The current fashion among baroque ensembles is to enliven the string sound with exciting timbres, providing variety through a mixture of continuo instruments. The 10-year-old Belgian ensemble B’Rock certainly managed this on Saturday afternoon, seasoning their finely honed string tone with a bassoon to give bite to the bass line, a mixture of chamber organ, harpsichord, chittarrone and baroque guitar.
The ensemble was introduced as ‘hugely adventurous’, which is, perhaps, the only explanation for their missing the third movement from Vivaldi’s C-major violin concerto and segueing straight into his B-minor Sinfonia al Santo Sepolcro via a held, discordant F-sharp. This aside, the playing throughout was excellent. As is also the current mode, most of the players stood, allowing them a more physically reactive posture to changes in dynamic and tempo. The sound was particularly impressive in their performances of Geminiani’s D-minor concerto grosso, La folia (surprisingly, given its popularity, a Proms first-performance), and all three movements of Vivaldi’s Grosso Mogul D-major violin concerto: the string intonation was perfect – the entire ensemble moving together intuitively in tempo and dynamic – with the percussive textures of the continuo providing exciting drive.
The ensemble’s director is the Russian violinist and counter-tenor Dmitry Sinkovsky. In his directorial role he provided just the right degree of assistance (via minimal gesture, eye contact, and the occasional intake of breath) to the ensemble’s intuitive synchronicity, and as a violinist he was outstanding, particularly in the pyrotechnic displays of the two outer movements of the D-major concerto (thought to be one of the ‘theatre concerti’ that clinched Vivaldi’s reputation as the most popular performer/composer of his day). Unlike Vivaldi, however, Sinkovsky, sadly, eschews contact with his audience while he plays, and it was perhaps this that took the edge off the performances; aside from his contact with the ensemble, he played sideways on to the audience, his eyes firmly attached to his music (another unexpected aspect of the performance – that a soloist/director with such a flexible and innovative group should require support from printed copy), and we were left with the feeling that this could easily have been a perfectly executed studio recording.
Much more involved with her audience, however, was the mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi, who joined B’Rock for Caldara’s Quel buon pastor son io from his opera La morte d’Abel, and Vivaldi’s two solo motets Longe mala, umbræ, terrores and In furore iustissimæ iræ. Her execution of all three works was expressive and technically perfect. Her chest voice is sonorous and interesting, but, for my taste, her middle and higher registers are inclined to be breathy and rather ordinary – overall, one felt, a voice of more character was needed to match the sparkle of the orchestral sound. Such a voice was, sadly, provided only in the encore (the duet Caro! Bella! Più amabile beltà from Handel’s Giulio Cesare) by Sinkovsky himself, whose controlled, rounded counter-tenor provided the vocal excitement that had previously been missing. It also gave him the opportunity to finally engage with his audience – an equally worthwhile experience.