Greenwich International Early Music Festival: Charlotte Barbour-Condini and Sophie Westbrooke with the Defying Gravity Band Back

The recorder has long been a misunderstood instrument. Too many associate it with memories of school and classroom music, viewing it as an inferior instrument because of its perceived simplicity. Whilst ukulele and electric keyboard have become more fashionable to acquaint school pupils with rudiments of music, the recorder is benefiting from a subtle renaissance. Along with the sterling work of the nationwide Society of Recorder Players, and accomplished players like Pamela Thorby and the Flanders Quartet, two younger players are helping to promote the instrument to new audiences. Charlotte Barbour-Condini and Sophie Westbrooke were both woodwind finalists in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in 2012 and 2014 respectfully. Barbour-Condini was the first recorder player to win the woodwind category in the competition’s history.

Tonight’s concert celebrated the successes of both these young players, and they were supported by an enthusiastic audience. Alongside their teacher Barbara Law and professional player Evelyn Nallen, the recorder’s versatility was clearly demonstrated: it was employed as solo, chamber and accompanying ensemble instrument. Supported by the advanced amateur players of the Defying Gravity Band, conducted by Nallen, the full range of the recorder family was represented, from the cigar-like sopranino to the towering contrabass. String double bass (Malcolm Creese) and harpsichord (David Gordon) gave additional depth to the ensemble’s sound. The interesting inclusion of drums and metallic percussion played by Jez Wiles provided a rhythmic dimension, drawing out the underlying drive and syncopations within the texture. This was particularly of note during ‘Two in One upon a Ground’ by Henry Purcell. Soprano and dancer Chiara Vinci performed with a warm and welcoming manner, and her choreography was measured and considered, complementing, yet not distracting from, her fellow performers. These unexpected extensions to the interpretation of the works brought a certain freshness and energy to music that too often is in danger of being performed in a measured or reserved manner.

The programme was constructed to provide the ear with welcome contrasts and variations in style. Vocal and instrumental solos were accompanied by harpsichord, smaller ensembles or the larger group. The concert opened with  Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’ sung by Vinci; her expressive approach throughout all her solos carried well. Her performance of  ‘The Morning’, a collection of three songs by Thomas Arne (1710-78), was a highlight. Although diction throughout was clear, those unfamiliar with these arias could maybe have benefited from having an English translation, particularly during Telemann’s ‘Rodisetta’s Aria’ from Der geduldige Socrates.

During works for smaller consort, such as Telemann’s Concerto IV, it was delightful to hear Barbour-Condini and Westbrooke perform alongside their teachers. These two young players emanated a sense of artistic maturity which complemented the experience of Nallen and Law. Particularly enjoyable was the way the four seemed to casually throw and catch imitative themes between each other. During their duet sonata with harpsichord, Trio No. 1 by Jacques-Christophe Naudot, the younger players performed with spark and a pleasant sense of companionship.

As much of the ensemble repertoire consisted of arrangements, this was not a concert that strived for scholarly authentic performance. However, the skilful arrangement to suit the capabilities of the recorder family ensured the expressive nature and textural contrasts of the works were preserved. Evidently considered decisions regarding instrumentation and voicing were made with sensitivity to the composers’ original intentions. Particularly appreciated was the reduction and augmentation of ensemble players during the performance of Handel’s Concerto in F major (originally for organ, but tonight performed on harpsichord) to help capture the dynamic contrasts in slower, more inwardly expressive movements.

A passionate and spicy Fandango by Antonio Soler (1729-83), originally composed for harpsichord and arranged for the full ensemble with added choreography, concluded the concert, transporting the audience far away from the reality of a damp evening in Maritime Greenwich.

Charlotte Barbour-Condini and Sophie Westbrooke with the Defying Gravity Band performed as part of the Greenwich International Early Music Festival 2015 on Saturday 14th November in St Alfege Church, Greenwich.