Wednesday 19 December 2012

Early Opera Company at Spitalfields Winter Festival

Christian Curnyn
Christian Curnyn
The final concert at this year's Spitalfields Music Winter Festival was given by the Early Opera Company under their director Christian Curnyn. It was a programme of Vivaldi centring on the music that he wrote for the Pieta, the orphanage where he worked in a variety of capacities for many years, teaching violin and writing both sacred and secular music for the girls. The concert was centred on Vivald's Gloria, but Curnyn's programme had a twist, in that the singers for the Gloria were all women, and came from Women sing East, which was formed as part of Spitalfields Music's Learning and Participation programme.

The programme finished with Vivaldi's Gloria and in the first half mezzo-soprano Emilie Renard performed arias from Juditha Triumphans. Both works being written by Vivaldi specifically for performance at the Pieta. The instrumental ensemble also performed three concertos from the same period. There were not written for the Pieta but came from Vivaldi's L'estro armonico, Opus 3, a collection of concertos which Vivaldi published in 1711 and which were highly influential (Bach wrote his own transcriptions of them).

They opened with the Concerto in F major for four violins and cello, RV567 (No. 7 from L'estro armonico). The instrumental group were small in number, just 6 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello and 1 bass which meant that the ripieno group in the concerto was tiny. The group might have been small, but they were a very harmonious ensemble, clearly enjoying playing and responding to each other. Throughout the evening there was a real feeling of give and take between the players. All the concertos were played with a high degree of technical control, and the music had great clarity; but they were infectiously entertaining as well.

In the Concerto in F, Vivaldi used the four solo violins almost as an ensemble, so there were times when the work resembled a concerto grosso. That said, Curnyn's speeds were quite brisk and the players displayed some nifty passage work in the final movement.

Emilie Renard sang three arias from Juditha Triumphans, Vivaldi's oratorio of 1716 on the subject of the biblical heroine Judith who beheads Holofernes, the general attacking her city. The three arias, in the opera sung by Holofernes and by his servant Vagaus, formed a neat dramatic narrative. First we got Vagaus's aria, Matrona inimica where he announces that an attractive matron has come to see Holofernes, then in Umbrae carae Holofernes looks forward to seducing Judith, and finally Vagaus's vengeance aria Amatae face, et anguibus after discovered the body of Holofernes.

The oratorio might have been written for the girls of the orphanage, but Vivaldi certainly did not write down to them, the whole piece is full of technical challenges. For Matrona inimica Vivaldi wrote rather toe-tapping music, in which Renard displayed a lovely flexibly light mezzo-soprano voice with a very free top. She pointed the words and the story well.

In Umbrae carae Holofernes is accompanied by two recorders and drones in the bass to create a real pastoral feel. Again the music felt very dance based, but slower this time. The main section of the aria began with a striking cadenza like figure for the singer before the main material started. Renard's attractively melodic account of the vocal line was finely supported by the instrumentalists in Vivaldi's lovely orchestra textures.

Finally in the vengeance aria Renard stunned us with some wonderfully bravura passagework, but it wasn't just display, she used the music to convey the emotions of the piece.

The first half concluded with the Concerto in A minor for solo violin (No. 7 from L'estro armonico) with the solo violin part played by the leader Catherine Martin. Whereas the concerto which opened the concert used the rather older scheme of 5 movements alternating fast slow fast, the Concerto in A minor used the more modern scheme of just three movements.

Martin's playing was brilliant, but not too showy, despite the solo part's torrents of notes. These became part of the musical line rather than an end in themselves. The slow movement consisted of an attractive free flowing solo over long held notes. In the final movement, the whole ensemble's unanimity of purpose impressed. As Curnyn's tempo for this movement was quite brisk, Martin's performance of the showers of notes in the solo part was truly impressive.

Part 2 opened with another group concerto, the Concerto in D major (No 1 from L'estro armonico) for four violins. Here Vivaldi seemed to put the soloists in pairs and to toss the baton between them. The rather sombre middle movement had a repeated unison figure from the strings, which contributed to the dark feeling, to which the soloists again responded in pairs. The finale had the four soloists producing cascades of notes, passing the solo responsibility back and forth between them. I was struck by how well balanced the a foursome the soloists were, creating a finely even whole.

Finally, the ensemble was joined by Women sing East to sing Vivaldi's Gloria. Women sing East was founded in 2003 and is led by Laka D (those with long memories may know her from her musical involvement in groups like Split Britches and Bloolips). The group's repertoire ranges from jazz to classical and most members live or work in East London. There were well over 40 singers on stage.

When Andrew Parrott recorded the Vivaldi Gloria with all female forces he simply transposed the tenor and bass parts up an octave, which resulted in some oddities with the tenor part going above the soprano part at times. By contrast the Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi have performed the work with an all female ensemble singing tenor and bass at pitch. I have heard them and the results are very convincing, though female basses must be few and far between. But we should note that Vivaldi's tenor and bass parts for the choral pieces he wrote for the Pieta are generally simple and slow moving, whereas when he wrote for other mixed choirs in Venice he wrote more challenging material.

I don't think scholarship knows quite what actually happened, probably a mix of both. Certainly none of the visitors to the Pieta commented on the women singing with deep voices. But bear in mind also that some of the singers were women, who spent most of their lives in the orphanage and the authorities would take girls specifically for their musical talent.

For the performance at Christ Church Spitalfields, Christian Curnyn seems to have taken the rather practical option of having much of the tenor part sung at pitch but the bass part sung up an octave. The results were convincing and had a remarkable richness, whilst ensuring that the soprano part was always the dominant part.

One of the joys of this performance was the sheer commitment and enjoyment of the women involved. Granted there were one or two small hiccups along the way, but that's true of most amateur ensembles; I know that full well myself. But it was clear that the performance really mattered to them and the sang with a rare intensity. The actually sound was quite distinctive, very direct and the lower parts were surprisingly resonant. I warmed to their sound immensely and do hope that the festival has the group back again to perform a similar work.

Emilie Renard sang the solo in Domine Deus, Agnus Dei and Qui sedes, impressing almost as much as she had in the first half. For the duet, Laudamus te she was joined by soprano Catherine Thornborrow who is a member of Women sing East, and Thornborrow sang the solo Domine Deus with a nice light lyric voice, accompanied by a lovely oboe solo.

This was a terrific way to end the festival, mixing scholarship, imaginative programming and cutting edge period performance with the festival's education and participation activities. The performance became a real festival event, truly specific to Spitalfields and its community.

There was a retiring collection to support Spitalfields Music's Learning and Participation programme, which has produced some 300 workshops this year for all age groups.

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