Last night (Tuesday 7th December) was one of the much anticipated concerts in the Barbican's Great Performers season, two of the world's star counter-tenors, Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky, in concert together with Jaroussky's Ensemble Artaserse.
Following their rather skittish interview in the Guardian I did rather wonder what to expect. In the event, we had an attractive sequence of airs, songs and duets by Purcell, with only 1 duet which had any hint of gender bending. The programme was enthusiastically received by the capacity audience and we were treated to 3 encores. But I was left a little unsatisfied and after the concert was puzzling over quite what was lacking.
Ensemble Artaserse is a small group and their line up last night was heavily continuo based (harpsichord/organ, viola da gamba, basse de viol, theorbo and guitar) with just 2 violins, viola, 2 recorders and 2 oboes. In all of the dance based pieces they gave the music significant rhythmic impulse which was exciting, but wearing after a time. The group are conductorless and I did wonder whether that was the problem.
Turning to the singers I realised that, far more than in Handel, it is the words which are important, not just their declamation but the way that they link with Purcell's music. His English word setting is some of the greatest ever written, but it is also pretty idiosyncratic. Scholl's English diction, whilst not faultless, was amazingly good. But even he seemed to struggle. In the shorter numbers like Sweeter than Roses or Music for a while he was elegantly beautiful, but didn't quite touch the heart strings the way Deller did (or more recently Iestyn Davies at this year's Proms in Cadogan Hall). In a longer number like O Solitude Scholl seemed to lose his way a bit. It might have been the frog in his throat, or possibly the way the piece sat in his voice, going a bit low, but though there were lovely phrases, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
Jaroussky's diction was impressive, considering his franco-phone background, but it still has some way to go. Part of the problem seemed to be that his pronunciation was a little wayward; it was inconsistent, sometimes a word was produced fine and sometimes not. With his high, focussed voice, Jaroussky was loveliest in the long lyrical items like Fairest Isle and The Evening Hymn.
On balance, the evening seemed to be slightly less than the sum of its parts. Purcell's distinctive qualities seemed to not be quite captured. I think that what we lacked was the strong guiding presence of someone like William Christie, someone who could bring stylistic discipline and coherency.