Thursday 17 January 2013

Arcangelo at Wigmore Hall - Enchanted Forest

Anna Prohaska  (c) Monika Rittershaus
Anna Prohaska
(c) Monika Rittershaus
Arcangelo, conductor Jonathan Cohen, and soprano Anna Prohaska are half way through their Enchanted Forest tour and arrived at London's Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 15 January after successful concerts in Vienna, Munich and Frankfurt. The tour is linked to their new CD, Enchanted Forest, which appears in March on the Archiv label. The concert featured arias by Handel, Purcell and Vivaldi, alongside instrumental music by Purcell, Handel and Zelenka. The vocal items included a variety of nymphs and other enchanted creatures, with Handel's Poppea making an appearance at the end, linked by short instrumental movements. The result was designed, I suspect, to play without a break but such was the audience's enthusiasm for Prohaska's performances, that applause was inevitable.

After a vivid orchestral Hornpipe from Purcell's Fairy Queen, Prohaska sang two of Dafne's arias from Handel's cantata Apollo e Dafne. In the first Felicissima quest'alma she celebrates the joys of freedom and in the second, Come in ciel beninga stella implores Apollo, with Handel offsetting the voice with a trio sonata for oboe, violin and continuo. An instrumental curtain tune from Purcell's Timon of Athens, was followed by Tornami a vagheggiar from Handel's Alcina, Morgana showpiece aria which closes act one of the opera. Two movements from Handel's Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op. 3 No. 2 were followed by Furie terribili from Handel's Rinaldo. The aria is one in which the sorceress Armida makes her entrance, invoking the terrible furies. Finally, after another Hornpipe from The Fairy Queen, part one closed with Alma oppressa from Vivaldi's opera La fida ninfa.

Arcangelo has a vividly crisp style of playing, fully of rhythmic intensity and felicity, plus some stunning solo playing. With the sound of the theorbo to the fore, the ensemble textures were richly varied and fascinating, varying from the delicate plucked strings in the opening of the music from Timon of Athens, to Handel's vivid furies. The famous Largo movement from the Op 3 Concerto Grosso was enchanting, with its duetting cellos over which spun the lovely oboe solo. Such was the brilliance of the orchestral playing that I could happily have listened to them for an entire concert, without any vocal contributions.

Soprano Anna Prohaska was very much the first amongst equals in her arias, and at times her lyric soprano voice seemed to be rather overshadowed by the instrumental contribution. She has a stunning technique and was fully equal to everything that the composers demanded, including the ridiculously tricky Vivaldi aria with its enormously fast passagework. She has a lovely lyric voice with a superb sense of line. Her voice has a slight Slavic edge to it which suits this music admirably and, well used, can be profoundly evocative. Visually she was very dramatic and she sang everything from memory, which was a great benefit, making it a highly communicative performance.

For me the lighter and more lyric items worked best. Tornami a vagheggiar had a lovely lift to it and here, as elsewhere, she showed dazzling technical control. But there were moments when the drama did not always reach her voice, I wanted her to do a little more with the amazing passagework, to use the fioriture for expressive purposes. And in the aria from Rinaldo, I felt that a darker, heavier voice would have been more suitable. But the way that she dealt with the outrageous Vivaldi aria, at Jonathan Cohen's brisk tempo was nothing short of miraculous. With such a technique, she can only grow.

The second half opened with the Andante from Jan Dismas Zelenka's Sinfonia a 8 Concertanti. The Andante is one of the less outrageous movements from this work, and the movement is effectively a trio for oboe, violin and bassoon but the bassoon got some crazy passagework which was deftly and warmly played.

Prohaska followed with See, even Night herself from Purcell's The Fairy Queen. Then Combattuta da piu venti from Handel's Faramondo, a simile aria in which the singer compares herself to a ship battered by winds. Three movements from Purcell's The Gordian Knot Unty'd were followed by The Plaint from The Fairy Queen. We were then treated to a second movement from Zelenka's Sinfonia a 8 Concertanti, the Aria da Capriccio with its concertante parts for oboe, violin, bassoon and cello. Finally the overture to Handel's Agrippina led into Poppea's aria from the end of act 1 of the opera.

Such was the virtuosity and intensity of Arcangelo's  playing that I did rather regret that we were not treated to the whole of the Zelenka, however the two movements we heard were lovely and showed off some fine solo playing. The three movements from The Gordian Knot Unty'd were nicely contrasted, with some lovely recorder playing, and finishing with one of Purcell's smaller scale chaconnes, but Cohen and his players still made it go with a swing.

They were also very effective in the accompaniment to the aria from Handel's Faramondo, where Handel uses the strings to depict the movement of the waves in a very Vivaldi like, toe-tapping ritornello. Prohaska's account of the aria was dazzling and she certainly sounded as if she was enjoying herself, perhaps too much so as the singer is meant to be being buffeted by love.

In this half, as in the first, there were moments when Prohaska needed to dominate more and the orchestra drop into the background. The two Purcell songs helped put Prohaska's voice into focus as here you could appreciate its great lyric beauty, and the care and intelligence that went into shaping and moulding the line.

In Poppea's aria she was the perfect soubrette, delightful and teasing; technically superb, complete with some amazing runs in parallel with the oboe. Handel left two version of this aria and Prohaska performed the more difficult one of the two.

The programme book included plenty of background information on all the individual pieces, but rather frustratingly there was no explanation of the rationale behind the concert, with its Enchanted Forest title and interlinking arias and orchestral movements. But no matter, we could simply sit back and enjoy some very fine performances.

With such an enthusiastic reception were were treated to three encores. First Ah, Spietato from Handel's Amadigi di Gaula with a beautifully shaped vocal line complimented by some lovely oboe playing. Then, rather surprisingly but very effectively, John Dowland's Sorrow stay. And finally an aria from Bach's Wedding Cantata.

The concert  was followed by a reception for friends and supporters to celebrate what has been an amazing year for the group with award winning Cd's with Iestyn Davies and Christopher Purves (see my review). General Manager Crispin Woodhead paid tribute to all the hard work and support that had gone into the group. With the release of Enchanted Forest on a newly revived Archiv label scheduled for March, there is plenty to look forward to. See Arcangelo's website for further information.

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