Dynamic Devon Baroque Displays a Diverse Array of Repertoire

Handel, Rameau, Rebel, Vivaldi, Telemann
Devon Baroque directed by Persephone Gibbs
The Great Hall, Dartington
11th October 2015

Georg Frideric Handel: ‘Water Music’ Suite I in F HWV 348
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Suite from ‘Platée’
Jean-Féry Rebel: ‘Le Cahos’ from ‘Les Élémens’
Antonio Vivaldi: Violin Concerto Op 8 No 5 ‘Tempesta di Mare’
Georg Philipp Telemann: Ouverture-Suite, TWV 55:C3 ‘Hamburger Ebb und Fluth’

Devon Baroque has been setting the standard for innovative, exciting approaches to baroque music, performed on original instruments and using contemporary playing practices, since the autumn of 1999, when a group of professional string players invited Margaret Faultless to the county to direct a workshop devoted to the performance-style of the period. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the intervening years there have been changes both in personnel and leadership. Faultless, in great demand both as an academic and highly-sought-after violinist, relinquished her role in 2012 as the ensemble’s first artistic director, but Devon Baroque was extremely fortunate to secure the appointment of Persephone Gibbs earlier this year.

American-born Gibbs, who had initially led the ensemble from the violin for two years, is no stranger to players or audiences alike, but now in the position of artistic director, she is able to bring her wealth of knowledge, skill, outstanding playing ability and engaging disposition to the table.

In her informative concert programme notes, and which Gibbs expanded on most succinctly and engrossingly at appropriate points during the performance, she writes (précised): ‘Having led the orchestra for two years, I was thrilled to be appointed artistic director of Devon Baroque in February 2015 and to be invited to play my inaugural concert back in July…My main aims are to bring audiences exciting programmes and lively performances,…and to build a world-class orchestra for Devon and the South West’.

You always get an adrenaline rush when you’ve enjoyed a really good concert, either as performer or audience member. But when that concert isn’t just good, but it’s arguably the best you’ve ever heard that ensemble perform, then that must surely be right up there with the musical equivalent of a legal high. That’s certainly not to imply that Devon Baroque’s performances to date have been anything but first-rate – as witness two previous reviews, from May and November 2014 respectively – but today the ensemble really appeared to come of age.

It wasn’t simply a question of the playing, which was always breath-taking enough. It wasn’t just the highly effective programming that offered such a diverse array of fascinating repertoire. It wasn’t even the clearly-evident sense of rapport and pure enjoyment, the occasional tuning interlude that almost turned into brief, improvised humorous episodes – or even the superb acoustic of their spiritual home in Dartington’s Great Hall.

It was, in fact, the sum of all these parts, and for this there can ultimately be only one person responsible, newly-appointed artistic director Persephone Gibbs, who led with such aplomb and artistic meticulousness. With harpsichordist Andrew Wilson-Dixon’s highly-inventive and beguiling continuo-playing, this then became a musical marriage made in heaven, to which every other player was invited, and who then made such a telling contribution, individually or to the ensemble as a whole.

Most of us have heard Handel’s Water Music Suite No I so many times that performances can sometimes seem common-place or perfunctory. Not so this highly-energized reading from Gibbs and Devon Baroque, where the opening of the third movement (Allegro) for example, with the quite stunning sound of natural horns, must have sent a shiver down everyone’s spine. In fact the wind playing – both from horns, and woodwind – flutes, oboes (doubling recorder) and bassoon – was a defining moment in the Handel, and indeed in the programme collectively, and perfectly complemented by strings and harpsichord. The precision and neatness of articulation, as witness movement nine (Hornpipe) was immensely impressive throughout.

In terms of programming, opening with such a familiar work as the Handel then made Rameau’s Suite from ‘Platée’ even more captivating. For those of us perhaps less familiar with the work of this extraordinary French composer, there were sections where it was quite hard to appreciate that Rameau’s original opera ‘Platée’ ·appeared in 1745. As Gibbs explained, in such anecdotal fashion, Rameau and his supporters were, at the time, pitched against those of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s, representing the musical establishment in France under Louis XIV. No surprise then, from the music heard here, that the Lully supporters were seriously concerned about the emerging musical prowess and pure originality of the younger Rameau – the so-called Querelle des Lullystes et des Ramistes – and thus it was perhaps a blessing in disguise that Lully eventually ‘shot himself in the foot’, so to speak. In the event he died from gangrene, having struck his foot with his long conducting staff during a performance, and then refusing to have his leg amputated, so he might still be able to dance.

Another intriguing, and largely unfamiliar work – Rebel’s ‘Le Cahos’ from ‘Les Élémens’ – provided another jewel in the crown. This was the composer’s last work, and possibly the first occasion a tone-cluster appeared in Western music, despite being written in 1737. The discordant opening, with its driving rhythms might just as easily have come from the pen of Stravinsky and his Rite of Spring, nearly two hundred years later.

Attesting to Gibbs’s seemingly inexhaustible energy and talents, she then despatched Vivaldi’s ‘Tempesta di Mare’ Violin Concerto with consummate ease, electrifying in the rapid figurations, and sure of foot in the work’s many demanding leaps, yet equally able to produce a warmth of tone when the writing demanded.

The closing work, Telemann’s ten-movement Ouverture-Suite, ‘Hamburger Ebb und Fluth’, provided the perfect finale to a wonderful afternoon’s music-making inspired by ‘Water Musicks’. From the imposing overture, the awakening of the sea-goddess Thetis, Neptune languishing with lovesickness, and right up to Aeolus, lord of the winds, blowing up a mighty storm, before a rousing canarie – sometimes described as a ‘fiery wooing dance’ – depicts a clomping dance from some sailors clearly the worse for wear after a night in port. This captured every single nuance along the way, in a performance that showed Devon Baroque patently having as much fun as the inebriated sailors, but sober enough not to put a foot – or note – wrong.

Clearly, in the short time Gibbs has been Devon Baroque’s artistic director, she is well on the way to achieving every one of her stated aims and objectives above.

Philip R Buttall