Review / A ‘chaste’ night to thrill a critic

Music / “Avison’s Essay”, Salut! Baroque. At Albert Hall, May 25. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

Salut Baroque with Colin Milner.

“OF the first and lowest class [of “the most noted composers who have erred in the extreme”] are Vivaldi …,” so said the 18th century composer, Charles Avison. He declared even Handel “sometimes descends to the lowest”. His English compatriots did not take too kindly to his remarks.

It’s quite common for composers to criticise the work of others, oft-times quite scathingly, but Avison’s “Essay on Musical Expression” went a step further; it was the first music critique published in English. Music historian Dr Charles Burney said he was “the first and almost the only writer who attempted it”. But did he err himself? Should he, as a composer, as poet John Drinkwater opined, be reviewing the work of “those whose habit … is his own”?

In this concert of music by no less than nine of his contemporaries, including Vivaldi and Handel, Charles Avison, played by singer/actor Colin Milner, resplendent in period costume, gave the audience the benefit of his views on some of them. The program notes, too, included an excellent essay, written by Salut! Baroque co-founder Tim Blomfield, that set the scene, not only on Avison, but also on the music style of the day and reactions to it from audience and critic alike.

Were Avison to review the quality of Salut! Baroque’s performance – regardless of the worth or otherwise of the music itself – he might have declared the concert “chaste and faultless”.

Even the setting in the Albert Hall was lovely, with the performance space set on the side in front of the magnificent arched windows and the (quite sizeable) audience in horseshoe.

In charge of proceedings was violinist, Matthew Greco, often seen with other groups such as the Australian Haydn Ensemble or the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, not to mention his overseas connections. Variously smiling or in a state of bliss, Greco inspired the whole ensemble to achieve delightfully spirited, expressive and confident playing, creating moods of comedy and drama, despair and joy.

Soprano Miriam Arbouz was utterly captivating; her beautiful, clear and vibrant voice and facial expressions perfectly matched the moods of the six arias she performed. There was comedy (Jean-Phillippe Rameau’s comic opera, “Platée”), and love in Handel’s opera, “Rinaldo”, in which Arbouz, playing Almirena, sings a simply gorgeous duet with the birdsongs in the garden, created by Hans-Dieter Michatz’s piccolo recorder.

Thus inspired, even by Handel, Avison (Milner) literally leapt to his feet to announce with alacrity that the final work in the concert would be one of his own, his third concerto grosso. With that Salut! Baroque wrapped up a concert of true delights.

And should the critic review a fellow critic? Whispering behind my hand so that only thee and me can hear, I should do no better than to use the words of Charles Burney and say he was “ingenious and polished”.


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