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Classical albums reviews with Ben Lunn

Review by Ben Lunn for Morning Star.

"Shaun Ng’s playing is a joy, and he is a musician truly in command of his instrument."

The work of Marais has been close to me for many years, not least because he was one of, if not the composer I kept playing when I was a naive student having a go at the viol.

This CD features four suites by De Machy, which are not only a great introduction to the composer, but also a wonderful way for those unfamiliar with the expressive potential of a viol to become acquainted with a very dear instrument.

Shaun Ng’s playing is a joy, and he is a musician truly in command of his instrument. The character of each movement of the suite is treated carefully, and without knowing the differences between a courante or allemande a listener can feel that character without it becoming stale or mechanical.

For my first encounter with Ng’s playing, this is a very welcome discovery.

Album Review: Mr De Machy Pieces de Violle by Ng

Review by Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney.

"Ng draws a on broad palette of colours and textures, singing and sobbing, growling and sighing, leaping between registers, rapidly crossing the strings to alternate between notes, and playing in polyphony."

A recent recording by gambist Shaun Ng on the A 415 Music label, highlights the charms and versatility of the viola da gamba. Mr DE MACHY PIECES DE VIOLLE was released in December 2022  and is a collection of 4 suites for the solo viol by the Frenchman De Machy, known as Le Sieur de Machy.

Details about De Machy’s life are sketchy. We are unaware of his first name/s and his life span, beyond knowing that he was professionally active between about 1655 and 1700. He lived in Paris and studied from one of the notable pedagogues of the time, Nicola Hotman who also taught De Marchy’s more famous contemporary, Sainte-Colombe.

De Machy was a teacher, performer and composer whose legacy includes the Pièces de Violle en musique et en tablature, a collection of 8 suites of dances published in 1685, important for its meticulous documentation of bowing, fingering and ornamentation. Four of the suites are written out on staves and four in tablature, where fingering, rather than pitches are indicated.

For this recording, Ng plays a viola da gamba made in 2022 by Montreal luthier Francis Beaulieu after a 1683 instrument by Parisian luthier Michel Collichon. His bow was made in 2016 by Harry Grabenstein in Vermont.

One of the roles of the (bass) viol, wrote De Machy, was in “playing pièces d’harmonie” meaning that the chords provided their own harmonies rather than through accompanying instruments, even playing several polyphonic lines by itself. Playing at a pitch of a’=392Hz, Ng has selected four 4 of these suites, written in D minor and D major, G minor and G major.

The first two suites in D minor and D major are constructed in traditional style. The six short dance movements, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Gavotte and Menuet are introduced by an extended improvisatory Prelude. The second pair of suites in G minor and G major are slightly longer. The G minor suite has interpolated into its sequence two Doubles (variations); the Gavotte of the G major suite is in Rondeau form and it ends with a Chaconne rather than a Menuet.

Ng plies a highly specialised craft, creating the illusion of a small ensemble from a single instrument. He draws on the features of the era, playing the melodic lines as well as enriching the texture with double and triple stops, weaving ornamentation and arpeggiated chords in the style brisé.  Ng draws a on broad palette of colours and textures, singing and sobbing, growling and sighing, leaping between registers, rapidly crossing the strings to alternate between notes, and playing in polyphony. The phrasing is sensitive and his teasing of the tempi creates pleasing shapes. There are harmonies that engage and dissonances that challenge. Above all, these are dances, and the expressiveness of each characteristic dance rhythm with hemiolas, accents and other dance gestures never allow us to forget this.

The visual beauty of the 7-stringed, fretted viola da gamba which Ng plays in this recording, is evident from its the cover. Ng’s program notes provide interesting insights into the politics, rivalries, and technical arguments amongst the violists of the time.

Mr DE MACHY PIECES DE VIOLLE will appeal to students and to afficionados of the gamba and of the French baroque. It is also intrinsically calming and introspective to listen to and turns down the pace of life by several notches.

Le Sieur de Machy: Pieces de Violle (1685) – Shaun Ng – A415 Music 006 – 2022: ****½

Review by Fritz Balwit from Audiophile Audition.

"Mr Ng belongs however to the level of the finest players–Paolo Pandolfo, Phillippe Pierlot, Jordi Savall, Margaret Little–who have tamed this instrument and turned its unwieldy sonority to advantage."

