The Sea! The Sea!

Southbank Sinfonia Baroque at St John’s Smith Square

Artillery Row

The rising sun over a vast ocean. The ebb and flow of bustling tradesmen, merchants and sailors hauling crates from vessels bound for exotic lands. So begins the Southbank Sinfonia Baroque’s performance at the London Festival of Baroque music. A night bookended by a nautical theme, between Telemann’s “Wassermusik” and Handel’s “Water Music”, this rocky continent of Sonatas and Suites demands to be traversed. But with Julian Perkins at the helm, it is plain sailing for the Sinfonia.

The orchestra keeps the question deliciously ambiguous

Setting sail with Telemann’s “Wassermusik Ouverture in C major”, written to commemorate the centenary of Hamburg’s admiralty, the piece is awash with imperial dignity, poeticizing maritime commerce and naval might. Yes, the interpretation of the festival’s Venetian theme is a little generous, but it is by no means a stretch of the imagination to envisage the cornucopia of colourful characters inhabiting the waterways of seventeenth century Venice with Telemann’s overture swaying in the backdrop. The Sinfonia maintains a jubilant fluidity, giving each section a distinct personality that Telemann explores in later movements. 

Muffat’s ”Sonata II in G minor from Armonico tribute” is where the Southbank Sinfonia’s interest in historical performance blossoms. Perkins’ harpsichord underpins the piece at a more solemn tempo whilst William Carter’s Theorbo, a 14-string lute that looms almost as large as one of the Corinthian columns in St John’s Smith Square, hums tenderly under the more boisterous strings. The result foreshadows the more melancholic tones that are revisited with Locatelli’s “Il pianto d’Arianna”. 

Before the Locatelli, the Sinfonia lets loose the dogs of war with Biber’s ”Battalia à 10 in D major”. If Telemann’s work flows gracefully, then Biber’s “Battalia” is grounded with an almost bawdy earthiness courtesy of untraditional techniques: stamping, and striking bows on instruments. The piece, supposedly inspired by the Thirty YearsWar, documents the emotional arc of a battle, from the opening salvos, the morale boosting marches, the clashes of steel, to the hangover of sorrow and destruction that follows. Does Biber seek to romanticise war? Sanctify fallen heroes? Or does he set out to condemn the barbarity? The orchestra keeps the question deliciously ambiguous across the eight movements.

The Sinfonia navigates deftly the looming tension of the march towards a battlefield, the polytonal cacophony before the fight, and a full-on charge into an electrifying battle. Rhythmic canons sparring, flying bullets and pulsating adrenaline, the Battalia is a thrilling musical tableau. 

The serene waters of Canaletto’s Venice are thrown overboard

The serene waters of Canaletto’s Venice are thrown overboard. The dramatic thrill of a Caravaggio has taken its place. The sea and its promise of liberation, whirling winds, the breaths of freedom are already shrouded in memory. Here the corporeal and the concreteness of the body and the earth dominate. 

By “The Lament of the Wounded” a more austere tone permeates. It is as if the performers are exhaling, recuperating, gazing over the war-ravaged earth. Perkins accentuates the Battalia’s unexpected melancholy, a satisfying divergence from more euphoric pieces. 

From the vast arena of war to the intimacy of love, the penultimate piece draws on the myth of Ariadne and her despair at being abandoned by her Theseus on Naxos. Locatelli’s “Il pianto d’Arianna” grants violinist Jorge Jiménez an opportunity to explore her psyche whilst showcasing his immense skill with the violin. He evokes wailing tears of sorrow as Theseus disappears over the horizon. The rest of the Sinfonia manifests a subtle depth, the burning fire of passion and pangs of unrequited longing. We have heard earth and wind. Here is the fire that will soon extinguish, leaving vacuous cold. It is the most personal and confrontational piece of the evening. A moment of reflection before the return to the shore with Handel’s “Water Music”. 

First performed in 1717 to accompany George I’s procession up the River Thames, this music always evokes a sense of royal splendour. Played by one of the plethora of floating barges as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations on that drizzly day in 2012, a far cry from the Adriatic sunshine, the music will no doubt make another appearance as part of the Platinum Jubilee later this year. Even if the brass takes time to find its footing, the Sinfonia gives Handel’s music a dignity that allows it to glow rather than sparkle in the bland May sunshine. It is a triumphal note to disembark on.

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