Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Telemann really engages - Martin Feinstein ensemble at Kings Place Bach Weekend.

Martin Feinstein Ensemble
Martin Feinstein Ensemble
Bach, Handel, Telemann; Martin Feinstein Ensemble; Kings Place Bach Weekend
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 03 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Suite by Bach's contemporary Telemann shines in this evocation of a concert by Bach's Collegium Musicum

For their last concert as part of the Kings Place Bach Weekend, Martin Feinstein and his ensemble performed a trio of orchestral pieces by Bach, Handel and Telemann evoking Bach's concerts with the Collegium Musicum at the Cafe Zimmermann in Leipzig. The repertoire for the concert included Bach's Orchestral Suite no. 2 in B minor BWV 1067, Handel's Water Music Suite no. 3 in G, HWV 350 and Telemann's Orchestral Suite in A minor. All were played by an ensemble of flute/recorder (Martin Feinstein), violins (Catherine Manson and Sarah Moffatt), viola (Jane Norman), cello (Christopher Suckling), double bass (Kate Aldridge) and harpsichord (Robin Bigwood). None of the works is a concerto as such, but Bach's suite has solo moments for the flute whilst Telemann's suite is an example of the hybrid suite/concerto with a substantial solo recorder part.

Bach's surviving orchestral suites are presumed to have been written during his period at the court in Cöthen but he re-used them with his Collegium Musicum in Leipzig and the suite no. 2 is the only one where parts survive in Bach's own hand. In his programme note Martin Feinstein explained that the work was by no means a flute concerto and except in a couple of movements, the flute simply colours the violin part. However, with the performers placed in a rough semi-circle with Feinstein on the end stage right so that the end of his flute pointed directly at us, the overall sound of the ensemble in the first two works (the suites by Bach and Handel) was flute led. In fact the dominant sound was that of the flute and the double bass, the violins and other inner parts were far too discreet in the texture.

Café Zimmermann in Leipzig (detail of an engraving by Johann Georg Schreiber, 1732)
Café Zimmermann in Leipzig
(detail of an engraving by
Johann Georg Schreiber, 1732)
In the opening Ouverture of Bach's suite the group made a surprisingly grand sound for just seven players, with some nicely perky playing in the faster fugal section. Each movement was nicely characterised with a graceful Rondeau, thoughtful Sarabande, Bourées which burbled along nicely, a stately Polonaise, a graceful Menuet and nicely showy Badinerie, but somehow the performance never quite coalesced into a whole. It felt somehow dutiful rather than engaged, without a sense of enjoyment and it was really only the showier moments for Martin Feinstein's flute which took off.

Things relaxed somewhat with the Handel suite, but again the sound was far too flute led (with flute replaced by an equally penetrating soprano recorder in the second two movements). By now also, I had decided that I was not certain about having the cello part doubled at the octave by a double bass with such a small group of players as it lent a heaviness to the music despite Kate Aldridge's deft playing. Handel's opening Menuet was graceful, and the first Rigaudon was taken at quite a lick with some nicely jazzy rhythms. The pair of Menuets gave us something of a contrast with the first being without recorder, whilst the charming second one was quite a showcase for the recorder and here we also benefited from a lighter double bass part. The final pair of Country Dances contrasted the sly charm of the first with the vigour of the second which featured a solo cello rather than recorder.

After the interval something of a sea change took place in the performances. With Michael Feinstein placed in solo position at the front of the stage, the sound of the string section seemed to coalesce and become stronger. Throughout the Telemann the balance between strings and recorder was far better, but Telemann was writing for recorder (a treble not a soprano) rather than flute. Feinstein's instrument (in fact instruments as he used a different on for each movement) had a softer grained tone so in the ensemble passages the recorder did not dominate. But also Telemann's writing was intelligently sympathetic (and probably designed for a larger group of strings) so that passages for tutti strings alternated with showy moments for recorder with simply continuo or discreet string accompaniment.

It helped also that the performers seemed far more engaged, and enjoying themselves and this was conveyed in the performance. Telemann's suite, which is something halfway between suite and concerto, opened with an Ouverture where the grand lent section contrasted with the lively triple time viste with its alternations of strings only and showy recorder. Les Plaisirs was lively and quite toe-tapping with the recording getting some fast passagework in the trio,  again we had contrasts in the Air a l'Italian between slow and graceful, and fast and bravura. The first Menuet was a lively triple time movement, the recorder solo in the second included a rather spectacular chromatic figure which showed off Feinstein's incredibly deft fingering. Rejouisance was vigorous and toe-tapping with the strings and recorder almost engaging in a dialogue, and a real sense of fun from the performers. The pair of Passepieds were contrasting and both were full of characterful details. The final Polonaise and Trio had moments of uneven ensemble, but overall we were able to enjoy to strongly vigorous Polonaise with its evocation of Polish folk music.

This was a rather mixed performance, and for me it was only the Telemann which really took off. The performers finally seemed to relax and enjoy themselves, in a performance which really engaged and where the seven performers seemed to finally function as a group.

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