A story has it that once upon a time a group of Italian musicians came to the court of the Sun King. They were ushered in for the Monarch’s nightly entertainment and proceeded to do their thing. They fiddled like mad, precise, energetic, metronomically driven, a magnificent display of daring and ingenious devices. The King’s ears were pinned back, his eyes goggled. He did not know whether he should hire them on the spot or have them all beaten. After one allegro furioso too many, he turned to his musical counselor and announced his verdict: “They are better than us, and they have more beautiful instruments, but send them away and bring back our musicians.” Even if the story is apocryphal, it does make sense of one divergence in the Italian and the French Baroque traditions. The Italians went in for fancy fiddling, punchy fast tempos and melodic assertion. In contrast, the French Courtly tradition favored “taste,”  melodic understatement and refinement played on the softer lute, the viols, the harpsichord and the flute.  By the time of Couperin and certainly in the robust stage music of Rameau these distinctions dissolve, but for a full century the French Court invented its own language based on aesthetic notions of refinement, the subtleties of dance rhythms, a freer pulse, and the avoidance of overstatement in melody.

This style (as my Latin teacher taught me: “All style is just a moment in the evolution of a language”) was especially well suited for solo instruments, and here the French Court musicians and emulous nobles created something new: the lute or theorbo suite, (Ennemond Gaultier represents a high point here), the harpsichord suite (Chambonnieres) the suites for one or two viols, Sainte. Colombe and Marais. This shared idiom contributed to the strong identity of French music for more than a century. Meanwhile, the instrument builders had to catch up to their peers in Italy;  perhaps the Sun King could brush aside Italian virtuosity, but there was an obvious need for instruments equal to the music which Gaultier called “the Rhetoric of the Gods.” Indeed, French and Flemish instrument-making enjoyed a golden century. These instruments still provide the models for the Early Music of today. Either as copies (as in this recording)  or restored originals.

Among enthusiasts of Early Music, the instrumental ideal plays a large role. If you are going to play music on a harpsichord or lute , it matters hugely what kind of instrument it is. Not just in terms of historic authenticity but also in quality. As for string instruments, it is not enough just to use a funny looking bow and play on gut strings without vibrato. The design of the instrument, its voice, its particular resonance and range of expression, makes all the difference.

In the recording at hand, we are fortunate to encounter a rare repertory from the French Baroque played on a superior instrument (a copy of a 1683 Viola da Gamba by Collichon made by Francis Beaulieu) by a first rate musician named Shaun Ng who is based in Australia but has extensive experience with elite Early Music ensembles in Europe and the United States.

For those unfamiliar with the viol (or viola da gamba) it is worth making a couple of points. First, it is an extremely difficult instrument to play in terms of intonation. If you have ever heard an amateur viol consort having a go at music that is over their heads, you will have experienced a species of lugubrious affliction. Mr Ng belongs however to the level of the finest players–Paolo Pandolfo, Phillippe Pierlot. Jordi Savall, Margaret Little–who have tamed this instrument and turned its unwieldy sonority to advantage. A second thing to know is that the viol family is only a distant cousin of the cello; You will notice the six strings on this particular instrument as well as the frets. It is more directly related to the bass, whose lineage, as a former bass player, I like. However, it is more than just prejudice that makes me think that newcomers to this music might appreciate the sound of this instrument. There is something especially gratifying about the lowest register of the bass viol. As Mr Ng has stated in an interview the viol is distinct from the cello in that “ itis the closest instrument to the human voice. Its range is vast, its top string is a fourth above the cello’s whereas its bottom string is a third below the cello’s lowest string. Despite being a bass instrument, its thinner gut strings allows the instrument to produce more overtones, which gives the viol its bright and rich sound”.

Viol Scroll by Francis Beaulieu

You will often recognize members of the viol family by the elaborate head scroll. This like the rosette in the lute is a signature of the maker as well as an aesthetic assertion. 

Here is the instrument by Francis Beaulieu (Montreal 2022)

Viol by Francis Beaulieu



The amount of craft and wisdom that goes into making an instrument like this is staggering. It includes extensive research into historical building traditions, experimentation with materials and close collaboration with the player.  We are fortunate to live at a time when these craft traditions have been rediscovered.

