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Performances

Angelika Kirchschlager [Photo © Nikolaus Karlinsky courtesy of Askonas Holt]
09 Jul 2012

‘Ancient & Modern’ with Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge

Ian Bostridge’s thought-provoking ‘Ancient and Modern’ project at the Wigmore Hall is drawing to a close and this penultimate instalment brought together Renaissance sensuality and Neo-classical restraint in a meticulously executed performance.

‘Ancient & Modern’ with Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge

Angelika Kirchschlager: mezzo-soprano; Ian Bostridge: tenor. The English Concert. Harry Bicket: director, harpsichord. Julia Doyle: soprano; Rebecca Outram: soprano; Caroline Trevor: contralto; Matthew Long: tenor. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 7th July 2012.

Above: Angelika Kirchschlager [Photo © Nikolaus Karlinsky courtesy of Askonas Holt]

 

Yet, despite the indisputable musical finesse and sensitivity to the text of all involved, the end result lacked a certain frisson: a little more unpredictability or even capriciousness might have heightened the emotional and dramatic impact.

Claudio Monteverdi moved to Venice in 1613, to take up the position of maestro di capella at St. Mark’s. Although he continued to provide music until the early 1620s for his former employer, Duke Gonzaga of Mantua, the composer now found himself no longer an Italian prince’s private ‘servant’ but rather a freelance musician who could accept commissions in and out of Venice, and he found a ready market for concertante style works, combining voices and instruments, which provided popular entertainment at musical evenings in the homes of the city’s wealthy elite.

The seventh of Monteverdi’s eight books of madrigals, published in 1619, contains a miscellany of such concertante pieces, madrigals ‘proper’ and other types of song. ‘Tempro La Cetra’ (‘I temper my lyre’) is a setting of a sensual sonnet by Giambattisto Marino in which the singer initially declares that he has come to praise Mars, the god of war, but then finds himself distracted by thoughts of Love. It is essentially a strophic aria recalling the formal model of the Prologue to Orfeo: following an introductory sinfonia, the four verses are supported by a repeating bass pattern with slight variations, and a ritornello à 5 drawn from the opening of the sinfonia is interspersed between the verses.

As might be expected, Ian Bostridge was typically attentive to the composer’s response to the nuances of the text, finding sweetness, frustration, assertion, imperiousness and rejoicing in Marino’s Petrarchianisms, and communicating these sentiments through a rich palette of vocal colours. Moreover, he crafted the increasingly ornate expressive decorations with fluency and naturalness, perfectly complementing Marino’s evolving extended metaphors. The players of the English Concert brought energy and joy to the concluding dance passage, confirming the singer’s elated celebration of Love.

Thematically and stylistically ‘Tempro La Cetra’ is certainly a fitting preface to ‘Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda’, a through-composed dramatic work published in 1638 in Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals, Madrigali guerrieri, et amorosi. ‘Combattimento’ was included among the warlike numbers but had in fact been commissioned by wealthy Venetian, Girolamo Mocinego, in the 1620s for the marriage of his daughter in 1624, thus underlining the metaphoric relationship between war and love. It presents — “in genere rappresentativo” — an episode from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberate recounting a military encounter between the crusading Tancredi and his former inamorata, the Saracen Clorinda, whom he does not recognise in her battle armour and whom he slays, her dying words being a request the he might say a Christian prayer for her soul.

Monteverdi prefaced the work not only with very precise instructions as to how the work should be performed — the two combatants are armed, Tancredi arrives on horseback, the conflict is to be depicted in gesture and movement which corresponds to the text — but also with an account of his own aesthetics: that is, his desire to depict all three of the ‘passions of the mind’ — anger (musically to be conveyed through agitation), temperance (softness) and humility (moderation), the first of these, so he believed, never before having been satisfactorily embodied in music.

This imitative ambition was to be achieved primarily through rhythm and articulation; it was not merely the emotions of conflict but also the real hostilities of war which were to be depicted. The string players of the English Concert proved adept at responding to the rapidly changing emotions of the text and conveying the precise pictorial gestures in the score — the clacking trot of the horses’ hooves, the stinging pizzicato clashes of the combatants’ swords, the triadic fanfare flourishes. With controlled, detailed ensemble playing, the spontaneity of battle was evoked by sudden changes of dynamic and abrupt transitions from agitation to calm.

