For many years now the middle weekend of the Adelaide Festival has seen a series of concerts at Ukaria in the Adelaide Hills, 40 minutes drive from the city. This venue, purpose built for chamber music, thereby avoiding that awful oxymoron, a multi-purpose hall, has been described as the best chamber music concert hall in Australia. Its wonderful acoustic, enshrined in a wooden hexagonal 180-seat auditorium, is complemented by a backdrop of Ukaria’s amazing garden and behind that the landscape of the hills – hence the umbrella title these weekends always have, Chamber Landscapes.
This year’s program was called Resonance. In the forward by its curator, Erin Helyard, he explains why, comparing, with the help of Mozart and Voltaire, the fading of notes played by keyboard instruments to fugitive scents or tastes, like the aftertaste of wine. He then goes on to reflect that it was the matching of timbre, that subtle combination of harmonics contained in individual sounds, with composition, that drew him into Early Music, in which domain the matching of the right instrument with the right piece of music is central. The forward to Resonance makes it clear that it is his passion for the results of this matching, in terms of exquisite performance, that is at the forefront of his experience of music, and which his immense academic knowledge informs and supports without ever occupying centre stage.
I attended three of the nine concerts of Resonance, two of which were devoted to music of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first of these was the opening concert, Consecration, in which concerted music from Monteverdi’s 1640 collection with the inviting title Selva Morale (Spiritual forest) was juxtposed with songs by Barbara Strozzi, a wonderful Italian woman composer of the seventeenth century, whose music is well-known among early music buffs but not nearly well-known enough outside those circles.
The Monteverdi pieces were performed by five solo singers accompanied by baroque harp, cello, and an instrument called a clavi-organo, which is basically a harpsichord placed on top of an organ so that the player can move between the incisive plucked sounds of one instrument to the sustained sound of the other without a break, in the middle of a piece. The five singers were the two sopranos, Chloe Lankshear and Anna Fraser, two tenors (how Monteverdi loves his pairs of tenors!) Louis Hurley and Richard Butler, and the amazingly sonorous bass, Andrew O’Connor.
What makes Monteverdi’s music so ravishing? He is on record as saying that for him the text comes first, the music following. But this is just an excuse for illustrating words with the most expressive range changes, suspensions and double suspensions imaginable. His choice of a five-part vocal ensemble gives him the possibility of contrasting duets with trios, and both of those with full five-part textures, which he manipulates with absolute perfection. And, since Erin stresses composition, I can add that something Monteverdi can be relied on is to provide a climactic passage heralding the conclusion of a piece – he, like Bach and Chopin, has always got something extra juicy for the closing bars.
Consecration was presented as a continuous whole, with transitions between the pieces improvised by Helyard or by the harpist, Hannah Lane. Thus there was nothing to disturb the sense of sacredness, which was not felt as anything catholic but the sacredness of music itself. All of the Monteverdi pieces were beautiful, but my favourite was Stabat Virgo Maria, a sacred text to an earlier madrigal, where the illustration of the words “languet” (languished) and “lachrymae” (tears) indeed moved the audience to a collective sigh.
The Strozzi songs were performed by the two sopranos. Chloe Lankshear sang Udite amanti with melting passion, and Anna Fraser’s performance of the even more beautiful L’amante modesto left not a dry eye in the house.
Erin Helyard directed the ensemble from the clavi-organo, and he and Hannah Lane distributed the continuo between them with the variety and imagination that characterises the best performances of seventeenth century music.
The concert two days later called Dolcissimo (sweetest) was like a refined miniature version of Consecration. Performed by only two performers from the ensemble of the opening concert, Anna Fraser and Hannah Lane, it was a tribute to the women harpists-singers of the era. Very much a showcase for Hannah Lane and her baroque harp, the concert embodied the Resonance of the weekend to near perfection. I had never heard a baroque harp except in ensembles before, and was struck, following Helyard’s stimulus in the forward I described earlier, by the great difference in resonance of each of the five octaves of its range. Not only did the length of the vibration decrease with ascending pitch, but the quality of the sound changed in each register, changes which were deliberately ironed out in the nineteenth century with the development of the pedal harp we all know.
In this concert songs by Giulio Caccini, Sigismondo d’India, and others were interspersed by solos for harp, and these were a fascinating compendium of the variety of techniques to be found in harp music of the period. A Toccata Arpeggiata by Kasperger sounded like the unmeasured preludes of the seventeenth century which culminated in the first Prelude from Bach’s 48 (written of course by Anna Magdalena); and the Seconda Stravaganza by de Macque showed off the capacity the baroque harp has for chromatic writing, absolutely impossible on the modern harp which requires pedal changes for chromatic notes. Hannah Lane is a true master of this instrument.
It was a delight to hear the versatile Anna Fraser in a solo recital of this kind. She relished the opportunity for showing how her voice could interact with all the subtleties of the harp, and sang these songs with a range of expression from wistful playfulness to deep passion. The combination of sounds, of resonance that these two performers achieved together was truly exquisite. My favourite song was the elaborate and colourful Lasciatemi qui solo (Leave me alone) by Caccini’s daughter Francesca. Both these concerts served to highlight the fact that the women composers of the time were every bit as fine as their more well-known male contemporaries.
The third concert I heard was such a contrast in sonority to the immense refinement of these two concerts of seventeenth century Italian music that I will consign my comments on it to a separate review. And conlcude this one by quoting Orfeo – “Che puro ciel” – what pure heaven these two concerts were.
2022 Adelaide Festival
Resonance: Chamber Landscapes
Curated Erin Helyard
Venue: UKARIA Cultural Centre | Mount Barker Summit SA
Dates: 10 – 14 March 2022