Le Sieur de Machy was a violist and composer attached to the court at the end of the 17th Century. His was the distinction of being the first to publish solo suites for his instrument. Interestingly they were written in both standard notation  and tablature. The individual movements of the suites follow the older order of Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Gavotte and Menuet.  The Preludes stand apart as they were typically “unmeasured.” The player was allowed, indeed encouraged, to play them freely in both time and phrasing.

The feeling of spontaneity and improvisation was the desired effect. At the same time, the Prelude was summoning of the instrument’s capacities in preparation for the more rhythmically prescribed pieces to come.

The four suites are split between major and minor keys in G and D, keys best suited to the tuning of the instrument. The individual movements differ from one another in rhythmically subtle ways rather more than in emotional heat. In general, there prevails an atmosphere of calm or sensual delectation moderated by wistful contemplation. The music does not especially assert itself or busy itself with arrival or departure. And yet it is (at least to this listener) surprisingly compelling. The deep voice and rich pearly overtones of this marvelous instrument are satisfying enough along with the teasing out of harmonic delicacies, and melodic gestures. Striking through is the exactness of intonation maintained by Mr. Ng. The double stop on a bass viol is a perilous business, but here we have fabulous growls, rich chords, languishing sighs while never a caterwaul or screech.

Another feature that the artist has pointed out about this composer was his refined use of ornamentation. He has given us some insight into this feature in a recent interview:

The main attraction of De Machy’s music is his use of ornamentation. Ornamentation is the use of extra notes and techniques on the viol that create a more varied and interesting sound. Some writers of the time compare ornamentation with seasoning used in cooking, where just the right amount is added to give a dish its flavor. In the case of music, ornamentation can give a piece of music its character and make it more appealing to the listener. This unique and precise style of ornamentation was particular to De Machy, demonstrating one of the musical styles that emerged during the time, sowing the seeds for future development in the viol music world.”

Finally he rhythm of these pieces is one of the nuances involving real skill. The music simultaneously features a swaying dotted rhythm while also seeming to float outside of time. The best lute players carry this off with distinction. (I was not surprised that Mr. Ng has also made a serious study of the lute) On the viol it is even harder to find that balance. Ng achieves this with confidence.

Couperin Prelude 

This release should be heartily welcomed by insiders to the French Baroque tradition, but I hope it will attract attention to those who are looking for something beyond the familiar horizons. I hope that Mr. Ng will continue to explore this musical direction. Future issues will benefit greatly by the addition of liner notes, something that is missing here. But other than that I can heartily endorse this recording.

—Fritz Balwit

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.

Bach in Three

Review by Marguerite Foxon from Classikon.

'Shaun Ng gave a masterful performance of a work that exhibits the radical and progressive aspect of CPE’s composition for a specific instrument, perhaps written with a virtuosic gamba player in mind.'

Thoroughbass presented once again a well thought through program of chamber music in their Bach in Three, which contrasted the work of the three biggest names in the Bach Family – Johann Sebastian (JS), Carl Philipp Emanuel (CPE) and Johann Christian (JC). The venue, Mosman Gallery, was perfect for such a performance – intimate and with a good acoustic, the former church with its stained-glass windows and high ceiling reminding us that JS Bach, father of the other two, viewed his composing as a life calling and spiritual ministry. He himself would have been very at home with his sonatas being played in this space. And like several in the audience, I had been wowed the night before in the Sydney Town Hall by the majestic and inspiring two-orchestra 250-voice performance of his St Matthew’s Passion. It was delightful to spend the following afternoon in an intimate setting listening to two of his sonatas.

Johann Sebastian Bach is recognised today as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, composer in the Western classical canon. It is difficult to believe now that he was not always regarded as the preeminent Bach composer – that accolade was accorded to CPE, a transitional figure between the Baroque and Classical periods, who wrote what was considered ‘progressive’ music – expressive, exhilarating, sometimes unpredictable – compared with the ‘old fashioned’ style of his father. Mozart is reputed to have said “Bach is the father and we are his children” referring not to JS as we would think, but to CPE. Both Haydn, ‘The Father of the Symphony’, and Beethoven acknowledged the influence of CPE’s compositions which they keenly collected. Thanks to Mendelssohn, JS Bach’s choral music began to re-emerge from the shadows in the 19th century and grew in popularity while CPE Bach faded from prominence and became the lesser-known composer. It is only in the last few decades that his work has been revived and featured in performances thus gaining the attention he rightly deserves, as the greatest composer of the Bach sons and a composer of great significance in the early Classical period.

