Wednesday 13 September 2023

From Purcell and Handel to Ignatius Sancho and Duke Ellington: American countertenor Reginald Mobley at Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival

Christine Plubeau, Violaine Cochard, Reginald Mobley - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo Bayreuth.Media)
Christine Plubeau, Violaine Cochard, Reginald Mobley - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo Bayreuth.Media)

Purcell, Handel, Ignatius Sancho; Reginald Mobley, Violaine Cochard, Christine Plubeau; Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival at the Schlosskirche, Bayreuth
9 September 2023

Dramatically engaging Handel cantatas alongside discoveries of music by Ignatius Sancho, plus Duke Ellington meets notes inégales

The American countertenor Reginald Mobley made his German debut at a concert on Saturday 9 September 2023 in the restrained 18th-century splendour of the Schlosskirche in Bayreuth as part of the Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival. Mobley was joined by harpsichordist Violaine Cochard and viola da gamba player Christine Plubeau for a programme of music by Purcell, Handel and Ignatius Sancho. The three performers performed the same programme earlier this year, when Reginald Mobley made his solo debut in Paris.

We began with Purcell's O Solitude, taken at quite a steady tempo. Mobley was warmly expressive, making much of the words yet providing a richer coloured sound than is often found in this repertoire, with an intriguing expressive use of the change between middle and chest registers. Crown the altar from Celebrate this Festival Z 321 (the 1693 birthday ode for Queen Mary) was lively with the accompaniment bringing out the French influence in Purcell's music, over which Mobley's voice flowed with an easy fluidity. Here the deities approve from Welcome to all the pleasure Z 339 (the 1683 ode to St Cecilia) was poised and strong, followed by a solo piece for the instrumentalists with a singing viola da gamba line leading to imaginative divisions.

Tis natures voice from Hail! Bright Cecilia Z 328 (the 1692 ode to St Cecilia) featured a lovely freedom to the more rhapsodic elements whilst in Music for a while, Mobley combined poise and control with beautiful tone whilst Cochard and Plubeau again brought out the French cast to Purcell's music.

Next followed a pair of Handel's cantatas for voice and basso continuo, both written for Handel's patrons during his youthful Italian sojourn. And it was a pleasure to hear two relatively rarely performed works, especially as Mobley seemed to come alive projecting the drama of each of these mini-operas. The first, Fra pensieri quel pensiero HWV 115 (from 1707/8) setting an anonymous text, featured a pair of arias separated by recitative, all focusing on the poet's wish for his thoughts to fly and find his love, Clori. The first aria was an engaging dance, delightfully full of character, followed by expressively fluid recitative leading to the second aria. Here the busy viola da gamba contrasted with the fluid elegance of Mobley's vocal line, yet always full of character too.

A pair of harpsichord solos followed, the first an elegant singing line over a throbbing accompaniment, the second an elegantly moving right hand over a ground bass. These gave us a chance to properly appreciate the lovely mellow, melodic harpsichord sound.

Handel's cantata Vedendo Amor HWV 175 (from 1707/8) is a more extended piece, setting an anonymous text with three arias and linking recitative about the poet being caught by Cupid. A lyrical recitative led to a rather affecting aria with a singing viola da gamba line complementing Mobley's quite direct delivery. The subsequent linking recitative, where Mobley delivered a significant amount of text deftly, speedily and communicatively, was followed by an aria that we recognised. Handel used his Italian cantatas as source material for later works, so here, the second aria about being hunted by Cupid was later transformed into Cesare's 'Va tacito e nascosto' from Giulio Cesare, and here the viola da gamba took what became the solo horn part. A dramatic recitative led to the final, engaging aria with a very active gamba part. But that wasn't the end, there was a final recitative with a nice sting in the tail. This was far more than an academic exercise, with all three musicians conveying their delight in Handel's mini-operatic drama.

Reginald Mobley gave the audience a brief introduction to the the 18th-century composer Ignatius Sancho, a remarkable man who moved from being born in slavery to owning a shop and thus becoming the first Black person to vote in a British parliamentary election. Sancho also published volumes of songs and Mobley commented that he felt it important to share the work of someone, amongst all those great musicians, who happened to look like him.

We began with The Complaint, setting Shakespeare, an appealing account of an engaging song reminiscent of the sound world of Haydn's English canzonets. One could not but enjoy Sancho's melodic facility and his deft word setting. Friendship is the source of joy, setting an anonymous text, came next, rather folksong like with an engaging directness yet far more than a simple song. Sancho's setting of Francis Fawkes' translation of Anacreon Ode XXIII was pleasantly lilting and almost like a Scots song. We ended with Sweetest Bard, setting text by David Garrick, an engagingly lively dance that again had a Scots feel to it.

Christine Plubeau, Violaine Cochard, Reginald Mobley - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo Bayreuth.Media)
Christine Plubeau, Violaine Cochard, Reginald Mobley - Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival (Photo Bayreuth.Media)

The audience response was warm and we were rewarded with two encores. For the first, they performed what Reginald Mobley described as American royalty, Duke Ellington's In my solitude. Best described as Ellington meets notes inégales, the three made deeply affecting music. This performance threw Reginald Mobley's voice into focus, his vocal style felt completely natural here, giving some background to his expressive world. We ended with a beautifully intimate account of Purcell's Evening Hymn.

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