Wednesday 21 September 2016

The Art of the Obbligato

Eleanor Minney - photo Colourwhite Photography
Eleanor Minney- photo Colourwhite Photography
The Italian word obbligato (from the verb obligare 'to oblige') in baroque classical music implies an instrumental part which is somehow indispensable to the performance, so in baroque arias it can indicate an instrument which takes on a quasi solo role equivalent to the vocal soloist, rather than accompanying. In this role, the obbligato instrument was used extensively by Bach (think of all those arias in the passions) and Handel. Last night, 20 September 2016, we heard a private performance of a recital entitled The Art of the Obbligato performed by mezzo-soprano Eleanor Minney, violinist Davina Clarke, cellist Poppy Walshaw and harpsichordist Tom Forster which explored music written by Handel and Bach, showing how these two composers used the concept of the solo instrument performing alongside the voice.

From Handel we heard three of his Nine German Arias, 'Süßer Blumen Ambraflocken' HWV204, 'Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle' HWV205 and 'Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden' HWV210. These are some of Handel's few mature works setting his native German.

Davina Clarke
Davina Clarke
There was a selection of arias from Bach's cantatas, with 'Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust' BWV 170 from the cantata of that name, 'Christi Glieder, ach bedenket' from the cantata Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn, BWV 132,  and 'Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze' from the cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61, plus the Allegro from the Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Obbligato Harpsichord, BwV 1016, 'Erbarme dich' from the St Matthew Passion, and the 'Laudamus te' from the Mass in B Minor. The four performers took it in turns to introduce the music, giving us background and creating a greater sense of communication with the audience.

Most of the works we heard showed the way the composers used an obbligato violin to decorate, comment on and dialogue with the vocal line, but the aria 'Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze' had no violin part and instead gave the cello a measure of independence. In the second movement of Bach's violin sonata we heard a different type of obbligato, here Bach used the term to indicate that the harpsichord part was fully written out rather than using figured bass, and in fact Bach effectively gives us a trio sonata with the harpsichord playing two of the parts.

Eleanor Minney sang with clear, plangent tones bringing a nice flexibility to the sometimes elaborate vocal lines, finely complemented by Davina Clarke's violin playing. But what made the performances special was that the players gave us a real sense of chamber music, with a fine interaction between all four of them with each line involving in its own way yet part of a satisfying whole. And it was striking hearing the music in such an intimate setting with just four performers.

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