There were no horses or battle-dress on the Wigmore Hall platform, but even with such accoutrements the work is far from operatic and, given that the action is in effect related rather than enacted, it is not even very dramatic. The Narrator, accompanied principally by the continuo alone, recites events in a largely declamatory style; here Bostridge and Kirchschlager shared the role, a rather odd decision given that essentially it is the Narrator who unites the various elements, binding together the instrumental commentary and the direct speech of the two protagonists. However, despite the rather restricted melodic range and almost total absence of coloratura, both Bostridge and Kirchschlager proved equally penetrating in using emphasis and pronunciation to observe the passions of the text. Kirchschlager’s rich mezzo is not ideally suited to this repertoire, but her intense, burnished lower register did bring urgency to the conclusion of the tale; the more expansive melodic contours of the passage depicting night — “who has hidden in her dark breast/ and consigned to oblivion this magnificent action, memorable deed, worthy of the dazzling sun,/ worthy of the great stage” — were expressively crafted. One problem of the work is that the direct speech for the sparring pair is rather brief, and thus their emotions are not really directly expressed; only in the Narrator’s final explication can there be any expansion of human emotion. However, Matthew Long was a confident Tancredi, his warm, nimble tenor conveying the crusader’s heated passions, and the final blessing of Julia Doyle’s Clorinda, “The heavens open; I go in peace”, was fittingly pure and crystalline.

After the interval, Long and Doyle were joined by Rebecca Outram and Caroline Trevor for three madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo. ‘Dolcissima mia vita’ (‘Sweetest life’) presents the familiar Renaissance metaphor of love/death, Gesualdo’s piquant harmonies conveying the extreme emotions of the text in which bliss and anguish are inseparable. The vocalists were always alert to the rhetorical effects, producing a perfectly blended timbre while decorously highlighting textual details, both collective and individual. Perfect intonation characterised the sustained chromatic contortions of ‘Beltà, poi che t’assenti’ (‘Beauty, though you are gone’), as the voices lament the loss of Beauty — “you carry with you his heart, his torments” — and the startling harmonic twists at the climactic cry, “I am the one who should weep”, in ‘Asciugate i belgi occhi’ (‘Dry your fair eyes’). However, it also seemed rather too well-mannered and demure. In these madrigals, Gesualdo presents not flowing drama but static, extreme, abstract emotions: chromaticisms overflow in a continuous stream, no longer a pictorial device but rather the embodiment of the ecstatic fusion of contradictory feelings. The overall effect should surely be one of both exhilaration and exhaustion, even hallucinatory in its affective power; here, the impeccable technical mastery was just a little too self-controlled and polite.

Self-possession and moderation were more fittingly deployed in the concluding work, Stravinsky’s Cantata — a setting of anonymous fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English texts which Stravinsky selected “not only for their great beauty and their compelling syllabification, but for their construction which suggests musical construction”. The nine verses of ‘A Lyke-Wake Dirge’, a prayer for the dead sung by the chorus, are interspersed with two arias, one each for soprano and tenor, the two soloists later joining together in an intensely imitative duet setting of the secular text, ‘Westron Wind’. Scored for a mixed ensemble similar to the wind-based groups of the pastoral scenes in The Rake’s Progress, the architectural symmetry of the form enabled Stravinsky to explore and experiment with temporal structures.

Kirchschlager blended beautifully with the contrapuntal woodwind lines in the first aria, ‘The maidens come’, before her recitative-like prayer descended to a rich, contemplative warmth for the entreaty, “After ther liff grant them/ A place eternally to sing”. In the long central carol, ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’, players (flutes, oboes and cello) and singer mastered the intricate series of canonical devices and increasingly intense dissonances, with lucidity and precision, the at times unblended instrumental timbres underpinning Bostridge’s beautifully decorated cantilena lines. Despite the harmonic and structural complexities, the music remained at heart melodic; the polyphony was never overly urgent and the overall effect one of calm control. In contrast, the duet was stormy and impetuous, before composure was restored in a postlude which concluded with a haunting restatement of the opening of the dirge.

This impressive performance presented intriguing musical matter for the mind but was not entirely up-lifting for the spirit.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

Biago Marini Passacaglio à 3 & à 4 from Diversi generi di sonate Op.22
Claudio Monteverdi: ‘Tempro la cetra’; ‘Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda’
Carlo Gesualdo: Three madrigals
Igor Stravinsky: Cantata

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