CPE and JC were brothers, but there was an age difference between them of 20 years. After his father’s death, JC studied with CPE in Germany and through him was exposed to new musical thinking and secular cultural influences; he also spent time in Italy and then settled in England where he became known as ‘The London Bach”. These differing musical experiences influenced his development as one of the foremost composers in the elegant ‘galant’ style, popular across Europe post-JS Bach, and in turn influenced the concerto styles of Haydn and Mozart, who spent half a year with him as an 8-year-old studying composition.

I was very interested in this program by Thoroughbass because it provided an opportunity to observe something of the development of the sonata form from JS Bach through the progressive approach of CPE and finally to that of JC Bach. It was therefore unfortunate that the original order of the program was changed on the day with the insertion of JC’s work between those of JS and CPE. Nevertheless, the choice of pieces illustrated the development and it would be hard to imagine JS Bach writing a sonata in the style of CPE or JC.

The ensemble featured two violins (Stephen Freeman and Shaun Warden), viola da gamba (Shaun Ng) and harpsichord (Diana Weston). All are experienced musicians playing in the historically informed performance style. The program opened with two works by JS Bach. The first was his Trio Sonata for two violins and basso continuo BWV 1037. It should be noted that scholars now believe this sonata was written by JS’s pupil Goldberg, although clearly the master influenced the pupil. Typically, it has four movements, the melodic line shared by the violins, and the gamba and harpsichord providing the supportive line beneath. This was followed by his Sonata in B min for violin and harpsichord BWV 1014, which opened with beautifully played long slow drawn-out notes on the violin (Stephen Freeman), and featured a delightful interaction between the two instruments in the second movement. As Bach said of the trio sonata format, all parts “should work wondrously with each other”. The movements of the sonata alternated between slow and fast, and I loved the 4th movement (fast) with the harpsichord and violin playing off each other, reminding me of children chasing each other around a park.

The third item on the program was JC Bach’s Quartetto Op. 8 No. 4 from a set of six written for his good friend and gamba player Carl Abel, with whom JC founded the Bach-Abel concerts in 1765, soon the leading concert series in London. Here we can observe a very different approach to composition from JS, a mere 15 years after his death. There is far more expressiveness, more ‘conversation’ between instruments, and the harpsichord and gamba are viewed as instruments equal with the violins rather than primarily providing the supportive bass line. Although the Quartettos have only two movements, they are not ‘light and fluffy’ pieces, but very demanding to play in places. JC is less interested in polyphony, for which his father was renowned, and more interested in moving the emotions of the listener, as was CPE. But it’s an indication of how far JC Bach still has to go to get the recognition he deserves when one considers the first and only recording of his Quartettos was 2017!

The final section of the program was devoted to two works by CPE Bach. The first, which was the program highlight for me, was his Sonata in G min for viola da gamba and harpsichord H. 510. One does not have to be a gamba player to recognise how fiendishly difficult this sonata is. Shaun Ng gave a masterful performance of a work that exhibits the radical and progressive aspect of CPE’s composition for a specific instrument, perhaps written with a virtuosic gamba player in mind. We can also observe in this piece how CPE regards the two instruments as equals – this is not a sonata featuring gamba with obbligato harpsichord (as JS would have written it), but with both instruments interacting and taking the lead from each other. The harpsichord becomes two instruments, with wonderful melodic lines and runs for the right hand, leaving the left hand to provide the bass line.

The full ensemble regrouped for the final item – CPE’s Trio Sonata in E min for two violins and continuo H. 577. CPE was particularly fond of the trio sonata format, and the contrast with JS’s compositional style was again apparent in the way CPE uses the basso instruments not as supportive instruments but as full partners with their own rich melodic lines and harmonies. The second movement closes with a violin cadenza, and the third movement is typically CPE with its unexpected chord changes (perhaps to jolt any listeners nodding off in the drawing room after dinner?), rhythmic variations and dynamic shifts.

