City Recital Hall, Sydney
October 31, 2018

Viola da gambist Lixsania Fernandez was the headliner on the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s final tour before the ever-popular Noël! Noël concerts in December. Far from seeking the musical spotlight, however, the Cuban musician was a subtle performer with a beautifully fine-grained sound, particularly evident in her solo moments.

It was with such a solo moment that Fernandez opened the concert – kicking off a pasticcio of variations on the famous Folia dance form that brought together music by Corelli, Scarlatti, Marais and Vivaldi – before the texture built as Brandenburg musicians emerged from behind screens to join what ultimately became a rhythmic, almost rock ‘n’ roll, take on the repeating bass line. If there were a few moments when finesse was lost, or when solo lines from Fernandez were overpowered by the other instruments, the energy was such that the concert got off to a rollicking start.

Lixsania and the Labyrinth, Australian Brandenburg OrchestraMatt Bruce, Paul Dyer and Lixsania Fernandez in the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Lixsania and the Labyrinth. Photo © Steven Godbee

The energy only increased with the second number on the program. Sharing the headline with Fernandez was Pietro Locatelli’s ‘labyrinth’, the 12th Violin Concerto from his Opus 3 set: Il Laberinto Armonico or The Harmonic Labyrinth. The composer described it on the score as “easy to get into, difficult to get out of” and it was up to Brandenburg Concertmaster Shaun Lee-Chen to navigate the fiendish solo part.

Lee-Chen has a beautifully warm tone and gave us some refined double-stopping in the opening, but it soon became apparent why Locatelli gave the concerto its name, the wild arpeggiated passages unmercifully exposing for intonation, which suffered at speed, Lee-Chen more focussed than furious as he rode the crazy wave of notes in the virtuosic Capriccios. This was a performance right on the edge of danger – there was one vertiginous passage in the Presto of the middle movement where soloist and orchestra became briefly uncoupled before pulling back together, never for a moment relenting on the breakneck tempo. But there was a heroic drama to the mad double-stopping of the final movement, before Lee-Chen deftly negotiated Locatelli’s final running figures.

Lixsania and the Labyrinth, Australian Brandenburg OrchestraShaun Lee-Chen in the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Lixsania and the Labyrinth. Photo © Steven Godbee

Having escaped the labyrinth, Lee-Chen appeared more relaxed in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins and Viola da Gamba, the second work in the composer’s Opus 3 L’estro Armonico set, for which he was joined by Associate Concertmaster Matt Bruce and Fernandez. The violins cried together in the first movement, the orchestra giving plenty of bite to the dramatic march of the bow-bouncing spiccato attacks. The violin duo’s virtuosity was unimpeachable in the Allegro second movement, while the Larghetto saw Fernandez’s smooth lines emerge from the larger forces to shine on their own.

Fernandez was again in the spotlight in the opening of the concert’s second half, in a Viola da Gamba Concerto by Johann Gottlieb Graun (a musician in the court of Frederick the Great) making its Australian debut several hundred years after it was written. Fernandez’s playing was clean and articulate, though the balance was still weighted too heavily to the orchestra, but it was the work’s slow movement – complete with a heartfelt cadenza – that was the highlight, before the gambist gave us a more commanding sound in the bright finale.

Lixsania and the Labyrinth, Australian Brandenburg OrchestraAnthea Cottee and Lixsania Fernandez in the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s Lixsania and the Labyrinth. Photo © Steven Godbee

The mood shifted with Vivaldi’s darkly contemplative Al Santo Sepolcro Sinfonia, which improvisations by Bruce and violinist Ben Dollman (spot-lit, the stage in darkness) bridged to contemporary composer Renato Antonio Duchiffre’s Tempo di Tango movement from his Concerto for Two Violas da Gamba, for which Fernandez was joined by the Brandenburg’s Anthea Cottee. The pair brought plenty of panache to the tango, which demonstrated the satisfying percussive crunch you can get from gut strings.

While there was much to enjoy in Lixsania and the Labyrinth, infused as it was with Brandenburg Artistic Director Paul Dyer’s characteristic sense of theatre and story-telling, it didn’t quite meet the bar set by some of the Brandenburgs’ recent concerts like Karakorum or The Harpist. Nonetheless, Fernandez’s encore, a gently rocking Cuban lullaby sung to the plucking of her upright viola de gamba and sensitively accompanied by Cottee, was touching way to finish the evening.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra performs Lixsania and the Labyrinth at Sydney’s City Recital Hall until November 9, and Melbourne Recital Centre November 10 – 11