Sunday 9 December 2018

Intimate delight, 18th century chamber cantatas from Tim Mead, Louise Alder & Arcangelo

18th century chamber cantatas
Scarlatti, Porpora, Handel - chamber cantatas and trio sonatas; Louise Alder, Tim Mead, Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen; Wigmore Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 December 2018 Star rating: 45. (★★★★½)
Intimate, smaller scale 18th-century vocal works in engaging & vital performances

The chamber cantata was an important element of 18th-century musical life, enabling both composers and performers to demonstrate their skills on a smaller scale. The links with 18th-century opera are quite clear, opera composers wrote cantatas for opera singers to perform for patrons who often patronised opera as well. Though it is important to recognise that in the chamber cantata, the composer could be freer and more imaginative, not confined by operatic conventions.

For their programme at Wigmore Hall on Friday 7 December 2018, soprano Louise Alder and counter-tenor Tim Mead joined Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo (Sophie Gent and Louis Creac'h violins, Max Mandel viola, Jonathan Byers cello, Thomas Dunford lute) for a programme of chamber cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Nicola Porpora and George Frideric Handel, ending with Handel's Amarilli vezzosa (Il duello amoroso), plus trio sonatas by Porpora and Handel.

We started with a pair of cantatas by Alessandro Scarlatti, Piango, sospiro e peno H563 with Tim Mead, and Clori e Mirtillo H419 with Louise Alder and Tim Mead. The first cantata used a pair of violins with the standard continuo line-up of cello, lute and keyboard (with Jonathan Cohen moving between harpsichord and chamber organ throughout the evening). Piango, sospiro e peno introduces us to a suffering lover, though perhaps the most notable feature of the cantata was the way Scarlatti used the violins to create a trio-sonata texture full of expressive suspensions, and the cantata began and ended with striking arioso sections featuring voice and violins, with a pair of finely contrasting arias in the middle. All in all, a little gem which received a most expressive performance from Tim Mead and the ensemble.

The second Scarlatti cantata, Clori e Mirtillo just used continuo and opened with a long recitative for Tim Mead setting up the argument of this pastoral scene between two bickering lovers. Louise Alder was wonderfully imperious as the demanding Cloris, with Tim Mead beautifully lamenting as the put-upon Myrtillo, thankfully the two make up at the end with a delightful duet.

Handel's Trio Sonatas Op.2 were very much designed for publication, though Handel could easily have played them at the homes of patrons. In four movements, the opening slow movement features two violin lines weaving in an out and proved to be a bit of an earworm. A vigorous fast movement followed, then a gentle slow movement with lovely decorated lines and finally a crisp finale, all in wonderfully engaging and involving performances. You certainly got the impression that the performers were enjoying performing this music.

The first half ended with a chamber cantata by Nicola Porpora, Ecce che il primo albore performed by Tim Mead, with the two violinists joining with the continuo. Again this was very much pastoral and with little in the way of love interest. The rather banal text dealt with the joys of being a shepherd, though the final aria warned about the dangers of the sheep dying! Porpora created some lovely instrumental textures to set off the vocal writing, and in the final aria, Tim Mead characterfully grabbed the opportunities the text gave him. So much so, that the audience burst into applause at the end of the B section!

We continued with Porpora after the interval with Louise Alder singing Il Ritiro, and this time we had two violins and a viola and throughout the cantata, whether in ritornellos, accompagnato or arias, it was Porpora's lovely warm writing for the three upper string instruments, creating warm textures from the three intertwining lines, that created a strong impression. Though Louise Alder was a delightful protagonist, making this hymn to pastoral life remarkably dramatic and very expressive.

Porpora's Sinfonia da Camera in G minor, Op.2 no. 3 was effectively a trio sonata under another name. The string writing for the two violins, evoked a similar sound world to the previous cantata, with a plangently expressive slow movement leading to a perkily busy faster on with Porpora using some striking moments when the two violins were left without accompaniment. The second slow movement was all gorgeous suspensions, followed by a lively yet graceful dance.

Handel's Amarilli vezzosa (Il duello Amoroso) HWV82 is from 1708, during his Italian period, and is one of the larger scale cantatas. It may not even really fit into the chamber cantata category, as the manuscript copied for Handel's patron Marchese Ruspoli has indications of solo and tutti on the violin parts, suggesting a rather larger, quasi-operatic performance. Again we have a pastoral setting, with warring lovers but this time they do not reconcile, and the final duet is one of disagreement. The plot also involves an element of sexual transgression as Daliso, rebuffed by Amarilli, threatens her with force. Louise Alder and Tim Mead gave wonderfully characterful performances, she all strong-willed, he expressively lamenting, making the piece almost an operatic scene, finely supported by the instrumental forces (violins and continuo but no viola).

Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen, TIm Mead, Louise Alder at the Wigmore Hall (Photo Arcangelo)
Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen, TIm Mead, Louise Alder at the Wigmore Hall (Photo Arcangelo)
This was a delightful programme of little gems, many rather neglected ones and it was lovely to make the acquaintance of so many lesser-known cantatas. All concerned seemed to bring a great sense of engagement, involvement and sheer joy to the proceedings.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A new record label, a new disc: I chat to Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka about bel canto and more  - interview
  • French Collection: 18th-century harpsichord music (★★★½) - CD review
  • Truly scrumptious: the choir of St George's Chapel, Windsor in music for Advent (★★★★) - concert review
  • Late-Edwardian fairytale: Stanford's The Travelling Companion  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Profoundly beautiful: Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn  - interview
  • Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa (★★★½) - CD review
  • Antonio Caldara - cantatas for bass and continuo (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Viol music: RCM International Festival of Viols - concert review
  • Naturalism and realism: Puccini's La Boheme with Natalya Romaniw and Jonathan Tetelman (★★★★) - opera review
  • A 20th-century monument: Hindemith's five brass sonatas  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Old Bones: Nico Muhly, Iestyn Davies and the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place (★★★½) - concert review
  • Storytelling in music: Kevin Puts and his opera Silent Night - interview
  • Home

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