Bach in Three was a thoroughly enjoyable program which was enthusiastically received by the audience. There is the potential here, in my mind, for a slightly longer program but with an educational component added, outlining to the audience what to listen for as the program works through two pieces each from JS, CPE and JC Bach.

Bach’s Gamba Sonatas

Review by Heath Auchinachie from Classikon.

'Shaun Ng’s delicate but convincing interpretation of Bach’s sonatas ... played with greatly expressive phrasing.'

Situated in lovely Mosman, “Bach’s Gamba Sonatas” presented by Thoroughbass displayed the depth and complexity of the music written for the viola da gamba and harpsichord spanning two generations. With nuanced interpretations and a rich command of each instrument, Througbass’s Sunday afternoon concert in the Mosman Art Gallery allowed the audience an insight into music, and instruments, rarely heard.

Featuring Shaun Ng on viola da gamba and Diana Weston playing harpsichord, the concert began with the Sonata in G Major BWV 1027 by J.S. Bach, the first of his three viola da gamba sonatas. While a harmonically complex piece, both performers displayed their ability to navigate the intricacy within each movement of this sonata and accentuate the melodicism buried underneath the technical and musical challenges.

After a brief description for the audience by Diana Weston of the history behind Johann Christian Bach’s (the youngest of J.S. and Anna Magdalena’s children) gamba sonatas, they moved onto J.C. Bach’s first Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, one of only two works he wrote for that combination. The first thing that struck me about this sonata was the familiarity of the harpsichord introduction. After a measure or two I realised that it had been previously composed by a not-so-distant relative. While J.C. Bach was a greatly respected composer, and arguably the most successful of the Bachs, his first sonata begins with the introduction to his father’s Partita for Keyboard No.1 in B-flat Minor BWV 825, which I like to think was done as a hommage rather than plagiarising. With a playful and lyrical melody from the gamba, played with greatly expressive phrasing by Shaun Ng, the sonatas of J.C. act as a pleasant, yet stark, contrast to that of his fathers.

The rest of the concert followed in such a fashion; alternating between the sonatas of J.S. and J.C, allowing the audience to appreciate the differences in compositional style and reflect on how the era in which each was composing affected their respective musical aesthetics. Shaun Ng’s delicate but convincing interpretation of Bach’s sonatas, supported by the sympathetic accompaniment of Diana Weston, provided for a very pleasant Sunday afternoon concert and I strongly urge you to go and see their next concert in their 2018 series; Debussy’s ballet for children, the Toybox at Mosman Art Gallery December 16 (with free entry for children).

A Christmas Adventure Review

Review by Paul Nolan from Sydney Arts Guide.

'Finely nuanced and expertly measured accompaniment on theorbo alone from Shaun Ng.'

In her programme notes, founder and director of The Marais Project, Jennifer Eriksson commented that it is ‘hard to know how to add anything to the mix’ of Christmas concerts. During the final ‘Prelude in Tea’ chamber music concert at The Independent Theatre in North Sydney, such concern was shown to be totally unwarranted. Not only was a highly international programme presented capturing the history, essence and celebratory nature of Christmas, but key goals of any Marais Project concert were also satisfied.

Other Marais Project concerts typical include a work from its target composer, Marin Marais. The viola da gamba is also featured in a modern Australian context, in arrangements of music widely different to the French Baroque era. Swedish music, close to Eriksson’s ancestry, has more recently featured, and new compositions or arrangements also feature.

The festive event included six instrumentalists-two of which also sang, seven different instruments, music from at least four countries, at least four eras of music including our own and four languages. The Marais Project’s latest CD, ‘Spinning Forth’ (Move Records MCD 564), which features all the key elements mentioned above in a beautiful blend, was also launched following interval.

There were several standout moments amongst the eight brackets of pieces, which were almost all heard in innovative arrangements rather that their original format. To begin the concert, songs from major composers of the French Baroque were presented on voice plus violin (Susie Bishop), viola da gamba (Jennifer Eriksson), theorbo (Shaun Ng), bass (Steve Elphick) and bandoneon (Emily-Rose Šárkova).

In this bracket, Susie Bishop began her impressive mix of violin and voice alternating throughout each piece. Her clear and colourful delivery of the text and string playing did not wane even when three other European or South American languages were added to the mix.

