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Double Trouble

Review by Rob Kennedy from Canberra CityNews.

'Really hearing the harpsichord and the viola da gamba, not just played so well, but being able to closely hear their individual voices in this delightful sonata was a musical highlight ... this was as good as it gets.'

EARLY music can be just as complex, edgy and outlandish as the music of today; this concert proved that through the music of madness and an unusual tuning technique.

Performing in the Sydney Consort were Stephen Freeman on the viola d’amore and baroque violin, Stan W Kornel on the viola d’amore and baroque violin, Shaun Ng on the viola da gamba and theorbo, and Monika Kornel on the harpsichord.

The concert opened with the fiery and tricky music of Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, his “Harmonia Artificiosa-ariosa” Partia I. The juxtaposition of the two violin lines made this work sound like a concerto for two violins. If this wasn’t high baroque, it was a good example of that ornamented and highly textured style.

The complexity in the music across each instrument showed just how good Biber was as a composer. He was certainly someone who thought outside the box when it came to musical composition. His explorations into Scordatura, that unusual tuning technique that alters the sound quality of the strings, which some say improves the tone, along with his individual compositional style, reveals he was a composer who pushed the musical boundaries.

This tuning technique did make the music sound brighter. Over the five movements with multiple variations, the consort produced a character-filled rendition of this unique composer’s work.

Next came a real treat. JS Bach’s “Sonata in G Major” BWV 1027 for viola da gamba and harpsichord. The sound of these two instruments by themselves produced a special kind of music. Really hearing the harpsichord and the viola da gamba, not just played so well, but being able to closely hear their individual voices in this delightful sonata was a musical highlight of the many Sydney Consort performances this reviewer has heard.

The quality of Bach’s composition, with the excellent performance on these two instruments, exemplified that special baroque sensibility; this was as good as it gets.

More Biber, his “Harmonia Artificiosa-ariosa” again, but this time Partia VII. This version had two viola d’amore in place of the violins in Partia I. The deeper and warmer resonance of these instruments was immediately noticeable. What didn’t change was the quality and amazing dexterity of the music and the playing.

Over seven movements, this even more fascinating music than the first Partia delighted. An interesting aspect of Biber’s music is that his faster movements have greater tonal and dynamic variations and more depth than his slower movements. That said, this was exceptional stuff, as was the playing by all four musicians.

Vivaldi’s “La Folia” (Madness) is a somewhat crazy piece. It begins at less than a walking pace and develops to some of the quickest music ever composed. There are flourishes that can exhaust a player, but both violinists performed superbly. This piece included the Theorbo. That unique, almost harsh sound of this immense instrument added much colour.

“La Folia” is highly rhythmic, entertaining and at times even percussive. Watching the fiery finger movements of the performers exhausted this reviewer; it is an amazing work.

Sydney Consort has been one of the great early music groups. The husband and wife team of Stan and Monika Kornel who have performed with countless musicians over the past 15 years are calling it a day. They will perform one last concert as the Sydney Consort in February 2020. It will be just the two of them.

I’d like to take this time to express my deepest gratitude for what they have done for early music performance in Australia. I have thoroughly enjoyed their unique sound and concert programming over the years, just as many music lovers have. They’ve provided so much quality music, and the Australian music scene is much the richer because of them. Thank you, Stan and Monika.