Featuring a program of works taken from the first half of the 18th century by a range of iconic and somewhat lesser-known Baroque composers, this latest concert by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra featured the Swiss Baroque violinist and pedagogue Leila Schayegh in her first ever appearance in Melbourne, on this occasion undertaking the roles of both featured soloist and guest director.
Originally hailing from Wintethur in Switzerland, Schayegh is a former winner of prestigious awards and competitions such as the Alte Musiktreff in Berlin, the Förderpreiswettbewerb der Kiomnzertgesellschaft in Munich and the Premio Bonporti in Rovereto, Italy. She is currently Professor of Baroque Violin at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis and enjoys a distinguished recording and performance career throughout Europe as both soloist and chamber musician.
With the ABO all dressed in simple blacks, Schayegh took centre stage, facing guest harpsichordist Anthony Abouhamed (standing in for ABO Artistic Director Paul Dyer in these concerts), to direct the relatively unknown and curious work Hipocondrie à 7 Concertanti, ZWV 187 by Jan Dismas Zelenka. Scored modestly for two oboes and two violins, with viola, bassoon and basso continuo, it is an extended overture written in French Overture style, structured in one longer and several shorter sections. It is an elegant yet relatively sedate work, perhaps intentionally so given the unusual name chosen for it by the composer (which translates as Hypochondria– one of the most commonly diagnosed medical conditions of the 18th century). There were some nice contrasting sections written for the wind consort against the main body of strings, with several flashes of brilliance from the Baroque oboes of Emma Black and Adam Masters a highlight. Seated at the harpsichord with his back to the audience, and playing a relatively small instrument, Abouhamed’s harpsichord didn’t always carry well against the full ensemble from where I was positioned, but the addition of Tommy Andersson’s theorbo was very welcome, and provided some secure foundation at key moments.
Next we heard one of Handel’s concerto grossi, Op. 3 No. 4 in F Major. First performed in 1716 in London at the King’s Theatre at Haymarket, the work was written as an “orchestral concerto” and played between acts of the opera Amadigi di Gaula. Again featuring a first movement written in majestic French Overture style, the work also featured a fast fugal middle section, which was executed cleanly by all concerned. The second movement, featuring Vivaldi-like oboe solos cleverly interwoven into the string textures and played beautifully by Emma Black, really stood out as another musical highlight. Black’s sensitive and expressive oboe filigree was supported superbly by Adam Masters’ own oboe and Sim Walters’ bassoon in the charming third movement, which also featured solos for several other instruments, including Schayegh’s warm and dulcet violin.
The French composer Jean-Marie Leclair, today considered to be the founder of the so-called ”French violin school”, introduced a new level of technical virtuosity and brilliance to French violin composition. A self-described fan of the composer, soloist Leila Schayegh relished the opportunity to share her version of Leclair’s Violin Concerto in E minor, published in 1745. Following the Italian fast-slow-fast model and requiring only strings, the work’s two outer movements provide some real challenges for the soloist, and Schayegh demonstrated some superbly-executed tirades and breathtaking double, triple (and even quadruple) stopping during the more aggressive passages, which she seemed to perform effortlessly. There were, however, a few minor intonation blemishes during some of the very fast arpeggiated figures, particularly at the higher extremes of the piece, and the occasional whistle note, which was momentarily distracting. In the expressive central slow movement, there was some really beautiful playing from both soloist and ensemble, with Schayegh’s delicate violin sound carefully supported by the ABO violins, and underpinned by the ever-reliable baseline of the ABO’s three lower string players – Jamie Hey and Rosemary Quinn (Baroque cello) and Robert Nairn (violone).
Schayegh commented at one point on how fortunate we are in Melbourne to have the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall and its fine acoustics, and how she thought it to be one of the very best halls she had ever performed in. Indeed, the fine acoustics of this venue enable players to hear each other with an unusual degree of fidelity, and also enable the audience to hear the most intimate sounds created by a player such as Schayegh, who often produced a fragile and relatively small sound that could easily have been swamped. I doubt whether one would hear anywhere near as much of the fine detail from this outstanding musician when playing in other spaces.
I suspect Melbourne’s fluctuating temperatures and unusually high humidity were probably partly responsible for the need for several lengthy re-tunes throughout the evening. Gut strings and old instruments can be temperamental… Scheyegh’s violin was made in 1675!
After interval, the advertised program was an all-Bach affair. First we heard the “lost” Violin Concerto in D Minor BWV 1052R,reconstructed from theHarpsichord Concerto No. 1, BWV 1052. When it was first composed, it seems that this concerto immediately presented such a technical challenge that few soloists were able to tackle it. Though the original has been lost, the concerto has been reconstructed, and again provides violinists with an array of extremely demanding technical challenges. After a somewhat austere opening, the first movement features an unrelenting series of rapid semi-quavers for both soloist and orchestra in unison, and then independently for the soloist. Schayegh threw herself into the score and offered a technically impressive yet fairly subdued performance. The restrained second Adagio movement invokes a desolate and somewhat sombre mood, but featured some well-shaped unison phrases from the ABO strings under the solo violin. The energetic Allegro finale provided more expected fireworks, with Schayegh negotiating some spectacular cross bowing towards the end.
The final work on the published program was Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major BWV 1069. Existing in two versions, we heard the earlier and less spectacular of the two (without trumpets and drums). With the return of the winds (with an extra oboe added) we heard another work commencing with a movement written in French Overture style, followed by a series of dance-inspired movements, with the three oboes and bassoon providing some busy and impressive work throughout. At one point in the suite the performance was disturbed somewhat by some strange tapping noises coming from the stage, which did not seem to be an intended part of the program, but thankfully they disappeared after a short period. The concluding Réjouissance movement provided a chirpy and energetic conclusion to proceedings, with Schayegh having displayed an impressive amount of concentration and stamina throughout the night.
We heard two encores; the first another short work by Schayegh’s beloved Leclair entitled Tambourin. Even though there were no drums involved, the piece still had a suitable rhythmic energy, thanks to Jamie Hey who mimicked the drum effectively on his cello. Finally, we heard the second movement of a Vivaldi concerto, which was very enthusiastically received – a welcome splash of Italian colour and musical drama to send everyone home happy.
There will be two further performances of Poet of the Violin on Saturday, 11 November at 7 pm and Sunday, 12 November at 5 pm at Melbourne Recital Centre
Photo credit Mona Lisa Fiedler
Andrew Wailes reviewed “Poet of the Violin”, presented by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, and featuring Leila Schayegh, baroque violin and guest director, at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, on November 9, 2023.