In the second half of this concert, Bishop presented the deeply touching Italian Renaissance song, Canzonetta Spirituale sopra alla nanna by Tarquinio Merula. Written from the viewpoint of Mary with child, this was an expressive highlight of the programme, with beautifully focussed solo voice and finely nuanced and expertly measured accompaniment on theorbo alone from Shaun Ng. For this song, as in all other brackets, there was a clear precis introduction which assisted the audience in the absence of a large volume of printed lyrics or translations in the programme.

Arrangements of national and early music from Jennifer Eriksson, Susie Bishop, Emily-Rose Šárkova and guest lutenist Tommie Andersson shone during this constantly shifting and diverse end of year event. We heard Eriksson’s version of Monteverdi’s song Chiome d’oro where violin and piano accordion doubled the vocalists playing both. This vocal duet rose above the ensemble instruments superbly balanced and with well executed period ornamentation.

The work or works by Marin Marais usually included in any Marais Project event was on this occasion Suite in E minor from the Pieces de Viole Book IV  (1717). Arranger Emily-Rose Šárkova brought this work into recent times by scoring the performance for piano accordion and viola da gamba. Her instrument was extremely successful in expressing gestures in the Sarabande movement, and the tone colour and timbre of the two instruments were surprisingly complementary during this significant part of the concert.

Reference to Marais’ oeuvre also came in the form of an original work from Eriksson, catapulting the viola da gamba and ensemble far from the Baroque, as is pleasingly often the case. The Garden Party, inspired by Marais’ piece Feste Champétre was a programmatic pastiche touching even on a segment of jazz where especially Eriksson and bassist Steve Elphick were an exciting team.

The penetrating instrumental version of Swedish tune Min levnads afton (arr. Tommie Andersson) as heard on the recent recording Spinning Forth followed a live launch of the CD. The arrangement was missing it’s baroque flute part from the CD at this concert, but benefitted from the blend Andersson’s lute playing with Eriksson’s viola da gamba. Susie Bishop once again thrilled us with her violin playing before explaining and singing Swedish Christmas and party songs.

This ‘Christmas Adventure’, which benefitted from the huge range of experience assembled, ended in modern times with joyous music from South America. Emily-Rose Šárkova‘s selections celebrated the Christmas story and partying in general. This was an enjoyable end to The Marais Project’s busy 2017 and hopefully a firm start to annual Marais Project Christmas concerts to come.

Cries of London with Consort 8

I join the lovely ladies and gentlemen of Consort 8 in their next concert at St Paul's in Burwood. Amongst the many lovely works for recorders, viols and lutes that will be presented, I will perform one of the solo fantasies by Telemann that were recently discovered on the viola da gamba. 

St John Passion Review 2

Photo Credit: Kitt Photography

Review by Larry Turner from Sounds Like Sydney.

'In Es ist vollbracht she [Sally-Ann Russell] created a hushed, poignant atmosphere which was enhanced by Shaun Ng’s delicately expressive playing of the viola da gamba.'

Performances of Bach’s Easter Passions in Sydney have become less frequent in recent years so it is very pleasing that three of Bach’s major choral works are being presented this year. One of these, the St John Passion was performed by the Choir of St James’ in its City Recital Hall debut. With its clear but warm acoustic it is an excellent venue for works of this scale.

The St John Passion is more concise than Bach’s later and more frequently performed St Matthew Passion, and places a greater emphasis on the high drama of the Easter events.  Bach clearly thought very highly of it, reviving it at least four times, including during his last years.  Warren Trevelyan-Jones, Head of Music at St James’ directed an excellent performance, avoiding extremes of tempo and other attention grabbing devices.

For this performance, the choir comprised 20 singers who collectively displayed all the virtues required of a superb chamber choir.  The choruses in the St John Passion play a pivotal role and in their first explosive entries of ‘Herr’ the choir demonstrated their trademark discipline, incision and attack.  As the performance progressed they displayed their accuracy, agility, diction and well blended tone.  Their performances of the fierce crowd choruses were appropriately ferocious and explosive.  This is a choir that can be depended upon to provide fine performances in this repertoire.

The chorales were augmented by the sopranos and altos from Santa Sabina College (managed by the redoubtable Karen Carey) and tenors and basses from Shore.  They sang accurately and their contribution provided an important change of tonal quality since their participation simulated chorale singing by a congregation – which was likely to have occurred in the original Leipzig performances.

