Monday 3 August 2015

Vividly engaging solo cantatas from Anna Prohaska and Arcangelo

Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo at an earlier concert at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - - photo credit Andrea Liu
Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo
at an earlier concert at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo credit Andrea Liu
Lachrimae - John Dowland, Tarquinio Merula, Henry Purcell, Francesco Cavalli, Giovanni Felice Sances, Barbara Strozzi, Salamone Rossi, Domenico Scarllatti; Anna Prohaska, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 02 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Intense and vivid performances of Italian and English solo cantatas

Though the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe Theatre is remarkably acoustically flexible, allowing a remarkable range of events to be programmed, hearing 17th century music in a reconstructed 17th century theatre is highly evocative. It allows us to hear music performed in the sort of intimacy that the original would have received. The programme Lachrimae presented by soprano Anna Prohaska, with Arcangelo and director Jonathan Cohen, gave us a series of scenas in which the protagonist communicated directly with the audience, supported by just a few singers. An intense and highly vivid programme, which required much from the performers, Anna Prohaska and Arcangelo gave us a dazzling sequence of music by English and Italian 17th century composers John Dowland, Tarquinio Merula, Henry Purcell, Francesco Cavalli, Barbara Strozzi, Salamone Rossi, and Domenico Scarlatti.

Anna Prohaska - photo credit Monika Rittershaus
Anna Prohaska
photo credit Monika Rittershaus
We started with an instrumental piece, Lachrimae Pavane by John Dowland (1563-1626) the melody from which crops up in the song Flow my tears which was in the second half of the programme. Played just by theorbo (Thomas Dunford) and harp (Angelique Maullon), the two instruments created a very intimate sound yet one with a rich, plucked texture so that the piece was highly evocative. Talking to Jonathan Cohen afterwards he explained that the programme is being performed on a European tour visiting a wide variety of venues, so that playing styles have to be adjusted accordingly. For the sympathetic but relatively dry acoustic of the playhouse chords have to be spread somewhat to elongate them as the sound dies away quickly.

Looking rather dramatic all in black (the lady sitting next to me thought she looked like a mermaid), Anna Prohaska then sang Hor ch'e tempo di dormir  (Now it is the time to sleep) by Tarquinio Merula (1594-1665). A lullaby for the Christ child, it started with just voice and theorbo playing a two note bass lane, the austerity of the music being offset by the haunting plangency of Anna Prohaska's singing. Other instruments joined, harp and finally viola da gamba (Nicholas Milne) as the texture developed supporting the increasingly powerful performance by Anna Prohaska with her intense concentration on the words.

Jonathan Cohen
Jonathan Cohen
They followed this with another scena for the Virgin but this time in very different style, Tell me, some pitying angel (The Blessed Virgin's expostulation) by Henry Purcell. Like the Merula, a long flexible arioso in which there are few formal rules, the music simply follows the line of the text (here by Nahum Tate). The voice was again accompanied by just a continuo group, with Jonathan Cohen playing organ (for the concert he doubled on organ and harpsichord).

Anna Prohaska's voice is as dramatic as her looks, and she has an interesting Slavic edge to the vocal timbre but without an intense reliance on vibrato so that she sings with strong straight tone, with results which are highly distinctive and very dramatic. She did not shy away from bending notes occasionally, but this was expressive and did not fall into mannerism. Another surprise is that, thanks to an English speaking mother, she speaks fluent, highly idiomatic English. This meant that her account of the Purcell was highly personal and not a little dramatic.

This was followed by a real change of mood and a move to the opera house. O piu d'ogni ricchezza (O treasure more precious) a scene from the opera Gli Amori d'Apolle e di Dafne (The Loves of Apollo and Daphne) by Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676), his second operatic work which was premiered in Venice in 1640. The nymph Daphne dances in celebration of freedom in a sequence which flexibly combined recitative with long dance based ensembles and short aria-like moments into a dazzling whole. The performance had us swaying in our seats with the vital, infectious music making from all. At the end there was a lovely invocation to  music with some delightful echo effects. Anna Prohaska gave a performance of great charm partnered by all the other musicians in a highly engaging whole.

For the Cavalli, the ensemble was joined by the violinists Simon Jones and Pablo Hernan Benedi for the first time and in Purcell's Sonata No 6 in G minor from his Ten Sonatas in Four Parts which was published by his widow after his death. Here we heard Simon Jones and Pablo Hernan Benedi intertwining beautifully over a moving bass with continuo; beautifully plangent playing with some toe-tapping moments too.

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was the illegitimate daughter of a Venetian nobleman; adopted by her father she received a first class musical education and has written some powerful music, most notably her solo scenas. In Lagrimie mie (My tears) the poet is lamenting his lover who is locked in a tower. Strozzi creates a vivid, vibrant response to the text with some highly chromatic accompanied recitative and rather limpid ariosi. Anna Prohaska gave a strong, almost violent response to the music and the all important text, making her performance intense, personal and supremely communicative.

The first half finished with a glorious dance based scena, full of love and jealousy and receiving a full throated performance from Anna Prohaska supported by highly engaging instrumentals. I have no idea what it was, but this didn't matter as the performance simply carried us away and sent us out dancing.

Things cooled down somewhat at the opening of the second half, with John Dowland's glorious Flow my tears in a plangent, highly communicative performance accompanied just by the theorbo and viola da gamba. We stayed in the same vein for another scena by Barbara Strozzi, Che si puo fare (What can be done), about when love is over in which Strozzi gives the singer what Prohaska in her note describes as crazy tonal leaps to evoke the emotional state. Again the music had a dance-based untertow with multiple instrumental lines supporting Prohaska's infectious and affecting vocals, and intensely elaborate ornamentation in the recitative sections.

The instrumental Sonata terza sopra l'aria romanesca by Salamone Rossi (c1570-1630) was quite stately, showing of the lovely line from the two violins. Salamone Rossi was an Italian Jewish violinist who worked at the court of Mantua and besides instrumental music and madrigals, also produced a volume of settings of Jewish liturgical texts uniquely set in Hebrew.

We returned to England for The Plaint: O let me weep from Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen. Perhaps sung rather more vividly than some performers, Anna Prohaska was nonetheless very affecting with the slight Slavic edge to her voice giving the music immense power. Another elegant instrumental sonata followed, this one by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), showcasing the violin playing of Simon Jones in four contrasting movements finishing in crisply perky style.

Cavalli's Restino imbalsamate (May the delights I have enjoyed) is from his opera La Calisto premiered in Venice in 1651. The aria is sung by the nymph Calisto, hoping that her mistress the Goddess Diana will forgive her. Full of changes of mood, alternating lively ritornelli with elaborate recitatives it was a prime example of the wonderful flexibility that composers had when setting text at this period without the formality of the later Baroque. Finally, a gloriously intense performance of Purcell's Evening Hymn.

But this wasn't the end and after a rapturous reception from the audience we were treated to an encore. A version of the folk-song Scarborough Fair.

Much of the music in the concert is incredibly simply when looked at on the page, just a vocal line and a continuo and it requires a great deal of input from the singer and the players to create real music. This is music which needs a strong sense of personal involvement and personality, and this we got from Anna Prohaska. She is clearly highly responsive to text in whatever language and it was this communicative vividness which came over. In the Italian pieces, with the lighting low enough that the song texts were unreadable, that we did not know the words did not matter such was that sense of communication. She is a very idiomatic artist, using a highly distinctive voice dramatically and with intelligence. She was well supported by Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo, group whose playing is always intent and highly engaged.

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