Sunday 13 February 2022

A programme of lesser known 18th century arias demonstrates just how much music we are missing

Jakub Jozef Orlinski (Photo Jiyang Chen)
Jakub Jozef Orlinski (Photo Jiyang Chen)

Janez Krsnik Tolar, Georg Reutter, Antonio Lotti, Nicola Conti, Francisco Antonio de Almeida, Baldassare Galuppi, Gaetano Maria Schiassi, Bartolomeo Nucci, Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello, Johann Joseph Fux, David Perez, Handel; Jakub Józef Orliński, Il Pomo d'Oro, Francesco Corti; Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Hot from his triumphs in Handel's Theodora at Covent Garden, the Polish countertenor devastates and dazzles in a programme of music by Handel's lesser known contemporaries.

I think we sometimes forget quite how much music was created in the 18th century. Great swathes have been lost, but much survives. Composers were largely local men, and texts would be pass around, taking different settings in each town. There are composers whose reputation nowadays rests on a single piece, if that. This is something of the back story to counter-tenor Jakub Józef Orliński's recital on Thursday 10 February 2022 at Wigmore Hall with Il Pomo d'Oro, conductor Francesco Corti. It was a programme of instrumental items and arias by composers many of whom who were often merely names, Janez Krsnik Tolar, Georg Reutter, Antonio Lotti, Nicola Conti, Francisco Antonio de Almeida, Baldassare Galuppi, Gaetano Maria Schiassi, Bartolomeo Nucci, Antonio Vivaldi, Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello, Johann Joseph Fux, David Perez and one George Frideric Handel.

It has to be admitted that for many of the pieces, it was the sound of the music, the composer's invention and Orliński's performance which came to the fore, rather than the composer's interpretation of the text. For many of these composers, showing off the soloist's voice came high on the list of requirements. Many of the arias in the programme were stunningly virtuosic, and not all managed to capture the emotion behind the text. Yet this was an engaging window onto a world which is often forgotten. Whilst we might not necessarily want to listen to, say, Fux's oratorio Il fonte della salute aperto dalla grazia nel Calvario every day, getting to sample one of the stunning arias was pure delight.

We began in the 17th century with the Czech Jesuit priest and composer Janez Krstnik Tolar (c1620-1673) whose manuscripts lay undiscovered until recently. His Balletto a4 No. 1 took us back to the world of Cavalli and his dance music for his operas. 

Then came the aria by Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) from his large-scale oratorio  Il fonte della salute written in 1716, four years after he became choirmaster of St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. The aria was stunning, featuring a highly extended and expressive viola solo (from Giulio d'Alessio), voice and instrument tended to intertwine into something highly affecting. Antonio Lotti (1666-1740) is one of those one-work names, though a 2016 disc from the Syred Consort and Ben Palmer on Dephian showed that there was a great deal more to him [see my review]. We heard his aria Proh quantae sung in orbe strage which proved to be engagingly perky and up-tempo with a rhythmic snap to it, despite the text bewailing the slaughter in the world! 

Nicola Conti (fl1733-1754) worked in the Royal Chapel in Naples and wrote many operas, all lost. His setting of the prayer Salve sis had a vivid and strenuous orchestral introduction leading to a spectacular bravura vocal part whose perkiness belied the prayerful text. Francesco Antonio de Almeida (fl1722-52)  was Portuguese though his oratorio Giuditta was staged in Rome in 1726. We heard an aria from it, gentle and plangent but with the voice describing elegant curlicues over slower moving accompaniment. Mesmerising.

Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785), perhaps as well known for his occurrence in the Browning poem as for his music, was a pupil of Lotti. His instrumental Concerto a 4 was an early work, yet it moved from the affecting to the engaging and there was a sense of real personality in the playing. The first half ended with an aria by Gaetano Maria Schiassi from Bologna where his oratorio Maria Vergine al Calvario was staged in 1735, but by then Schiassi had left to serve in the Royal Chapel in Lisbon. This was another vigorous, vivid piece, full of bravura moments; a showpiece, rather than an exploration of the grieving mother, but what a showpiece it was!

After the interval it was the turn of Bartolomeo Nucci (1695-1779) and his oratorio Il David trionfante.  Nucci seems to have been a castrato and his archive is also a recent discovery. The aria was elegant, almost galant in style, and Orlinski was plangently expressive in the elaborate vocal line which wound its way over the throbbing accompaniment.  Antonio Vivaldi's Beatus Vir was commissioned in 1739 for his former employer, the Ospedale della Pieta. We heard a short aria which alternated vividly between expressive calm and outrageously fast passagework, a tour-de-force indeed.

Giuseppe Antonion Brescianello (c1690-1758) was a Venetian composer who worked in Munich and Stuttgart. His instrumental Chaconne in A created a rich sound-world with the players bringing a delightful bounce to the rhythms, creating some lovely imaginative textures.

George Reutter (1708-1772) was another choirmaster at St Stephen's in Vienna and his La Betulia Liberata (Metastasio's take on the Judith story) was premiered in 1734.  The aria was graceful and fleet, and of course with lots of delightful twiddly bits in the voice. David Perez (1711-1778) was another Neapolitan composer and here we heard a short movement form his Mass a5, strong rhythms from the instruments and an outrageous vocal part. Bravura indeed.

We ended with Handel's Amen, Alleluia written in the 1730s, presumably for one of his favoured soloists, and here performed with just organ and continuo. Whilst it didn't knock all the other music into a cocked hat, it did show how Handel, even setting just two words, could write a rattling good tune which still had emotional depth to it.

Orliński seemed to relish the challenges provided by the music, singing that was by turns plangently expressive and brilliantly bravura. Throughout he was partnered by Il Pomo d'Oro with great style, the group forming a flexible ensemble and creating a real sense of engagement in the music.

Unsurprisingly, there is an album to go with the concert Anima Aeterna from Warner Classics which covers much of the same repertoire. And faced with such engagingly stylish singing and playing, and devastating virtuosity along with terrific good humour, many people will want to have a take home! And the near capacity audience was highly appreciative and we were treated to three encores.

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