The highlight of the evening was the outstanding performance of Richard Butler as the Evangelist.  Vocally, Butler was completely comfortable, both with the technical difficulties and the high tessitura of the part – although admittedly at a lower baroque pitch.  Butler’s sense of the drama in delivering the narrative was superb.  His carefully chosen pacing, dynamics, excellent diction and his thoughtful delivery of the German text all made this an exceptional performance.  He also displayed admirable stamina throughout the long evening, especially since he also sang the three tenor arias.  The very difficult Ach, mein Sinn was sung as though the technical challenges simply did not exist.  The arias do not really belong to the Evangelist and, although assigning them to the same singer was presumably for financial reasons, it nevertheless jarred dramatically.

The mezzo-soprano Sally-Ann Russell sang her two contrasting areas effectively.  In Es ist vollbracht she created a hushed, poignant atmosphere which was enhanced by Shaun Ng’s delicately expressive playing of the viola da gamba.  Von der Stricken was also very well sung, though the instrumental ensemble was a little dominant.  The bass-baritone Christopher Richardson has an attractively full, rounded tone and sang expressively in his three arias.  Trevelyan-Jones set a very fast a tempo for Eilt, Ihr angefochtnen Seelen which was not easily accommodated and did not allow the choral interjections to register as strongly as they should.  This, however, was a rare departure from Trevelyan-Jones’s otherwise sensible and well-chosen tempi throughout.

The depth of talent in the Choir of St James’ was highlighted by the number of singers who stepped from the choral ranks to sing solo parts. The vocal projection and techniques for solo singing are quite different from those required for first-rate chorus singing and the ability of these singers to switch between them so readily is admirable.  There was a particularly fine performance by soprano Amy Moore.  Her attractive, clear tone is well suited to Bach and she successfully captured the contrasting emotions of her two arias.

Several other chorus members sang the roles of specific characters.  Christus was sung by Phillip Murray whose rounded vocal sound was well suited to the music, but would have benefited from greater assertiveness and authority. Andrew O’Connor was very impressive as Pilate. He projected well and provided both the authority of a Roman governor as well as conveying Pilate’s empathy with the innocent Christ. Anna Sandstrom, Owen Elsley and Sébastian Maury each had smaller solo interjections and all delivered them very convincingly.

This performance marked the debut appearance of BandBach@St James, an instrumental ensemble formed especially for performances of Bach’s works with this choir.  It includes many of Sydney’s most talented and respected early music professionals.  This was an auspicious inauguration with many excellent individual performances.  With further experience playing together, however, they should develop a more varied style and refine some aspects of internal balance.  The strings displayed fine ensemble and much stylish playing.  Baroque flutes, by their nature, are soft toned instruments but on this occasion they were dominated too much by the other instruments.  The oboes initially had intonation difficulties but these seemed to be overcome during the second half.  There was fine, firm playing from the baroque bassoon.  The continuo of cello, organ and harpsichord provided reliably secure support, although the organ had a tendency to dominate the overall texture – particularly during the hushed episodes relating the death of Jesus.

In all, this was a fine performance and expectations of excellence from the musical forces of St James’ were not disappointed.  Later this year they will be giving four performances of Bach’s cantatas in a liturgical setting.  This will be in addition to their regular concert series, the first of which will be A Baroque Road Trip in their home church on 27 May.

St John Passion Review

Photo Credit: Kitt Photography

Review by Angus McPherson from Limelight Magazine.

'Mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell’s Es ist vollbracht was moving, sung against the sparse texture of continuo and Shaun Ng’s burnished viola da gamba lines.'

The roiling strings and keening winds of the opening of Bach’s St John Passion drop the listener straight into the drama and pathos of Christ’s last days. While Passions (and Messiah’s) abound at this time of year, the smaller scale St John often gives way to the later written and more popular St Matthew passion – but it is no less powerful a piece of music. 

Bolstered by choristers from Santa Sabina College and Shore, and accompanied by BachBand@StJames’ on period instruments, the Choir of St James’ provided a compelling argument for hearing this work more often in their City Recital Hall debut. 

Director Warran Trevelyan-Jones led the work with an eye for detail, shaping the crescendos that propel the drama of the opening Herr, unser Herrscher to great effect, the choir singing with clarity and verve, exploiting the incredibly rich texture created by the combination of singers and period instruments. It was only when the choral texture dropped to single parts that there were any issues with balance. 

