Tuesday 29 September 2020

Abandonnata: Helen Charlston and Toby Carr in Monteverdi, Purcell, Strozzi and Owain Park

Helen Charlston and Toby Carr in rehearsal earlier this year (Photo Toby Carr)
Helen Charlston and Toby Carr
in rehearsal earlier this year (Photo Toby Carr)
- Purcell, Monteverdi, Strozzi, Park; Helen Charlston, Toby Carr; London Sound Gallery at the Grosvenor Chapel

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 September 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Intimate yet intense, a programme of abandoned women in early Italian and English music, with one contemporary visitor

London Sound Gallery is a new festival created by The Gesualdo Six. Running for two days at The Grosvenor Chapel, the festival is presenting a wide range of young artists in concert, with a small audience, and all the concerts are being recorded and will be available on-line.

On Monday 28 September 2020, mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston and theorbo player Toby Carr gave a recital entitled Abandonnata at The Grosvenor Chapel, the second event in the inaugural London Sound Gallery. The programme featured Arianna's Lament and Lamento della Ninfa by Monteverdi alongside works by Purcell and Barbara Strozzi, plus a new work by Owain Park (artistic director of the Gesualdo Six).

Whilst the programme was focussed on the myriad of abandoned women which feature in much early repertoire, the title had something of a double edge, an acknowledgement of abandoned plans including the postponement of a new song cycle on the theme of historical women by Owain Park which Charlston had been due to premiere.

Helen Charlston and Toby Carr are regular collaborators and the Grosvenor Chapel's quite intimate acoustic is ideal for hearing this type of recital, just voice and theorbo, works which were often originally intended for relatively small rooms.

We began with Purcell, two pieces which had their origins in the theatre but which lived on as solo works, I love and I must and O lead me to some peaceful gloom (Bonduca's Song). The first demonstrated the great virtues of Charlston and Carr's approach, the elegant simplicity of her rich yet straight tone supported by his sensitive accompaniment. I love and I must was rather touching, yet still Purcell uses ornamental flourishes in the vocal line which Charlston made expressive. The second work comes from Purcell's last major work, music for an adaptation of a John Fletcher play entitled Bonduca, or the British Heroine. For all the lyricism, Charlston's approach was very word centred, her diction was superb (as it was throughout the concert) and the emotions in the highly changeable music followed the words.

Next came a Monteverdi piece which, like the Purcell, started on the stage but ended up in recitals in salons. Monteverdi's opera L'Arianna was written in Mantua in 1607-8 (after L'Orfeo) and premiered at a ducal wedding in a huge temporary theatre. There may have been other performances, but the work is known to have been revived in Venice in 1639-40 (where Monteverdi would follow it up with a trio of great, late operas). Despite these performances, the music is lost and all we have of the opera is the libretto and the Lamento d'Arianna which Monteverdi published as a solo madrigal in 1623. It is a terrific piece, and benefited from the concentrated intensity that the two performers brought to it. Like the Purcell, the music is fluidly changeable, and Charlston's approach was highly dramatic, bringing out the varying emotions in the musical line, yet centred on a beautiful, intense vocal line. Plangent, with a strong onward motion, this was a terrific incarnation of one of the greatest abandoned heroines.

Carr next played a solo by Alessandro Piccinini (1566-1638), a composer who was much involved in the development of the theorbo (or chitarrone). We heard a set of variations whose gentle elegance belied the busyness of the writing.

The Venetian singer and composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) was a remarkable figure who published eight volumes of her own music. We heard La Travagliata (The Sufferer), which alternated elegantly flowing passages with faster flurrying in the depiction of a suffering lover, all sung with wonderfully expressive tone.

Owain Park's Marietta was premiered by Helen Charlston and Toby Carr at the Barbican Centre's Sound Unbound Festival earlier this year. The piece was written as a companion to Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna. The work took the form of a long, intense, dark arioso, structured using passages of bleakly expressive vocal line over a moving ground bass, punctuated by freer dramatic sections.  The text, by Georgia Way, concerned another abandoned lover but is she living or dead? Working with just voice and theorbo, Park took advantage of the intimacy of sound world, writing daringly low in Charlston's voice yet secure in the knowledge that the theorbo would provide just the right support. The result was intense and intriguing, and we wanted to know more.

Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa is a four-voiced madrigal, published in 1638 and one of the most haunting in the repertoire. It is written for soprano with two tenors and a bass providing the chorus of shepherds who introduce and comment on the lamenting nymph. Charlston and Carr were joined by three members of The Gesualdo Six, and Charlston commented that it was the first time that she had sung the work (the upper part is usually sung by a solo soprano). From the beginning this was a very word-based performance, fleet yet expressive and with some fabulous false relations. The main section of the madrigal had a terrific contrast between the plangent expressiveness of Charlston's voice and the livelier descriptive passages for the men.

We finished with Purcell, a quietly concentrated performance of his Evening Hymn, not an abandoned heroine this time but perhaps a hymn sending all of them to rest.

London Sound Gallery will be broadcast on-line from 25 October 2020, see The Gesualdo Six's website for further details.

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