind players, supported by the basso continuo of cellist Leslie Tan and harpsichordist Yang Tien. There were six sonatas in total, each short enough to make up an hour’s worth of royal entertainment.

All the sonatas comprised four movements each, in the slow-fast-slow-fast form known as the sonata di chiesa or “church sonata”. Incidentally, five were set in the minor keys, but the mood was anything but sombre. Quantz’s (left) Trio Sonata in A minor opened the evening, and the flute’s mellow timbre stood out from the oboe’s more piercing and piquant quality. These were the two voices which traded melody and counterpoint through much of the music.

Also interesting to note was the cellist performing in the manner of the baroque, using softer gut strings and cradling the instrument with his thighs, rather than resting on its spike. His sound, eschewing the usual vibrato, was lovingly complimented by the subtly plucked strings of the harpsichord.

Although the accusation that much baroque music sounded alike is noted, there was much to enjoy in the individualities of each work. Handel’s Flute Sonata in E minor had a most virtuosic solo part, echoing the florid runs in his flashy operatic arias. Telemann’s Trio Sonata in D minor saw flute and oboe in comic chattering repartee, and its finale had an earthy country dance with bagpipe-like drones from the cello as a short interlude.

The Flemish composer Jean-Baptiste Loeillet was the interloper in this company, having died long before Frederick rose to the throne. His very short Trio Sonata in E minor was distinguished by an aria-like opening Largo and a jig-like finale. CPE Bach’s (right) Oboe Sonata in G minor concluded with a delightful theme and variations.

The concert closed with Quantz’s Trio Sonata in D major. A cheerful work with a sunny, pastoral feel, it ended in a bounding Tempo Di Menuet with an enjoyable lilt and kick in its step. Seldom has an hour of music, delectably performed, passed like a fresh summer’s breeze.  

No comments: