Concert review: Lixsania and the Labyrinth

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This evening I saw the Australia Brandenburg Orchestra with guest soloist Lixsania Fernandez, a virtuoso player of the viola da gamba, from Cuba. (Although she studied, and now lives, in Spain.) Lixsania is quite amazing: tall, statuesque, quite absurdly beautiful, and plays with a technique that encompasses the wildest of baroque extravagances as well as the most delicate and refined tenderness.

The trouble with the viol, being a fairly soft instrument, is that it's not well suited to a large concert hall. This means that it's almost impossible to get any sort of balance between it and the other instruments. Violins, for example, even if played softly, can overpower it.

Thomas Mace, in his "Musick's Monument", published in 1676, complained vigorously about violins:

Mace has been described as a "conservative old git" which he certainly was, but I do love the idea of this last hold-out against the "High-Priz'd Noise" of the violin. And I can see his point!

But back to Lixsania. The concert started with a "pastiche" of La Folia, taking in parts of Corelli's well known set for solo violin, Vivaldi's for two, Scarlatti for harpsichord, and of course Marin Marais "32 couplets de Folies" from his second book of viol pieces. The Australian Brandenburgs have a nice line in stagecraft, and this started with a dark stage with only Lixsania lit, playing some wonderful arpeggiated figurations over all the strings, with a bowing of utter perfection. I was sitting side on to her position here, and I could see with what ease she moved over the fingerboard - the mark of a true master of their instrument - being totally at one with it. Little by little other instrumentalists crept in: a violinist here and there, Paul Dyer (leader of the orchestra) to the harpsichord, cellists and a bassist, until there was a sizable group on stage all playing madly. I thought it was just wonderful.

For this first piece Lixsania was wearing a black outfit with long and full skirts and sort of halter top which left her arms, sides and back bare. This meant I had an excellent view of her rib-cage, which was a first for me in a concert.

The second piece was the 12th concerto, the so called "Harmonic Labyrinth" from Locatelli's opus 3. These concertos contain, in their first and last movements, a wild "capriccio" for solo violin. This twelfth concerto contains capricci of such superhuman difficulty that even now, nearly 300 years after they were composed, they still stand at the peak of virtuosity. The Orchestra's concertmaster, Shaun Lee-Chen, was however well up to the challenge, and powered his way through both capricci with the audience hardly daring to breathe. Even though conventional concert behaviour does not include applause after individual movements, so excited was the audience that there was an outburst of clapping after the first movement. And quite right too.

The final piece of the first half was a Vivaldi concerto for two violins and cello, the cello part being taken by Lixsania on viol. I felt this didn't come across so well; the viol really couldn't be heard much, and you really do need the strength of the cello to make much sense of the music. However, it did give Lixsania some more stage-time.

After interval we were treated to a concerto for viol by Johann Gottlieb Graun, a court composer to Frederick the Great of Prussia. Graun wrote five concertos for the instrument - all monumentally difficult to play - which have been recorded several times. However, a sixth one has recently been unearthed in manuscript - and apparently we were hearing it for the first time in this concert series. The softness of the viol in the largeness of the hall meant that it was not always easy to hear: I solved that by closing my eyes, so I could focus on the sound alone. Lixsania played, as you would imagine, as though she owned it, and its formidable technical difficulties simply melted away under the total assurance of her fingers. She'd changed into a yellow outfit for this second half, and all the male players were wearing yellow ties.

Then came a short Vivaldi sinfonia - a quite remarkable piece; very stately and with shifting harmonies that gave it a surprisingly modern feel. Just when you think Vivaldi is mainly about pot-boilers, he gives you something like this. Short, but superb.

Finally, the fourth movement of a concerto written in 2001 for two viols by "Renato Duchiffre" (the pen name of René Schiffer, cellist and violist with Apollo's Fire): a Tango. Now my exposure to tangos has mainly been through that arch-bore Astor Piazolla. But this tango was magnificent. The other violist was Anthea Cottee, of whom I'd never heard, but she's no mean player. She and Lixsania made a fine pair, playing like demons, complementing each other and happily grinning at some of the finer passages. One of the many likeable characteristics of Lixsania is that she seems to really enjoy playing, and smiles a lot - I hate that convention of players who adopt a poker-face. And she has a great smile.

In fact the whole orchestra has a wonderful enjoyment about them, led by Paul Dyer who displays a lovely dynamism at the harpsichord. Not for him the expressionless sitting still; he will leap up if given half an opportunity and conduct a passage with whichever hand is free; sometimes he would play standing and sort of conduct with his body; between him and Lixsania there was a chemistry of heart and mind, both leaning towards each other, as if inspiring each other to reach higher musical heights. This was one of the most delightful displays of communicative musicianship I've ever seen.

Naturally there had to be an encore: and it was Lixsania singing a Cuban lullaby, accompanying herself by plucking the viol - which was stood on a chair for easier access - with Anthea Cottee providing a bowed accompaniment. Lixsania told us (of course she speaks English fluently, with a charming Cuban accent) that it was a lullaby of special significance, as it was the first song she'd ever sang to her son. There's no reason why instrumentalists should be able to sing well, but in fact Lixsania has a lovely, rich, warm, enveloping sort of voice, and the effect was breathtakingly lovely. Lucky son!

This was a great concert.