05 Mar 2013

Bernarda Fink and the Italian Baroque

Argentinean mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink continued her series residency at the Wigmore Hall with an unusual programme of Italian baroque works, partnered by the Academy of Ancient Music, led by violinist Rodolfo Richter.

From the very first tumbling triplet cascades of Veracini’s Overture No.6 in G Minor it was apparent that the AAM would present a performance notable for its remarkable instrumental ensemble, dazzling clarity of articulation and supple rhythmic agility. Richter’s stage manner may be characterised by modest diffidence, but there is a discreet and impressive assurance about his leadership, a barely discernible glance or subtle gesture sufficient to ensure ensemble entries are crisp and precise, and tempi are intuitively sensed by all.

Blending pleasingly into a cohesive, sweet tone, the string players, oboists and theorbo player found much diversity of colour in Veracini’s varied score, the aching harmonic piquancies of the Largo giving way to vigorous polyphonic dialogue in the subsequent Allegro. In the rumbustious bucolic Minuet which concludes the overture, the players found a surprising dynamism in the almost exclusively single-part texture, deftly shaping the robust, spritely melodic line.

Titled ‘Italian Passions’, this programme set out to explore “the extremes of human emotion and the open-hearted Italian spirit”. Bernarda Fink’s moving, almost operatic performance of Tarquinio Merula’s idiosyncratic lullaby-chaconne, ‘Hor ch’è tempo di dormire’, certainly presented a contrast to the bright buoyancy of Veracini. Above a sinister rocking ostinato, which perhaps intimated the disturbed cries of the restless child, Fink affectingly enacted Mary’s tender but urgent coaxing as she tries to lull the baby Jesus to sleep. She drew every expressive nuance from the melody; her deepest register was modulated with particular beauty and power to convey the mother’s anguished warnings of the sufferings to come — her distress deepened by the dry, insistent repetitions of Elizabeth Kenny’s theorbo. Fink’s instinctive engagement with the text, complemented by the range of colour and the flexibility of her voice enabled her to tell the tale with fluency and naturalness. In the final two verses, with their recitative-like melody, she found a stillness and repose as the mother vows to “watch o’er my love/ And remain with bowed head/ So long as my child sleeps”.

After Merula’s deeply emotionally lament, ‘Sovvente il sole’ from Vivaldi’s serenata Andromeda liberate depicted a melancholy lover’s out-pouring of unrequited passion. Vivaldi’s dissonant inflections were richly enjoyed by the strings above which Fink’s pure mezzo tone and Richter’s delicate solo violin traceries entwined in perfectly controlled long, flowing phrases.

The aria was enclosed between two fleet-footed violin concertos by Vivaldi, ‘L’amoroso’ and ‘L’inquietudine’. In the lilting first movement of the former, Richter’s bow caressed the strings with sensuous gentleness, and soloists and ensemble combined exuberance and refinement in the concluding Allegro. ‘L’inquietudine’ evinced some technically impressive passage work, Richter’s semiquavers ever swift and light, the running lines full of character and élan.

After the interval, the strings were re-joined by the two oboists, Frank de Bruine and Lars Henriksson, for a rendition of Albinioni’s Concerto in C major for two oboes Op.9 No.9 which celebrated the composer’s rich, joyful melodic vein.

The concluding work, Il Pianto di Maria by Giovanni Battisti Ferrandini, was long attributed to Handel; Fink and the AAM demonstrated what a formidable and compelling work this 8-movement cantata is, the sacred text — drawn from both the Stabat mater and scenes depicting the Crucifixion — delivered with a theatricality and direct impact more typical of opera seria than of devotional compositions.

This is another portrait of a mother’s love and suffering for her son, and again Fink’s expressive immediacy was striking. In the opening recitative, her pained cry — “ah ciel!” — as Mary watches the “hideous tragedy” of Calvary unfold, was redolent with distress and the “immense bitterness of her torment”. Fink convincingly negotiated the rapid changes of emotion, moving from sobriety to passion, from agony to defiance. The final da capo aria had a quiet beauty and sober power as the mother reflects, “For his death took away/ The awareness of his pain”.

The playing of the AAM strings was stylish: the arching melodic contours were elegantly shaped, and the passages of close counterpoint and dialogue full of grace. The players were alert to the emotive nuances of the frequent chains of dissonance, and to the pictorial effects achieved by Ferrandini in the accompanied recitatives — as, for example, in the third movements where sharp stabbing gestures suggest Christ’s agony, “Lashed by scourges,/ Pierced by thorns,/ Wounded by nails”; or when the turbulence of the “[t]here universals earthquakes” decreed by God to mark the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Last Judgement are portrayed by agitated string passages reminiscent of Monteverdi’s stile concitato idiom.

The final, brief, and inconclusive, recitative, with its moralising dictum, “Tremble, man, you too, who are earth!” was shocking and disturbing. It is hard to imagine a more intense, impassioned portrayal of a mother’s adoration and anguish.

Claire Seymour


Veracini Overture in G minor; Merula Aria: Hor ch’è tempo di dormire; Vivaldi Concerto in E for violin RV271 ‘L’amoroso’, Aria: Sovvente il sole from Andromeda liberate, Concerto in D for violin RV234 ‘L’inquietudine’; Albinoni Concerto in C Op. 9 No. 9; Ferrandini Cantata: Il pianto di Maria. Academy of Ancient Music. Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano. Rodolfo Richter, director, violin. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday, 25th February 2013.