Friday, 11 January 2019

Unwrapping Venus: the music of Barbara Strozzi at Kings Place

Believed to be Barbara Strozzi, painted by Bernado Strozzi c.1630-1640
Believed to be Barbara Strozzi, painted by Bernado Strozzi c.1630-1640
Barbara Strozzi, Claudio Monteverdi Madrigals; Mary Bevan, Miriam Allen, Zoe Brookshaw, Helen Charlston, Marth McLorinan, John Bowen, Nicholas Mulroy, Jonathan Brown, David Shipley, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Christian Curnyn; Kings Place  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 January 2019 
Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
The music of Barbara Strozzi was the centre piece in this concert which opened Kings Place's year-long celebration of the music of women composers

I have to confess that the title Venus Unwrapped evokes, for me, the title of a saucy/dodgy 1970s film but in fact it is the name of Kings Place's 2019 Festival, across 95 concerts there is music from over 120 composers, 120 female composers from Hildegard of Bingen through to Cate le Bon. The season launched on Thursday 10 January 2019 with a concert by members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who were joined by singers Mary Bevan, Miriam Allen, Zoe Brookshaw, Helen Charlston, Martha McLorinan, John Bowen, Nicholas Mulroy, Jonathan Brown, David Shipley and conductor/harpsichordist Christian Curnyn to perform music from Barbara Strozzi's Il primo libro Madrigali alongside Monteverdi's Volgendo il ciel and Il ballo delle ingrate from the eighth book of madrigals.

During the Renaissance women only received the musical training to become composers because of exceptional circumstances (Francesca Caccini was the daughter of a composer who moved in aristocratic circles, Leonora d'Este was a nun from a highly aristocratic background). Barbara Strozzi was the adopted (and possibly illegitimate) daughter of the Venetian poet Giulio Strozzi whose librettos were written for composers such as Monteverdi (though their opera La finta pazza Licori does not seem to have been finished). Giulio Strozzi encouraged his daughter and even created an academy for her, arranging for her to study with the composer Francesco Cavalli. Unusually, Barbara published her music so that we have eight volumes of secular music, much of it for soprano and much of it with texts by her father (and some later pieces are assumed to have texts by Barbara herself). There is no reason why her music should not be better known, except .....


At Kings Place, we heard music from Strozzi's Il Primo Libro de'Madrigali, Op. 1, Diporti di Euterpe, Op. 7 and Arie Op.8. Though the singers Miriam Allen, Zoe Brookshaw, Helen Charlston, Marth McLorinan, John Bowen, Nicholas Mulroy, Johanthan Brown, and David Shipley were billed as the Choir of the Enlightenment, the music we heard was not choral and we never, in fact, heard all eight performing together, instead they came together (along with Mary Bevan) in various combinations of ensemble, solos, duets, trios etc. For these items by Barbara Strozzi, the singers were accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of lirone (Emilia Benjamin), cello (Andrew Skidmore), harp (Joy Smith) and theorbo (Elizabeth Kenny) directed from the harpsichord by Christian Curnyn, which again varied between the items.

The opening item, L'amante modesto (the modest lover) from the first book of madrigals was sung by a quintet of singers (Miriam Allen, Martha McLorinan, Nicholas Mulroy, John Bowen and David Shipley). It introduced us to Strozzi's style, very much influenced by Cavalli (Strozzi, born in 1619, was 17 years younger than Cavalli and would have been 24 when Monteverdi died). It is a lyrical, mellifluous style, no surprise that Strozzi was herself a singer, with the singers used in varying groupings, this was very much Monteverdi's Seconda Prattica with individual voices supported by instrumental groupings. The piece opened with great drama, and was full of vivid and varied emotions, sung with quite strong vibrant tone by the singers. Pace arrabiata (Peace in anger), also from the first book of madrigals, was sung by three men's voices and whilst it decried the behaviour of a haughty woman, the music was often dance-inspired. Nicholas Mulroy did wonders with the high tessitura of the upper tenor part, and the whole was strongly characterised.

Lagrime me, from Diporte di Euterpe, is one of Strozzi's better-known pieces, and its title 'My tears' very much characterises the lamenting style of much of Strozzi's music (though we must beware of conflating a poetic style with the feeling of the composer herself). Mary Bevan was accompanied by an instrumental ensemble without harpsichord, the piece was full of lamenting melisma and expressive chromatics. Set very much in free arioso, the music was by turns passionate and sensual, with a structured section only towards the end when we had a lovely Chaconne-like section which led to a return of the opening verses with their settings of 'Lagrime' (tears) to free melisma.

