This is the second baroque-jazz gig I’ve covered recently at Wigmore Hall; in February I was wowed by Magdalena Kozena’s recital of Lettere amorose, where the informal atmosphere and segued canzone and instrumentals caught me off-guard and resulted in a five-star appraisal. This time, here was another starry soloist in Philippe Jaroussky, backed by a classy ensemble in L’Arpeggiata, with a programme without interval sharing a title with a recent CD release. Would I succumb once more?
There was the same easy atmosphere of singer and band comfortable in each other’s presence. Christina Pluhar, in an absorbing programme note, discusses the importance of ostinato bass lines, artistic freedom and improvisation in interpretation. This is a far cry from the astringent straitjacket of the ‘historically-informed’ period instrument movement of some thirty years ago and I can imagine a few raised eyebrows at the results here, for many of those walking bass lines took on a distinctly jazzy gait, while many of the instrumental numbers allowed individual players to improvise solos. How much of this was really improvised only the musicians themselves will know, but they sounded slickly rehearsed, whilst retaining a sense of fun and exploration.
Unlike Lettere amorose, the programme of which was largely a reprisal of the CD, Teatro d’amore went beyond the disc, which was solely Monteverdi, to explore other composers of the period in a sequence of vocal and instrumental numbers. Indeed, only two items from the disc appeared in this recital, while two items also featured in Kozena’s performance: Barbara Strozzi’s L’Eraclito amoroso and Monteverdi’s Si dolce è ’l tormento, providing opportunities for direct comparisons.
Despite the improvisatory nature of much of the music-making, Jaroussky’s performance was the model of poise and control. His is the most vocally pure counter-tenor voice before the public today, lyrical and quite feminine in tone, without any hint of a hoot. Long-breathed florid phrases seem to flow naturally from him, his characterization quite often understated; this in direct contrast to Kozena’s sometimes effortful vocal production, yet her singing is frequently more involving, conveying the text more meaningfully. It didn’t help that he relied on a small, bound book for the texts (and score?), while Kozena went without. Jaroussky’s coloratura is infinitely stronger, however, and the confident way in which he tossed off such vocal pyrotechnics was stunning, especially in Giovanni Felice Sances’ Presso l’onde tranquillo.
At his most moving in Arnalta’s ‘Oblivion soave’ from L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Jaroussky caressed the long phrases with simple, unaffected tone. Another Monteverdi piece, Ohimé ch’io cado – a Jaroussky speciality – found his performance somewhat restrained, leading me to predict it would be reprised more extrovertly as an encore. I was proved correct, Jaroussky sparring with cornett player Doron Sherwin, who brazenly interpolated the Rondo à la turca, the Sabre Dance and the theme from Mission Impossible in his interjections to bring the House down! Sherwin’s playing was one of the highlights of the evening, partly through marvelling at how eloquent a sound can be produced from what looks such a primitive instrument.
As we were between Good Friday and Easter, Sances’ Stabat Mater and Monteverdi’s Laudate Dominum were appropriate choices to end the evening, the setting of Psalm 150 allowing the players of L’Arpeggiata a final opportunity to shine as the invitation to praise the Lord on a variety of instruments was eagerly seized, particularly by Elisabeth Seitz on psaltery.
The instrumental interludes were deliciously performed, led from the theorbo by Christina Pluhar, from the opening Toccata to Maurizio Cazzati’s Ciaccona, with cool pizzicato double bass solo from Boris Schmidt. A traditional Neopolitan tarantella recalled a favourite L’Arpeggiata album, replete with virtuosic castanets courtesy of David Mayoral, whose excellent playing also contributed to Private Musicke’s performance in Kozena’s recital. Each piece allowed the players the chance to shine, taking turns to step forward into the spotlight, adding to the feel that we were listening in on a jam session. Soler’s Fandango, initially dominated by Sarah Ridy’s harp, gained a distinctly Moorish flavour with drums featuring heavily. Veronika Skuplik’s violin solo in Kapsberger’s L’Arpeggiata was another delight.
One or two of the segues didn’t work especially well, the crashing percussion to the start of Damigella, tutta bella rather ruining the resigned mood created in Si dolce è ’l tormento, but this was a minor quibble. The adoring audience was clearly delighted, caught under Jaroussky’s spell, earning a Piazzolla encore along with the Monteverdi reprise. All in all, this was a wonderful evening’s entertainment.