Tuesday 2 January 2024

William Christie & Les Arts Florissants celebrate New Year's Eve at Wigmore Hall in fine style with Hugh Cutting & Carlo Vistoli

Antonio Caldara
Antonio Caldara

Monteverdi, Steffani, Fontana, Caldara, Vivaldi, Bononcini, Handel; Hugh Cutting, Carlo Vistoli, Les Arts Florissants, William Christie; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 31 December 2023

One of those evenings where the performers sheer delight in the music carried you away; Les Arts Flo in a delightful sequence of Italian Baroque duets and solo cantatas

The Wigmore Hall ended the year in fine style with a concert of 17th and 18th century Italian duets from Les Arts Florissants. William Christie directed from harpsichord and organ with Emmanuel Resche-Caserta and Augusta McKay Lodge, violins, and Cyril Poulet, cello, with countertenors Hugh Cutting and Carlo Vistoli. The programme included duets by Monteverdi, Agostino Steffani, Giovanni Bononcini, Handel and Vivaldi, along with solo cantatas by Antonio Caldara and Vivaldi, and instrumental music by Giovanni Battista Fontana, Vivaldi and Caldara.

We began with one of Monteverdi's Scherzi Musicali, the duet Damigella tutta bella published in 1607, a delightfully perky and distinctly skittish dance. Then came the duet Aita fortuna from the opera La Iotta de'Hercole con Acheloo from 1689 by Agostino Steffani (who was based in Hannover for part of his career and was helpful to Handel), a graceful rather courtly piece yet still with a sense of dance to it. Little is known about Giovanni Battista Fontana. His Sonata settima a doi violini comes from a posthumous publication, and focused on the two violins whose sober, evocative performance at the beginning developed into music of increasing virtuosity. We then returned to Steffani for one of his chamber duets, Pria ch'io faccia which featured the two soloists and continuo. No characterisation here, just two voices intertwining in a highly civilised manner, highly suitable for two princesses to sing, perhaps written for the Hannoverian court (Handel did the same).

Antonio Caldara spent much of his working life in the service of the Emperor in Vienna. His alto cantata Medea in Corinto sets an Italian text by Paolo Rolli, sometime Italian tutor to Queen Caroline (wife of George II) and author of libretti for Handel. In the cantata, Medea is upbraiding Jason in a series of arias and recitatives. Here sung by Carlo Vistoli, the work proved a vividly dramatic sequence beginning with striking recitative, vibrantly delivered. A series of arias, by turns graceful and touching, full of lively excitement and fast and vivid, took Medea through a range of emotions and enabled the soloist to display their merit, which Vistoli did in spades. Always emphasising the words, this was a finely dramatic performance, and the ending with a striking accompanied recitative leading to the final aria with its elaborate ornament and outrageous cadence effectively brought the house down.

Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in G minor (published in 1705) followed, a series of contrasting movements by turns slow, toe tapping, intense, and perky ending with a robust gavotte.

The emotional temperature calmed somewhat with the next item, a chamber duet Sempre piango by Giovanni Bononcini. Bononcini was very much a rival to Handel in the early days of the Royal Academy in London, but a scandal whereby he was accused of plagiarism rather counted against him. The duet proved to be more complex than usual, featuring two pastoral characters with a sequence of duets and recitative. The opening duet was lovely and rather imaginatively structured, and throughout Bononcini was quite free with the way he structured aria and recitative, including a wonderfully vigorous duet and a final one where the two voices intertwined in an intense manner.

A solo for Hugh Cutting came next, Vivaldi's cantata Cessate, omai cessate. After a dramatic recitative, the first aria featured lovely textures but alongside the elegance, Cutting also made the words count, made the aria mean something as drama and brought a wide range of colours to the performance. The second aria was fast and vivid, though I was slightly disturbed by his descending into baritone range for effect. More Caldara came next, a graceful Ciaccona that had a graceful sense of slow build to it.

Handel's chamber duet Caro autor di mia doglia dates from the 1740s, but is based on music he wrote in Italy. It featured two voices intertwining over a busy cello line, creating textures that felt immediately familiar. The middle section featured elaborate sighing from the singers and it ended in a delightfully showy manner. We ended with a duet from Vivaldi's 1725 serenata Gloria e Imeneo. In braccio dei contenti proved to be a perky delight.

A packed Wigmore Hall audience was highly enthusiastic and we were rewarded with an encore, Purcell's Sound the Trumpet.

This was one of those evenings where the performers sheer delight in the music carried you away so that the enjoyment of those on and off the platform was palpable.

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