30 Jul 2019

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall (2): A Barbara Strozzi celebration

This lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Venetian singer, composer and poet, Barbara Strozzi, but it might equally have been announced as a tribute to the musical form which underpinned so much of the exquisite invention and rhetoric during Strozzi’s era - the circular bass pattern of the ground, chaconne and passacaglia.

And, it was with a ground bass - a descending four-note chaconne - that we started, the delicate whispers of Monica Pustilnik’s archlute and Quito Gato’s theorbo articulating the opening bars of Strozzi’s, ‘L’amante segreto’, as the musicians of Cappella Mediterranea processed slowly onto the Cadogan Hall stage. The texture gently expanded, rustling chords and soft ornament filling out the hypnotic revolving circles of the bass line, in anticipation of the singer’s lament. With the accompaniment still a pianissimo elaboration, Mariana Flores entered from the opposite side of the Hall, slowly, with gravity, taking her place at the centre of the ensemble, her figure poised but her head bowed, seemingly physically burdened by the pain of unrequited love.

“Voglio morire”: I want to die. The opening line, derived from the bass and recurring throughout the madrigal, was a wisp of sound, clear but gossamer, a melancholic fall. Later Flores would reiterate this intent in more florid fashion, her yearning deepened by the dissonant pungency of clashing semitones and the darkness of director Leonardo García Alarcón’s weighty organ. The journey to such expressive peaks was a masterpiece of vocal and textual expression - from both Flores and Strozzi. The melody is intensely rhetorical, its curves and twists now fluid, then halting, and the Argentinian soprano controlled the contour of the line with exquisite subtlety. The long melismas quivered with feeling, then flowed in creative outpourings of emotion in a quasi-improvisatory fashion; and this improvisatory quality became more prominent with recorder player Roderigo Calveyra’s elaborations which injected pace and passion when the poet-singer finds new strength, rising from her frozen winter into a greener spring. At times, the disturbance created by sudden shifts in tempo and changes of metre gave way to the stillness of a monody which was rapturously communicative.

This mesmerising opening set the tone for the recital which was notable for its sustained intensity, deep sentiment and consummate musicianship. Propelled similarly by a bass ostinato, Strozzi’s ‘Che si può fare’ adds a prominent and dark-coloured viola da gamba to the piquant dissonances of harp (Marie Bournisien), archlute and guitar, and Margaux Blanchard’s low countermelody engaged with the vocal line with fluency and eloquence, matching the flexibility and inventiveness of Flores’ flowing line. Countering the wistfulness of hopeless reflections - “Che si può fare?”, “Che si può dire?” (What can anyone do?, What can anyone say?) - were Calveyra’s inter-verse cornett songs, played with a wonderful fullness and warmth that got inside one’s skin in the best possible way. But, despair turned to rebelliousness and resolve at the close. Flores imbued her voice with strength and a hint of flamboyance: the final cadence came suddenly, with a parting flourish like a vocal stamp of the foot.

‘Sino all morte’ is a longer, free-flowing cantata from Strozzi’s Diporte di Euterpe (The Pleasures of Euterpe). Published in 1659, its dedication to the future Doge Nicolo Sagredo described the contents as ‘lingue dell’ Anima ed istrumente del core ... come Sirene entro mari di Gratie’ (language of the soul and instruments of the heart ... like Sirens among a sea of Graces). Operatic in scale and passion, ‘Sino alla morte’ reflects on love consummated, unrequited, denied and destroyed, and Flores negotiated the sudden changes of mood and style, from impassioned elaboration to controlled declamation as superbly as she delivered the ever more complex fioritura, relishing its unpredictability. Similarly, in ‘Lagrime mie’ she exploited every melodic angularity, piquant chromaticism and fragmentation of the text to communicate the distress of the poet-speaker whose beloved Lidia has been imprisoned by her father. The sequences built a compelling dynamism, voice and bass intertwined beautifully, and every ounce of the lament’s meaning and feeling was brought forth with exquisite delicacy.

We also heard works by Strozzi’s younger Venetian compatriot, Antonia Bembo, who left Italy for France. There she gained the patronage of King Louis XIV who rewarded her with a pension which allowed her to stay in the community of Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle before moving to what she called a ‘holy refuge’ - the community of the Petite Union Chrétienne des Dames de Saint Chaumond. A dedicatory letter to her royal patron introduces Bembo’s collection of vocal pieces, Produzioni armoniche, a varied set of pieces which were intended for both sacred and secular performance. At the start of the aria ‘M’ingannasti in verità’, the harpsichord was restless and agitated, burning with betrayal, and Flores’ vocal line seemed to turn around and around on itself in bitterness. An elaborate, spirited recorder interlude whipped up the fury of the second stanza, where the rapid virtuosities flashed with fiery anger as the voice climbed ever higher. “Brava!” cried one delighted audience member above the applause. Calveyra displayed equal virtuosity in Bembo’s ‘Volgete altrove il guardo’ in which the vocal line was transcribed for recorder, playing with uneffusive calm but creating diverse colours, infectious energy and sunshine happiness at the close.

Both Strozzi and Bembo were taught by Francesco Cavalli and the latter’s ‘E vuol dunque Ciprigna’ allowed Flores to demonstrate her rhetorical skills, as she flew through the dramatic recitative communicating the rich sounds of the texts with precision and power, accompanied by unpredictable, sometimes almost violent, textures and harmonies.

This was an outstanding demonstration of the expressive union of words and music achieved by Strozzi and her contemporaries. Might Cappella Mediterranea have occasionally loosened the rhythmic strings a little and found rather more freedom to balance the earnestness? Might Flores have sought some of the irony in Strozzi’s texts, to counter the passion with a little playfulness? Perhaps. But, Flores sang with a boldness that was surely the equal of Strozzi’s own. And, we certainly experienced the ‘language of the soul and instruments of the heart’.

Claire Seymour

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 2: A Celebration of Barbara Strozzi

Mariana Flores (soprano), Leonardo García Alarcón (harpsichord/organ/director), Cappella Mediterranea

Barbara Strozzi - ‘L’amante segreto’, Antonia Bembo - Produzioni armoniche: ‘M’ingannasti in verità’, Strozzi - ‘Che si può fare’, Bembo - Produzioni armoniche: ‘Volgete altrove il guardo’, Strozzi - ‘Sino alla morte’, Francesco Cavalli - Ercole amante: ‘E vuol dunque Ciprigna’, Strozzi - ‘Lagrime mie’

Cadogan Hall, London; Monday 29th July 2019.