The hardest working singer was, of course, the narrating Evangelist, sung by tenor Richard Butler, who also took the tenor arias. Butler’s sound was pleasantly bright in the carefully shaped phrases of the First Part, with plenty of detail and a countertenor-like delicacy on the higher notes. While he seemed to be straining in the upper register during the tenor aria Ach, mein Sinn in the first half, he rallied in the second, delivering beautifully crafted phrases, loads of drama, and a polished sound across all registers. His Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken was a highlight of the evening. 

Mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell’s Es ist vollbracht was moving, sung against the sparse texture of continuo and Shaun Ng’s burnished viola da gamba lines, though the balance was a little band-heavy in her earlier aria, obscuring some of the detail. Amy Moore brought a penetrating clarity to the soprano arias. 

Andrew O’Connor brought his warm, all-encompassing bass to Pilate while bass-baritone Christopher Richardson delivered the bass arias with a robust athleticism. Philip Murray as Christ, Sébastien Maury as Peter and Owen Elsley as Servus all delivered fine performances. 

The band – a new HIP group formed by Nicole Forsyth – was excellent, with highlights including the wonderfully weaving trio of two oboes and bassoon that introduced the first Alto aria and the veiled sound of the baroque flute duo that accompanied Moore’s Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten. 

Overall, the Choir of St James’ delivered a fine outing of an underappreciated Passion. I look forward to hearing more from them and BachBand@StJames’. 

Young Handel Review

Photo Credit: Han G. Lee

Review by Victoria Watson from the Sounds Like Sydney.

'Shaun Ng was particularly impressive in the slow sonata movements for viola da gamba where the mellifluous tone of the instrument is ideally exploited. The affetuoso third movement of the Sonata in D minor was most “affecting”- the beauty of tone, phrasing and line evoked a mood of exquisitely sorrowful calm ... Shaun Ng treated the continuo line as a true duetto with the voice, illustrating each fluctuating mood and caprice with his phrasing and articulation of Handel’s magical score.'

The Independent Theatre with its live acoustic and elegant neo-classical architecture was the perfect venue for Thoroughbass’s delightful concert dedicated to the early Italian chamber works of Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759). The audience enjoyed a sumptuous afternoon tea and then settled in to hear a beautifully structured concert contrasting works for viola da gamba and harpsichord, keyboard solos and cantatas involving all three performers.

Shaun Ng was particularly impressive in the slow sonata movements for viola da gamba where the mellifluous tone of the instrument is ideally exploited. The affetuoso third movement of the Sonata in D minor was most “affecting”- the beauty of tone, phrasing and line evoked a mood of exquisitely sorrowful calm.

The cantatas were two short exquisite gems in the first half, then the six movement drama of Lucrezia (HMV 145) to finish the programme. They were framed by the instrumental works inviting the audience to focus on the contrasting and complementary timbres of gamba, harpsichord and voice. Soprano Anna Fraser brought a superb musical and emotional intelligence to her readings of the cantatas and shone as a singing actor whose technique and artistry served the myriad of changing emotions and musical demands of the virtuosic Lucrezia – both  the most demanding and exhilarating of the afternoon. Shaun Ng treated the continuo line as a true duetto with the voice, illustrating each fluctuating mood and caprice with his phrasing and articulation of Handel’s magical score. Harpsichordist Diana Weston was at her finest in the ensemble pieces realising the challenging non-figured bass line with creative flourish and firm support.

Written when he was only 21 and first performed in Florence in 1706, the final cantata showed the master of theatrical music Handel would become. Lucrezia is a chamber sized mini-opera of great ingenuity and power. The story is one that would also inspire Shakespeare and Benjamin Britten. Handel captures the tortured anguish of a virtuous woman agonised by the trauma of rape and dishonour who chooses suicide as an end to her suffering. Every nuance of her trauma, anger, despair, vengeance and despondency are explored concisely in a rapid fire work that moves seamlessly from recitative, sometimes richly ornamented, to arias of bravura coloratura and mournful chromatic legato. Thoroughbass presented this work with passion and attention to baroque performance practice balanced to bring the work fresh again to a 21st century audience.