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Gamechangers: A Forgotten Cello – Press Reactions

Thu Apr 3 2014

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Many of you joined us in Basingstoke on 19 March and at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on the 25th, to hear Sigiswald Kuijken and the Orchestra perform music from Bach, Corelli and Vivaldi on the long forgotten violoncello da spalla.  It’s an instrument that tends to divide people and the press were no exception…

Reg Burnard of the Gazette and Herald Devizes shunned the quantitative tradition of star ratings and opted instead for a review that was as urgent as it was passionate.  “Few people in a sell-out audience- how wonderful to see that – will have heard two of the six Brandenburg Concertos played more convincingly and fewer still will have heard the final one played at such a pace.  It was truly eye-watering” said Geoff.  “Regular leader Alison Bury stepped back somewhat for her co-leader, Margaret Faultless, to take the helm and with these two peerless Baroque experts spearing the Bach through its myriad of textures the effect was awe-inspiring: Grace, Space and Pace indeed”.

After attending our next performance on 25 March, Agnes Kory from Musical Criticism gave us four stars, though not without a certain level of suspicion…

“The publicity surrounding Sigiswald Kuijken’s introduction of the violoncello da spalla (shoulder cello) to London audiences was impressive”.

“Unfortunately, the marketing went into overdrive, attributing sole ownership of the re-introduction of the violoncello da spalla in modern times to Kuijken”.

Agnes went onto suggest that Sigiswald didn’t do much to dispute this theory, particularly when speaking with an unsavoury sounding “unnamed interviewer” at OAE Extras.  Agnes seemed to enjoy the show however, saying that the “actual concert was a testimony to the discipline, stamina and flexibility of the OAE and their guest players. This was Kuijken’s concert and they all delivered with dedication…” but she did find it a bit “soulless”.

Ivan Hewitt was there representing The Telegraph.  He gave us three stars, so not as many as Agnes.  However, he did lend his wonderfully expressive touch to the review, referring to the violoncello da spalla as a ‘strange beast’.  “What makes the instrument fascinating” says Ivan “is its hybrid nature. Imagine a miniature cello played somewhat like a violin but tipped more on its side, resting more on the breast-bone than under the chin. The sound is opaque, as if the huskiness of a viola has been simmered into lowness and gruffness. As a curiosity, viewed on its own, you might soon tire of that highly-flavoured voice. Immersed in a group of fourteen strings and harpsichord, and played with such unobtrusive skill, that voice was fascinating”.

As the three star rating might suggest, Ivan’s opinion was somewhat torn overall.  “In Vivaldi’s set of variations on the famous La Folia melody, Kuijken showed that the “shoulder cello” could fly nimbly around fast passage-work….But it soon became clear why the instrument had lost the Darwinian struggle for survival. Because of the short string length, its sound lacks the ringing quality of the cello or double bass. To make it audible, Kuijken had to adjust the orchestra’s sound to make it more top-heavy. I often found myself thinking “where’s the bass?”

When it comes to catching strange beasts, OAE audiences “obviously like hunting…” said Geoff Brown in The Times.
“Here they packed the Queen Elizabeth Hall for a concert whose chief attraction was a Dutchman with a rare instrument slung around his neck”.  However “It’s a shy animal” says Geoff “Not much noise; certainly less than a modern cello…. Yet its nimble gait easily won through.  A cello playing scurrying semiquavers huffs and puffs; this creature flew through the air in a Corelli concerto grosso and (joined by two other replicants) Bach’s propulsive Brandenburg Concerto No. 3.”  But it was a later concerto that seemed to really win Geoff over “The tastiest sonic display, though, came in Brandenburg 6, with violas, bass viols and the growling violone joining Kuijken in a tapestry where every thread glinted with its individual light.  Gorgeous.  And if the OAE ever perform a concerto for dodo and orchestra I’ll be first in the queue”.

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