Period Schubert’s the next step in Richard Gill’s new musical revolution.

The New Hall, Sydney Grammar School
November 22, 2014

Australia’s brightest and shiniest new orchestra chose the superb acoustics of The New Hall at Sydney Grammar School for their third concert, a mixed program of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert entitled An Evening with the Viennese Titans. An HIP outfit (that’s historically informed performance if you didn’t know), it comprises many of Australia’s finest period instrument specialists as well as several from more mainstream bands. Founded last year under the artistic leadership of Richard Gill, this concert was conducted by Benjamin Bayl – something of a rising star both at home and abroad.

The warm resonance of the SGS hall was perfectly fitted to enhance the richness of the seventeen88 sound with its mellifluous woodwind, punchy brass and beautifully tuned strings. Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture was a terrific curtain-opener full of daring (for the time) dissonances and boisterous energy. Bayl gave it a firm, perfectly formed reading with plenty of dynamic shape and shading. Beefy timpani and some beautiful playing on classical flute stood out in particular.

The flute was to the fore in the second offering – Mozart’s Flute Concerto in G Major. London-based Australian flautist Georgia Browne was very much in command of the solo part, leading the orchestra from the front of the platform, with Bayl on harpsichord bringing up the rear. Browne is an impressive artist with a radiant tone and a musical personality to match – her playing had bags of character throughout. A perfectly controlled orchestral performance allowed us to hear Mozart’s exquisite balance of solo flute against harpsichord and horn – how often those details get smudged in live performances by some period bands!

The lovely central Andante with a pair of orchestral flutes adding texture to the nocturnal strings was a highlight. Browne’s playing here was as sweet as a nightingale. Mozart’s perky minuet-cum-rondo finale rounded off an utterly charming performance, one where everything came together – articulation, energy and period style.

Schubert’s ‘Great’ C Major Symphony was the culmination of the evening’s music making – apparently the first performance of this maverick masterwork in Australia on period instruments. At an hour in length and with some of the most demanding writing of any Early Romantic symphony it is a fearsome test for any orchestra. If the opening statements were a little shaky, that went to show how exposed a small ensemble really is when tackling one of classical music’s bigger beasts. That shakiness was fortunately not predominant in what followed. Benjamin Bayl soon got into his stride and the orchestra followed generating a remarkably weighty ensemble sound aided by a fine trio of period trombones (alto, tenor and bass no less).

Balance again was exceptional and Bayl’s unfussy style saw him urging his players through the massive first movement with relatively few accidents – woodwind were damn near faultless here, holding their own most effectively against some gratifyingly passionate string playing.

The marcato Andante con Moto second movement was given added pungency by the edgy period strings (playing of real vigour here, especially in cellos and bases). Bayl gave it all a great deal of oomph in what was a thrilling reading despite (or perhaps because of) the occasional skin of the teeth moment.

The Scherzo that followed (the Great C Major lacks a true slow movement) was a delightful mix of rumbustious strings, Viennese ländlers and post-Beethovian homage. Pacey and powerful with an adroit negotiation of gear changes, this was a real spirit lifter!

The Allegro vivace finale held together well, Bayl choosing just the right tempo (again) and embellishing it with subtle interpretative gestures. Whether it was the assistance of the acoustic, or simply the verve of the players, seventeen88 managed to sound like an ensemble half a size bigger than they were in reality.

Schubert’s ‘Great’ is a remarkable work – in its own Austrian way as revolutionary as Berlioz’s Fantastique of virtually the same year. Time and again you hear pre-echoes of later masters – Brahms, Dvořák – even Saint-Saëns of all people. Benjamin Bayl and orchestra1788 captured that ‘doing something differently’ spirit perfectly in what was a genuinely exciting evening. It’s to be hoped that this exciting young orchestra will continue to carry through their own revolution in the years to come. Bravo!

Finally, it’s not often I feel the urge to tout an ensemble’s fundraising efforts in a review, but Richard Gill’s eloquent appeal from the platform and a real sense of something important that shouldn’t be let slide compells me to mention their new Friends scheme. You can visit the website for details, but whether you feel like supporting them via a donation or not, I’d recommend booking early for their next outing. And spread the word – this is an important addition to Australia’s musical landscape.

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