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Apollo Ensemble review: Great Synagogue, great expectations, but group challenged

The Netherlands' Apollo Ensemble falls short of expectations.

Apollo Ensemble
The Great Synagogue. January 14.

The long queues in both directions along Elizabeth Street signalled high expectations for this concert of Jewish Baroque music, which the event itself did not live up to.

The Great Synagogue is a splendid old building but the overhang of its upper gallery creates challenges for sound and for sight-lines The Netherlands' Apollo Ensemble was not up to meeting.

The music itself, some unearthed from the Ets Haim library in the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam and some by better known composers such as Benedetto Marcello, was interesting for its individualistic, sometimes idiosyncratic, adaptation of the characteristic gestures and musical language of the Italian Baroque.

Marcello's Salmo XXI, for example, gave distinctiveness to each movement through pregnant rhythms and motives (these may have had some connection with the words though the text and sections were not provided). The cantata Le-El Elim from the Ets Haim library by a composer identified as "Caceres" combined soprano and alto with vocal understanding and affecting expressive refinement. Lidarti's Boi B'shalom prompted some welcome musical liveliness and fluency although elsewhere the tone and tempo of performances were somewhat monochrome and unvaried.

The musically inexplicable decision to place soprano Siri Karoline Thornhill on a high gallery away from the main ensemble exacerbated ensemble problems in the group significantly, making it a considerable challenge just to play together, let alone create chamber music intimacy. There were rough entries in the Marcello and in M. Mani's Le-El Nora suggesting insufficient preparation in the venue.

Placed down among the instrumentalists, countertenor Maarten Engelt Jes gave a more persuasive account of Marcello's piece and, where he could, he bound the musical fabric together by giving shape and a sense of natural fluency to the lines.

For the works with Thornhill, however, the overall blend tended to be remote and uncohesive and the rhythm lacked persuasive definition, while in S. Rossi's Sinfonia Grave e Gagliarda detta la Norsina, the instrumental playing was under energised.