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Concert Report/ Wallfisch Band & Iestyn Davies: "A la Battaglia!"

img  Tobias

For a single concert, the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music has moved to St. Margaret's and even before a note has been played, everything has changed. The majestic splendor of the church's richly ornamented central aisle, apse and altar (dressed in the warm light of uncountable red-rimmed lamps), as well as the goldenly shimmering walls are an open contrast to the subdued elegance of St. John's. At the entrance, a guest is urged not to use his mobile inside and not to make pictures (he keeps repeating he wasn't going to) and I am insistently rather than politely asked to take off my hat. I suppose there is nothing wrong with still treating a house of God as such, but there are other factors which make St. Margaret's a less than optimal concert space: The acoustics drown out most of the bass tones and leave in a lot of the outside noises, the benches are hard and uncomfortable  and then the podium is extremely low, making it difficult to follow the action in front.

Which is not a tragedy (after all, it is still about the music and not about the visuals) but complicates Elizabeth Wallfisch and her Wallfisch Band's task of fully convey the music on the roster tonight: For “A la Battaglia!”, she has explicitely selected several programmatic pieces with the inclusion of imitations of natural sounds, some of which require additional and unusual instrumental contributions - and not all of them can be easily followed from the back. In Biber's “Battalia”, for example, she jokingly uses her bow as a floret and the members of her ensemble sway from left to right, as they indulge in the cacophonously multitonal “drunken brawl” scene in the middle of the piece. It would have been nice to witness these passages without having to stand up.

Other than that, however, it is an evening which once again proves that Wallfisch has understood that the task of a contemporary classical musician involves a great deal more than just playing. The former head the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gladly takes on the duties of a performer, an ensemble leader as well as a musicologist. For her new formation, she also acts as a  patron of promising talent, turning her new band into a fluctuating formation consisting of a constant core of experienced players and a perpetually replenishing pulp of young musicians. The tight and vivid group sound she achieves for “A la Battaglia!” is testimony to the success of this formula.

In her search for musical discoveries from the fertile grounds of Baroque music, she is joined by a man ideally suited for digging up treasures. Iestyn Davies, after all, first studied Archeology at Cambridge, before dropping his geological instruments and picking up singing as his main profession. His counter-tenor seems to include a melancholic morse code, it is filled with a constant yearning and even when it effortlessly rises to the highest registers, its stern gravitas prevents it from ever reaching detached angelic territory.

It is a timbre ideally suited to the pieces of Johann Christoph Bach, whose mournful “Ach, dass ich Wassers g'nug haette” is turned into a epic, cinematic ballad, while “Mein Freund ist mein und ich bin sein”, based on a looped bass line with minor variations, locks the listener in a frozen schizophrenic timebubble of complete content and heartwrenching lovesickness. Is Davies unhappy with his performance? After the last note has subsided, he doesn't seem fully satisfied and Wallfisch whispers something in his ear – words of comfort or merely an organisational question? It remains their secret.

Pensive passages and moments of pleasure then take turns. The joyous power of Vivaldi's “Violin Concerto in D major” reminds one that the Italian composer has been noticeably absent from this year's edition of the Lufthansa Festival and the audience's stormy and emphatic reaction to the work, which includes several showstopping solos by Wallfisch, indicates they may well want to hear more of him in 2009. Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's “Lamento sopra la morte Ferdinand III”, on the other hand, is a delicate and consoling piece that reveals a high sensitivity and a talent for subtle shadings on the author' side. Schmelzer is also the man behind “Die Fechtschule”, another programmatic score about fencing students, whose fiery temperament is further underlined by the howls of an ambulance driving by on the outside, lending an agitated energy to the opening bars.

Elizabeth Wallfisch refuses to use her loyal young friends, who, it appears, would walk through fire for her, as a mere backing band. Even though she clearly emerges as the leader of the pack, she dedicates the success of her group's efforts to everyone involved. What's more, this is not a modest gesture, but comes across as a perfectly natural way of interacting with her colleagues.

The only moment she does takes center stage is at the very end, when she lays down a spirited interpretation of Biber's solo “Passaglia” from the “Rosary Sonatas”, which she however closes with an almost nonchalant gesture. The fact that the other members are reluctant to re-enter the stage and share the applause with her speaks books about how much this sympathetic approach is appreciated – both on the audience's and the performer's part. As St. Margaret's gradually empties, its hard wooden benches suddenly didn't seem all that uncomfortable anymore.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music

Article in serie

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1 Concert Report/ Wallfisch Band & Iestyn Davies: "A la Battaglia!"
Live at St. John's Smith ...
2008-05-19
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2 Concert Program/ Wallfisch Band & Iestyn Davies: "A la Battaglia!"
From the official program notes: ...
2008-05-19
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3 Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2008: Day 4
London, May 18th: The Wallfish ...
2008-05-19

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