Spitalfields Music: B’Rock
Rodolfo Richter director/violin, Julia Doyle soprano
Christ Church Spitalfields. 11 December 2015
Corelli: Concertos grosso Op6/4 and Op6/8 ‘Christmas Concerto’; Handel: Gloria; Arvo Pärt arr Frank Agsteribbe: Fratres; A Scarlatti: Cantata ‘O di Betlemme altera’
Making a spectacular Spitalfields Festival debut, the Belgian group B’Rock gave one of the finest concerts I have heard in a while. It is easy for reviewers to overdo superlatives or, indeed, to run out of new ones to use; and I am always wary of writers whose every concert seems to be the ‘best they have heard’. But this really was something special.
The opening chords of Corelli’s Concerto grosso in D (Op6/4) demonstrated B’Rock’s ability to create enormous contrast out of a sparse musical text, in this case of just nine chords. Under the inspired direction of violinist Rudolfo Richter, they continued to explore the enormous expressive possibilities of the piece, notably in the whirligig figuration of the concluding Allegro. Rudolfo Richter was joined by fellow violinist Jivka Kaltcheva and cellist Kate Bennett Wadsworth as concertino soloists, all three making extremely impressive contributions throughout the evening. Their later performance of the ‘Christmas Concerto’ was equally impressive, again with a sfzorzando opening and with an extraordinary sense of expressiveness. I particularly liked the end of the central Adagio passage, with the solo instrumentalists again elaborating on a sparse text.
The core of the programme came when soprano Julia Doyle joined the band, starting with the Handel Gloria, discovered recently in the library of the Royal Academy of Music. Looking very Christmassy dressed in red, Julia Doyle made it clear from the start that she was going to enjoy herself, engaging directly with the audience by the simple expedient of looking at us and smiling – a lesson for many performers. Handel’s youthful and very Italian Gloria might not be his finest work, but Julia Doyle and B’Rock combined to lift it new heights. One of many outstanding features of Julia Doyle’s singing was her ability to hold a rock-steady long note, before gentle introducing a mild vibrato which then migrates into a proper Baroque trill – a real test for any singer. Further tests came in the torrent of Amens that concludes the piece, not least in Doyle’s impeccable articulation of the complex runs. In contrast to these frolics, the gentle central Domine Deus was beautifully expressive.
Alessandro Scarlatti’s Christmas cantata O di Betlemme altera reflected the pastorale tradition of Italy. Operatic in style, like the earlier Handel Gloria it has a gentle central core, the aria L’autor d’ogni mio bene. Scarlatti used his orchestration to depict the sound of the ‘innocent bagpipes’ (are their ‘guilty’ bagpipes?) in the penultimate recitative before the bucolic final aria, the whole finishing with a diminuendo, brilliantly controlled by Rudolfo Richter and B’Rock. Again Julia Doyle excelled. Not just an exquisite singer, but an inspired performer.
A fascinating addition to an otherwise Baroque evening was an arrangement for strings by Frank Agsteribbe of Arvo Pärt’s evocative Fratres. This is a real test of tuning and intonation for the orchestra, and they carried it off magnificently, not least in their ability to play at the very edge of audible sound. The little repeated three-note bass motif acts as a marker for the sequence of variations on a chord sequence underpinned by drones. It was a very attractive addition to the programme. Praise must go to B’Rock’s director Rudolfo Richter. His inspiringly undemonstrative style of leadership was as lovely to watch as it was to experience the superbly musical results. He really does reinforce my view that performance should always be about the music, not about the personality of the conductor.