Canto di bella bocca from the first book of madrigals was a rather intimate piece, sung by Miriam Allen and Nicholas Mulroy with just a theorbo accompaniment (Elizabeth Kenny). We started with some wonderfully sweet music 'Che dolce udire una leggiadra bocca' (how sweet it is to hear a lovely mouth), yet this soon developed into elaboration and the music combined this sense of sweetness with some vividly elaborate ornamentation. The two singers formed a brilliant partnership, really feeding off each other both in the flurries of notes and in the languishing tone.

Mary Bevan returned from E pazzo il mio core from Arie op. 8, a lively rather dancing piece about the lover's heart being crazy, which Bevan sang with passionate vividness, though sometimes the words were a trifle occluded.

Le tre Gratie a Venere (the three graces speaking to Venus) from the first book of madrigals had Miriam Allen, Zoe Brookshaw and Helen Charlston as the three graces accompanied just by Joy Smith's harp. This was a piece which contrasted the striking and seductive textures and timbres of the music with the rather saucy words which encouraged Venus not to be clothed but to enjoy her nakedness.  We finished with a final item from the first book of madrigals, Silentio nocivo (noisome silence) sung by Zoe Brookshaw, Martha McLorinan, John Bowen and Jonathan Brown, a soft and seductive piece about 'Sweetest breaths are the passionate words and songs of our loving hearts' sung in vivid and characterful manner.

For the second half we jumped back slightly to 1608 for Monteverdi's Il ballo delle ingrate written for the wedding of Francesco Gonzaga in Mantua but revived and revised by Monteverdi in 1636 and published in the Eighth book of madrigals in 1637 alongside Volgendo il ciel, another larger-scale madrigal. Volgendo il ciel was written for the coronation of Ferdinand III as Holy Roman Emperor and the revised version of Il ballo delle ingrate was probably produced for the same occasion.

Both are ballos, a sort of combination of madrigal, cantata and opera, with instrumental sections allowing for dancing. Volgendo il ciel has the poet praising Ferdinand, concluding with his sentiments echoed by a chorus (here five singers), with instrumental movements between the verses. Nicholas Mulroy was heroic in the poet's rhetorical verses with the chorus providing a lovely vibrant conclusion. The singers all used very full voices, yet gave every detail of the busy ornamentation.

Il ballo delle ingrate (the dance of the ungrateful ladies) had a libretto which made pointed reference to the fate awaiting those who are hard-hearted in love, with satirical reference to ladies in the 1608 audience. Cupid (Zoe Brookshaw), Venus (Helen Charlston) and Pluto (David Shipley) argue the merits and demerits of the ladies in question, with Pluto finally allowing them one final return when a single ungrateful lady (Mary Bevan) laments, with a distant chorus of her fellows, before having to return to Hades.

Zoe Brookshaw was a delightful, pert Cupid all appealing sharp tones and bright delivery, whilst Helen Charlston was a more controlled Venus, full of gravitas yet given to passionately strong moments. David Shipley's Pluto displayed a fine dark voice (which Christian Curnyn accompanied by organ rather than harpsichord), though Shipley's finely musical account of Pluto's long final solo (addressed to the ladies in the audience) was rather too careful and not quite as engaging as it could have been. Mary Bevan was hauntingly lovely as the single ungrateful lady, ending the evening with Monteverdi's lamenting style which gave us a pre-echo of the Strozzi from the first half. The off-stage contribution for four ungrateful ladies provided a hauntingly unnerving end to the concert.

On Wednesday next week (16 January) there is more Renaissance music as Musica Secreta will be giving a performance Not Mortals, But Angels: The Flowering of Convent Music which includes music by Leonora d'Este, the nun who was a scion of the powerful d'Este family and Lucrezia Borgia's daughter.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky? & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn (★★★★) - operetta review 
  • A year at Lincoln: Aric Prentice and the choir of Lincoln Cathedral on Regent Records (★★★) - Cd review
  • Handel at Cannons: Chandos Te Deum and Chandos Anthem No. 8 from Adrian Butterfield, London Handel Orchestra and soloists (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seeing out the old year and seeing in the new: Tony Cooper at the Tiroler Festspiele, Erl (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ancient and modern: Liam Byrne, a viola da gamba and a laptop at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Diverse tapestry: Clare Norburn's Burying the Dead at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: violinist Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc, The Polish Violin - interview 
  • Strong and vibrant: Tallis masses and motets from the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach's Goldberg Variations - CD review
  • 2018 in opera and concert reviews - article
  • Concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet - interview
  • That Old Thing: remembering Covent Garden's revivals of historic productions in the 1980s - article
  • The Medieval Tendency - article
  • Bach's Christmas Oratorio at the St John's Smith Square Christmas Festival (★★★★) - concert review
  • Home


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