Published on Saturday 18 March 2017
Written by David Smythe
Scottish Ensemble and Johannes Fischer rehearsing on stage at Glasgow’s Oran Mor
The hard thwack of Baroque timpani is what we associate with Baroque percussion, yet the addition of other period percussion instruments is rarely heard on the concert platform. Classical Baroque, particularly if played on softer sounding period instruments, needs space to stand alone, whether stately, dreamy or fizzing with excitement, so added percussion needs to be sparing and tastefully added to avoid swamping the music or simply becoming tedious. Scottish Ensemble director Jonathan Morton has been itching to explore Baroque percussion and invited international percussionist Johannes Fischer to collaborate in an innovative programme of traditional and new approaches to this music.
In an intimate setting on the Caird Hall stage, the audience was arranged in a semicircle surrounding the string quartet, bass and small harpsichord, Fischer and his eclectic collection of instruments in the centre. Pure Bach set the traditional benchmark as Diane Clark’s bass plucked the slow tread of Movement II from the Orchestral Suite no. 3 in D major, or “Air on a G String”. We hear it everywhere these days, but less often performed live, the Ensemble emphasising its simplicity with the two violins intertwining the tune beautifully against the ground bass.
As the last note faded, before any applause, Fischer sprang to his feet and blew hard across the skin of his snare drum, the beginning of his solo piece Air (for snare drum and accessories), a mesmerising performance full of variety. With the snare muted, he explored the different gentle sounds made using a series of brushes (scrubbing, washing up, table and traditional jazz), altering the pitch of the drum by finger presses. Suddenly, what looked like two wooden knitting needles came out, Fischer striking the edge of the drum with different lengths producing varied notes, like a schoolboy twanging a ruler on a desk, followed by a tattoo blizzard, a raging blur of sticks. A triangle was played conventionally, but then placed on the drum and attacked with big sticks striking an urgent rhythm. Fischer placed electric hair clippers on the drum skin, making the sound beat using finger pressure, and humming harmonic intervals with the electric buzz. Finally, the snare was released, the triangle back on the drum in a build up to a thrilling finish with turbo whistle, a ping from a table top summoning bell ending this compelling and inventive performance.
Henry Purcell’s Suite from The Fairy Queen, a restoration spectacular of 15 short pieces of hornpipes, jigs, airs and various dances for fairies, green men, monkeys and haymakers, gave us the chance to hear traditional Baroque with period percussion. The Ensemble conjured up stately and majestic Baroque themes delicately balanced and full of inner glow, then raising the energy levels, plunging headlong into the lively dances. Fischer’s percussion, employed only in some of the movements, took a ‘less is more’ approach, using mostly tabor and tambourine to add much enjoyment, his delicate fingertip precision flicks on the wooden blocks a highlight.
Pushing the boundaries yet further, Fischer’s Tafelmusik Recomposed (A dining experience with Telemann: Music for electrified table and strings) took Telemann’s music and mixed it with percussion and light electronics, sometimes blending into the traditional, at others contrasting starkly. Fischer sat at a busy soundboard populated with tuned bottles of liquid, a kitchen pallet knife, egg whisk, nails in a block and an array of other unlikely objects including a sponge, shot glass and metal bowl. A digital toy piano and a few electronics with a percussion app completed the range. Moving objects across the table sounded like distant passing traffic, and the Ensemble entered with slow ponderous Telemann. Fischer, taking a Baroque bow to the palette knife and whisk produced edgy harsh notes, echoed by the Ensemble playing next to the bridge. A more traditional dance with slapped bass was met by Fischer using sticks on everything raising energy levels before a South American rhythm was set up, the viola making dry percussive noises. Things became more surreal when electronic voices were introduced, and with the strings playing loops for a moment I thought we had jumped tracks to Reich’s Different Trains. Telemann’s music kept coming back though, the Ensemble even more energised and ending in a bouncy dance. Fischer looked relaxed and in his element, clearly relishing the mix of written and improvised music.
Much of the enjoyment at this party for the audience was watching Fischer being playful and creative, but with everyone on one level, the sightlines were poor for most, which was a pity, and I missed the heft of the larger ensemble. While traditionalists may hold that the percussive crunch of horsehair on gut string stands alone, the livelier parts of Baroque music almost imply percussion, so it was interesting to see how well this worked on several levels in this performance.