For the second of four concerts at UKARIA this weekend, curator James Crabb had planned a post-lunchtime visit to the 18th century. The programme was arranged like a musical double-decker sandwich, with Bach on the outside, two layers of Scarlatti, and a pair of antique arias flourishing in the centre. Though lighter fare than the succulent Piazzola which was offered by the preceding night’s concert, each Baroque delicacy was a near-perfect dish.
Two Bach cello suites bookended the afternoon, one in original form and the last in an arrangement for guitar. Cellist Julian Smiles, of Goldner String Quartet fame, opened proceedings with his rendition of the Suite No 2 in D Minor. The sound he charmed from his 1827 Lorenzo Ventapane instrument was as close to silver-toned as a cello gets, with nevertheless a soft husky resonance to the lower notes. His confident playing ensured every phrase was delicately shaped, and directed with gentle touches into a pacing full of organic ebb and flow.
This gentleness did have somewhat of a knock-on effect in the Gigue, which lacked a little vitality in the opening. But overall, Smiles’ interpretation was both pure and tender – a delicious start to the afternoon.
Like the Bach, the (unnamed) Scarlatti sonatas also appeared in original and transcribed versions, first presented by Melbourne’s Stefan Cassomenos on the UKARIA Bösendorfer grand. He opted to play these three single-movement pieces in the shape of a pseudo-Classical sonata, the first like an annunciatory allegro, then a slow, minor ‘second movement’ and a vivacious ‘finale.’
Clarity was the watchword again here, and so was his free, almost improvisatory tempo, which contained within its larger pulses the rational order beloved by the Enlightenment philosophers of Scarlatti’s day. Cassomenos’ sound glowed and exulted, though it was weighted towards the treble and occasionally dampened by a little too much pedal. But by the dextrous runs of the final sonata, this had resolved into a lucid sparkle as dry as a good champagne.
Alice Giles and James Crabb each took charge of one of the final two Scarlatti works. Giles on harp was luminous and very clean, giving definition to each shape and phrase. Crabb’s performance on classical accordion was brief but lots of fun, with startling sounds, agile scales and trills and a dash of comic timing.
For the second time during UKARIA24, soprano Emma Pearson lit up the concert hall with her crystal sound and effervescent personality. The repertoire showcased Pearson’s chameleon capacity for character changes, starting with an innocent, trembling, heart-quickening Purcellian love-song, Sweeter than Roses. Crabb and Smiles supported the air of romance, blending their two very different instruments with voluptuous shading.
Pearson then assumed the mantle of La Folie, or Folly, the worldly cautionary from Rameau’s comic opera Platée. Now her sound was sensuous and chesty, and her manners alternately mocked and implored. Goldner Quartet violinist Dimity Hall joined the musicians for this work, winding a teasing line around and between the vocals.
Earlier, the concert MC Iain Grandage had laid out the scene for us: La Folie tries to not-so-subtly hint to the ugly nymph Platée that lovelorn Jupiter is really just making a fool out of her. Pearson conveyed the hilarity of the original scene with squeals and laughs and microtonal slides – and then with a pantomime about hunting a fly around the stage. Eventually, she pretended to find it on the back of Crabbs’ shining bald head, swatting both with a resounding smack to smatters of laughter from the audience. That might not have quite been part of the original scenario, but this slapstick certainly made for a memorable interpretation of the frivolous fun of a Rococo comic opera!
Adelaide guitarist Aleksandr Tsiboulski closed the programme with Stephen Snook’s arrangement of the darling of Bach’s cello suites, No 1 in G Major. Even in the intimate acoustic of UKARIA’s concert hall, his softly-pitched sound was sometimes hard to hear; but it was golden and full, with every voice lovingly traced. Tsiboulski used skilful tone control to bring out the musical conversations, playing in the moment with an absorption which seemed to make him the only person in the room.
As a concert finale, a solo guitar work was perhaps a little ethereal, and it might have worked better if swapped with the cello suite at the beginning of the concert, but in every other way, planning as well as execution was brilliantly on display throughout. Each work was convincingly interpreted, and Grandage played the part of a hospitable and entertaining host between each one, making for a consistent, satisfying and enjoyable afternoon.