Britten’s Phaedra

Early music group Thoroughbass shared the stage with soprano Heather Hannah. Featured photo conductor Sarah Penicka-Smith

This weekend early music group Thoroughbass joined with award winning singer Heston Hannah to present a collection of baroque and contemporary works at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

The concert was headlined with Britten’s Phaedra, which was presented with a great flair for storytelling by Hannah. The strings and harpsichord work in a kind of chorus and response with the soprano voice, featuring an urgently descending atonal melodic line on the violins and low, humming sustained notes as an erratic rhythm on the timpani accompanies the vocals. Hannah’s voice perfectly suits the Greek mythological tale of Phaedra’s forbidden love. Her choice of guttural tone throughout the recitatives particularly suits the distress that Phaedra feels and her acceptance of the inevitability of death.

Another highlight in the repertoire presented was Gorecki’s Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra. The strings provide a series of undulating sustained notes in unison as Thoroughbass musical director, Diana Weston expertly performed an incredibly fast, chromatic melody on the harpsichord which continues to build in intensity throughout the concerto.

The first half of the program was decidedly less enthralling, with a shaky start on Vivaldi’s Sonata in G Major for 2 violins and continuo and Handel’s Sonata in G (Op. 5, No. 4). These pieces lacked the tight execution of the contemporary works performed in the second half, and some problems with intonation on the strings disrupted the flow of the pieces as the performers had to continually pause to tune their instruments between movements. Hannah’s performance of Lucrezia in the first half however was a wonderful partner to her following performance of Britten, as she employed the well-chosen guttural tone in another tragic Greek tale of Lucretia and her sexual oppression from Tarquinius. Hannah aptly conveys the character’s distress in recitative and cursing arias in her combination emotional vocal timbre and facial expression.

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