Saturday 21 March 2015

La Nuova Musica, Lucy Crowe and Tim Mead

La Nuova Musica - photo B. Ealovega
La Nuova Musica
photo B. Ealovega
Bach, Locatelli, Vivaldi, Pergolesi; Lucy Crowe, Tim Mead, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; St Johns Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 20 2015
Star rating: 5.0

A lenten programme which did not preclude bravura brilliance and expressive singing

David Bates and his group, La Nuova Musica brought a rather Lenten themed programme of baroque vocal music to St John's Smith Square on Friday 20 March 2015, the first half devoted to struggling with sin and God's wrath, the second half contemplating the sufferings of Mary at the foot of the Cross. Joined by counter-tenor Tim Mead and soprano Lucy Crowe, they performed Bach's cantata Widerstehe doch der Sunde, BWV 54 (Just resist sin), Vivaldi's motet In furore Iustissimae irae, RV 626 (In wrath  and most just anger), and Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, along with Locatelli's Concerto Grosso in C minor, Op.1, No.1.

Lucy Crowe - photo Marco Borggreve
Lucy Crowe
photo Marco Borggreve
Bach's cantata  Widerstehe doch der Sunde, BWV 54 was written for alto soloist, here sung by Tim Mead, whilst Bach was in Weimar in 1714, and is his first surviving church cantata for solo voice. The opening aria starts with an amazing orchestral gesture which Bates and his group made into something profoundly modern (for a second you thought, hang on a second!). Mead's performance was wonderfully straight, direct and up-front but with a lovely sense of line and here he was matched by the ensemble. The players really dug into the chords in the lower strings. After a short but expressive recitative, the final aria was distinctly fugal, with a rich lower string texture complementing Mead's strong account of the rather chromatic vocal line.

Tim Mead - photo B. Ealovega
Tim Mead
photo B. Ealovega
Bates used a combination of organ and harpsichord continuo, but his own harpsichord contributions were patchy as he spent a lot of time conducting. Here, I have to admit that I could not watch. Whilst I love the group's sound, I cannot watch Bates' gyrations as he achieves the sound he wants. The orchestra's basic sound world is very rich, and Bates seems to like a strong viola and bass lines which I rather like and which certainly adds to the richness of the mix.

Next the orchestra played Locatelli's Concerto grosso in C minor, Opus 1, no.1 which was written in Rome in 1721. A four movement work, generally slow, fast, slow, fast, it used a solo quartet of two violins, viola and cello (Bojan Cicic, Kinga Ujsaaszi, Jane Rogers, Joseph Crouch). The opening Largo was slow and grand and very striking, with the expressive yet chromatic solo from Bojan Cicic's first violin predominating, and the ensemble bringing a lot of rich colour to the harmony. The Allemanda was a perky movement, very much a quick fire call and response between soli and ensemble. The Sarabanda was stately with lovely sonorous harmonies, echoing the expressive solo passages. Finally a perky Giga Allegro, with busy solo parts giving us cascades of notes over a strongly rhythmic bass.

Vivaldi's motet In furore Iustissimae irae, RV 626 was written for Rome in 1722 and though a sacred work, was a highly virtuoso piece. The opening aria, with its cascades of scales in strings and voice (soprano soloist Lucy Crowe), was taken at remarkably fast speed by Bates who was clearly taking no prisoners. Crowe followed with an account of the solo line which was full of bravura poise, straight tone (no fudging of the notes) and a lovely clarity of line. She brought in a fabulous top note in the cadenza before the ornamented da capo, which was spectacular though I have to find it a little too ornamented for my taste. Vivaldi's virtuoso writing does have a basis in the text, but frankly we were just sitting and listening to Crowe and marvelling.

After a short recitative, the second aria was simpler and sung with a lovely straight yet vibrant tone and with beautifully shaped lines. For much of the aria, Vivaldi omits the cellos with the violas providing the bass thus giving a lightness to the texture, resulting in a very appealing sound world. The work concluded with brilliant, fast Alleluia which was catchily toe-tapping in a way that only Vivaldi can achieve. Again Crowe more than coped with the speed and provided an amazing bravura performance which left us astonished.

After the interval, Crowe and Mead joined Bates and the group in Pergolesi's Stabat Mater his final work written in 1736. Intriguingly there is an arrangement of the work by JS Bach, with a new German text based on Psalm 51 and an extra viola part and one day I would love to hear this. Bates and his forces gave us the original version. It is in twelve movements which mix solos for the soprano and alto with duets, opening of course with the famous duet which is full of false relations. Pergolesi's expressive use of these false relations and other chromatics often lead performers to push the work towards romanticism, but Pergolesi is still late baroque.

The performance from Crowe, Mead and Bates reflected this. Crowe and Mead sang with lovely straight tone, providing a remarkable unanimity and blend in the duets, here were two singers collaborating rather than vying with each other and the results were highly expressive. Very much less is more, phrases were sung with a lovely sense of line and without pushes and bulges; they allowed the harmony and melody to speak. Complementing this, Bates and his group made much of the work's sonorous harmony and accompaniments.

Individual moments stood out, Crowe was finely distraught and expressively distracted in Vidit suum dulcem natum with some perky, yet sober rhythms in Cuius animam gementem. Mead was wonderfully austere despite the rich details of the score in Fac, ut portem Christi mortem and contributed poised vocals to Quae moerebat et dolebat despite Bates brisk tempo. But what made the performance was the sense of overall shape and control and the feel, as I have said, of collaboration and of not trying too hard. The result was intense, very direct and well worth listening to.

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