For this concert the celebrated French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky chose to pair the music of Handel with that of Johann Christian Bach. The resulting contrast in the quality of music by these two masters was often startling. Handel’s genius as an operatic composer has already been acknowledged and proved to new audiences for the past decade or two. The same cannot be said of J.C. Bach. Bach was born in 1735 and was the 18th child of composer Johann Sebastian Bach and his second wife Anna Magdalena. The younger Bach’s success is easy to understand given the time in which he was active. His first opera, Artaserse (Milan 1760), was composed at a time when he did not have much competition: the ageing Hasse and Galuppi were no longer churning out opera after opera, Gluck and Jomelli, though respected and established, were often active outside Italy, and Mozart was only four years old.
Concerto Cologne, led with assurance by harpsichordist Nicolau de Figueiredo, accompanied Jaroussky in this recital. Concerto Cologne contributed three purely instrumental items to the evening. For this occasion the ensemble consisted of twenty-nine instruments and judging by tonight’s performance it is clear that their reputation is well deserved. They opened the concert with a rather fast but uninspired performance of “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”. Though oboists Andreas Helm and Diego Nadra played very lively interjections during this sinfonia, I wondered whether a sinfonia from one of Bach’s operas would not have been a more appropriate choice to start the evening. Their second contribution was Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 1 - only five of the eleven movements were performed. I dreaded this item, but after the start of the first few bars of the ouverture I was completely won over by Concerto Cologne’s exuberant and very individual interpretation. Their playing, particularly in the Air, was nothing short of magical. The phrasing and tone colours and deployment of rhythm were really unique and I consider this to have been the best item of the whole evening. Although the violin solos of Markus Hoffmann and Stephan Sänger in the first movement often left much to be desired the playing of the basses in the final Andante was breathtaking in its vibrancy and accuracy. The same can indeed be said for the natural horns. This is a very tricky instrument and players Erwin Wieringa and Kathrin Williner were astounding. The long sustained decrescendo in the Andante of the Water Suite was so skilfully executed that I nearly jumped out of my seat with excitement! The ensemble’s final contribution was a harpsichord concerto by Bach in the unusual key of F Minor. The first two movements of this piece are really first rate. The first movement in its invention and mania pointed towards Beethoven’s most advanced piano sonatas and the cantabile second movement had rapturous string writing that reminded me very strongly of Alessandro Scarlatti and Caldara. The pedestrian third movement made no impression. The soloist for this concerto was de Figueiredo who played with panache and precision. Although de Figueiredo’s solo contribution was faultless his continuo playing in the arias and other items was unexceptional. (This is particularly disappointing as de Figueiredo’s continuo playing for Jacobs’s recording of Le nozze was such a revelation that I expected more from him.)
Now to Jaroussky’s performance. I defy anyone to discuss this very talented singer without using the word beautiful to describe his angelic voice. Although Jaroussky’s voice is ideal for juvenile roles like Handel’s Adolfo in Faramondo and Oberto in Alcina, he was out of his league in the red-blooded and heroic world of Bach’s Artaserse, Temistocle, Handel’s Ariodante and Alcina. The voice, though incredibly flexible, is essentially a small, beautifully- produced lyric instrument that has a rather limited tone colour which sounded underpowered in the cavernous and unforgiving Barbican Hall.
Jaroussky first sang Bach’s ‘Vo solcando’ from Artaserse, which Metastasio called his “most fortunate child”. The role of the hapless Arbace was written for the alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni who was Gluck’s first Orfeo. Although an alto castrato, he often insisted that composers write for him in the soprano range, as for instance in the case of Artaserse. (And according to Burney he achieved variable results; in this light it can safely be assumed that the trend of mezzos switching to soprano is not something known only to our time.) The most successful setting of “Vo solcando” was by Leonardo Vinci in Rome for its premiere in 1730. (Vinci’s “Vo solcando” brought the house down when it was performed and became a party piece for sopranos, both male and female, well into the 19th century.) This version in no way challenges Vinci’s superb setting. Jaroussky’s stock gestures - which consisted of two or three movements and facial expressions - did not do the drama justice. Strangely enough in this hugely forgettable aria the B section was incredibly beautiful, and though short it was very memorable.
Jaroussky very generously treated us to three encores. None of them were announced, but judging by the words of the first, “Perche mai”, it might have been taken from Act III Scene 1 of Bach’s Artaserse. This was a lusciously scored cantabile aria with flutes adding to the warmth of the horns and the bassoon. Like all of the preceding cantabile arias it was also sung superbly. The second encore, Handel’s “Venti turbini”, which included some stunning variations in the da capo, also suffered due to the limited colour that Jaroussky was able to conjure up. It must be added that “Venti turbini” was taken at such a cracking speed that I was amazed they were able to keep it together. Unfortunately in this number the intonation become an issue, as Hoffmann’s solo violin was sub-par in both intonation and ensemble playing with the bassoon. The third and final encore of the concert was a repetition of Handel’s “Stille amare”. Although I found his ornamentation in the repeat of the A section a little over the top for this aria, it was even more beautifully sung than it was earlier on in the evening.
As a great lover of 18th century music it pains me to say this, but sometimes some music should remain forgotten. For a start, this music was intended for a specific performer to show off their strengths, and, I suspect, hide their weaknesses. In addition, Bach’s music, though considered first rate in its day, has not withstood the test of time with its unmemorable melodies, unspectacular vocal writing and predictable harmonies which often make it sound like uninspired Mozart. Indeed it is known that Mozart met Bach in London and idolised him. This admiration was sincere and two of Mozart’s most famous arias were probably inspired by arias of Bach: “Lungi da te” (Mitridate; Milan 1770) by “Cara, la dolce fiamma” (Adriano in Siria; London 1765) and the scale of the coloratura and instrumentation of “Martern aller Arten” (Die Entführung; Vienna 1782) by “Invan m’affanno” (La clemenza di Scipione; London 1778). Of the three or four operas of Bach that I’ve heard, the strongest one is Alessandro nell’Indie and none of its music made it into the recital.
I was left somewhat disappointed by Jaroussky’s singing, as there is surely more to this music than a mere display of beautiful sound. All of the heroic arias - Handel’s “Sta nell’ Ircana”, with horns also ornamenting the da capo, and Bach’s “Ch’io parta” - suffered in this way as they all lacked real vocal heroic swagger and bravura. On the other hand Jaroussky’s interpretation of the cantabile arias - Handel’s “Stille Amare”, Bach’s “Fra l’orrore” and “Cara la dolce fiamma” - which do not require force or heroic conviction, were sung with just the right touch of tenderness and dramatic conviction. In hindsight a recital like this may have been more accessible if performed with a smaller ensemble and in a smaller venue. Although a very strong case was made by Jaroussky and Concerto Cologne, I regret that the music of Bach is unlikely to enjoy a renaissance in the same way that Handel’s did. It also became clear that to revive music like this the talents of a male soprano are required, and one who not only possesses a more sizable and heroic voice, but also more finely honed dramatic instincts.
Many of the arias which were performed in this concert appear on Jaroussky’s CD “La dolce fiamma” which has just been released by EMI Classics.