★★★★½ The visiting virtuoso proves his acclaim as the “Paganini of the recorder”.

City Recital Hall, Sydney
February 24, 2016

In their opening concert of 2016 the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra joined forces with the Swiss recorder maestro, Maurice Steger. As much an impish trouper as music maker, Steger can rightly lay claim to the tag “Paganini of the recorder”; his performance was an almost unthinkable virtuosic (and indeed athletic) feat. Paganini was famously thought to have had associations with the devil, such was his prodigious talent on the violin. Though his charming smile gave lie to it, Steger’s virtuosity radiates a similar sense of devilish influence. The evening, however, is not all awe-inspiring wizardry. As the ABO’s charismatic director Paul Dyer pointed out at the start, the concert consisted of a thoughtful collection of Baroque and early Classical works, with Vivaldi, Telemann and Handel’s music interspersed with some hidden gems by the lesser-known composers Gallo, Fiorenza, Rittler and Geminiani. 

Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Major kicked things off, and an almost collective gasp was audible around City Recital Hall as Steger literally jumped in, crouching and thrusting with each semiquaver-riddled musical line. The fast outer two movements contained such high-octane, exhilarating playing that one didn’t know when Steger might pause for breath. What was even more impressive was the way in which he could incorporate all the Baroque ornaments into each solo passage. The middle Largo showed that Steger is no mere showman, with very endearing back-and-forth with the ABO, the string playing here a highlight of the Concerto.

Having caught their breath – and as Steger presumably resuscitated off stage – the audience were then treated to Domenico Gallo’s Sonata No 12 in G Minor. Nicknamed La Follia, or “madness”, this Portuguese dance was most interesting in the way it emerged from a series of sonic fits and starts, the music texture constantly thickening into a frenzied and powerful apotheosis. Orchestral playing here was of the highest order, the fiendishly tricky cello passages well accounted for and the pesante playing in the violins providing a striking foil to the col legno moments. 

Telemann’s Concerto for Three Trumpets in D Major that followed was hearty and accurate, though a brighter tone in the brass would have helped achieve Telemann’s aim of composing a work of “lightness”. Steger returned to the stage, leading the orchestra for another romp in the form of Nicola Fiorenza’s Sinfonia in A Minor. Of particular note here was the breathlessness and empathy that Steger and the strings were able to conjure, while the final Allegro assai was intense and agitated – another virtuosic showpiece. 

After interval, the orchestra sans Steger cleansed the audience’s palate with a rousing version of Handel’s Overture to the oratorio Judas Maccabeus, before Steger showed off the recorder’s avian capabilities in Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major, Op. 10 No 3, Il gardellino (The Goldfinch). The imitations of birdsong that Steger captured were quite spellbinding, and the audience greeted the occasional cheeky pause with delight. It was not all trivial, however: the second movement’s ground bass accompaniment tempered the frivolity, and the orchestra and Steger were able to convey an exquisite bucolic vista.

The Ciaccona à 7 by Philipp Jakob Rittler that followed was a mesmerising performance. The orchestra was whittled down to a small chamber group, and the sound that was created was surprisingly contemporary. The piece began with Tommie Anderson on Theorbo, joined by cellist Anthea Cottee, and followed by strings, trumpets and violas. This short, intimate work then began to dissolve as each instrument dropped out symmetrically to how it had entered. A touching inclusion was that each player departed from the stage as they exited the score, the piece ending in darkness. It was a truly breathtaking rendition.  

Steger would have the final word – or breath as it were – and in the Concerto No 10 in F Major by Francesco Geminiani, he was at his most dazzling and dexterous. The final movement in particular was almost incomprehensively fast, and Steger tapped with his foot on the stage like a jockey to press the orchestra forward with him. To his credit, his musicality was never lost amidst all the bravura, and it was fitting that he returned to perform an encore, the slow movement from Vivaldi’s Chamber Concerto in D Major, La Pastorella, which again reminded the audience that Steger’s musicianship is not compromised by his astounding virtuosity.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra presents Maurice Steger: Recorder Revolutionary in Sydney and Melbourne until March 5.


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