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29 Oct 2013

Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

At the heart of this Wigmore Hall recital were two sacred vocal works for solo countertenor and small instrumental forces, recently recorded by Florilegium and Robin Blaze to considerable critical acclaim: J.S. Bach’s cantata ‘Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’ and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s ‘Salve Regina’.

Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Florilegium


‘Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’ (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) was composed by Bach for performance in St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, on the sixth Sunday after Trinity and was first heard on 28 July 1726. The text speaks of the desire to lead a virtuous in order to enter Heaven. The opening aria, with its lilting, flowing rhythms, was endowed with a tender, pastoral mood, the oboe d’amore (Alexandra Bellamy) blending soothingly with the strings and organ. Robin Blaze’s pure, even vocal line complemented the instrumental timbre and his delivery was confident and focused, although the text was not always enunciated with absolute clarity. Blaze spun sustained legato lines, particularly in the piano passages, but at times I found the countertenor’s tendency to heighten a particular word or phrase with a sudden crescendo or dynamic emphasis created an overly stark contrast of tone and diminished the effect of the effortlessly unfolding melodic contours.

Expressive contrasts of this nature were, however, put to good use in the following recitative, ‘Die Welt, das Sündenhaus’ (The world, that house of sin), which paints a picture of a sinful earth in league with the devil. Blaze almost snarled as he presented a vision of man who ‘sucht durch Hass und Neid/ Des Satans Bild an sich zu tragen’ (seeks through hate and spite/ The devil’s image e’er to cherish), while his humble address, ‘Gerechter Gott, wie weit ist doch der Mensch von dir entfernet’ (O righteous God, how far in truth is man from thee divided), was hushed and distant, aptly conveying meekness and regret.

The second aria, ‘Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen’ (What sorrow fills me for these wayward spirits) opened with a dry preface, indicative of the speaker’s grief for the ‘wayward spirits’ who have ignored the Word of God. With the continuo line silent, Blaze struggled at times to blend with the rather sparse, and unusual, instrumental texture of two-part organ (now taking an obliggato role) with violins and violas in unison; in the lower pitched passages the countertenor sometimes lacked impact, although Blaze demonstrated virtuosic agility in the more florid passage work.

The following recitative, ‘Wer sollte sich demnach/ Wohl hier zu leben wünschen’ (Who shall, therefore, desire to live in this existence) was dark and eerie; the still chords of the strings and continuo plunged to a lower register to haunting effect, while the strings brought bright movement to the singer’s earnest plea, ‘bei Gott zu leben,/ Der selbst die Liebe heißt’ ([my heart] seeks alone with God its dwelling,/ Who is himself called love).

The rather bleak text of the final aria, ‘Mir ekelt mehr zu leben’ (I am sick to death of living), was mitigated by the glowing warmth of the oboe d’amore and the delicate traceries of the organ’s florid ornamentation (played with assurance by Terence Charlston) which together beautiful embodied the comforts and glory of Heaven. Blaze’s vocal phrases were impassioned but controlled, the lines graceful and flowing, the text imbued with meaning without recourse to melodrama.

Pergolesi’s ‘Salve Regina’ — originally in C Minor for soprano but later adapted for countertenor in F Minor — was composed during the last years of the composer’s short life, when he was in the employ of the Duke of Maddaloni. Suffering from tuberculosis, Pergolesi at times withdrew to a Franciscan monastery in Pozzuoli, Naples, and the ‘Salve Regina’ was written during the composer’s final retreat.

Here, Robin Blaze adopted a more theatrical mode, bringing greater urgency to the text which eulogises the Virgin Mary in a series of contrasting movements. Following a plangent string introduction, the singer issued resonant entreaties to the Virgin, to cast her blessing and mercy on the ‘poor banished children of Eve’ who languish on earth. Blaze’s elongated lyrical lines were deeply expressive of the mourning of mankind, ‘in hac lacrimarum valle’ (weeping in this valley of tears). He brought initially a surprising vigour to his plea, ‘Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventis tui’ (show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus), then allowed the melody to evolve with poise and sweetness.

A heartfelt cry, ‘O clemens’, opened the final aria, as Blaze conveyed the sincere and solemn emotions of the text, before a final whispered declaration of reverence. Overall, this was a well-considered interpretation, one which balanced dramatic intensity with elegant grace, and which revealed Blaze’s wide-ranging technical expertise.

The vocal items were nested within various instrumental works. In the opening item, Telemann’s Overture in A Minor for Recorder and strings, director Ashley Solomon used an engagingly wide range of dynamics and impressively shaped crescendos to draw in the listener; the melodic lines had an extensive fluidity, while the ‘Air à Italien’ benefited from some markedly vigorous accents from the cello which acted as a springboard for the dance.

Throughout the evening, the instrumental support from the members of Florilegium was unfailingly sensitive and idiomatic: textures were homogenous and mellifluous, and a shared awareness of stylistically appropriate ‘good taste’ was ever-present. What was perhaps lacking was a dash of the spontaneous or unpredictable, and, at times, greater rhythmic verve and vigour — although Jennifer Morsches’ pizzicato cello utterances did much to brighten and enliven. That said, the facility and virtuosity of all, and the sweetness of tone — invigorated with occasional harmonic piquancy — ensured the audience’s considered and appreciative attentiveness. The running semiquavers of Handel’s Sonata in Bb for solo violin and strings were injected with drama. And, the Andante of Telemann’s Concerto in E for flute, oboe d’amore, viola d’amore and strings possessed a beautifully airy weightlessness, while the subsequent Allegro showcased the expressive presence and eloquence of Alexandra Bellamy’s oboe d’amore playing.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Telemann — Suite in A minor TWV55:A3; J.S. Bach — Cantata BWV170 ‘Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’; Handel — Sonata a 5 in Bb HWV288; Pergolesi — Salve Regina in F minor; Telemann — Concerto in E for flute, oboe d’amore and viola d’amore TWV53:E1

Florilegium — Ashley Solomon (Director), flute/recorder; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Alexandra Bellamy, oboe d’amore; Bojan Cicic, violin 1/viola d’amore; Sophie Barber, violin 2; Magdalena Loth-Hill, violin 3; Malgorzata Ziemkiewicz, viola; Jennifer Morsches, cello; Carina Cosgrave, bass; Terence Charlston, harpsichord/chamber organ. Robin Blaze, countertenor. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 23rd October 2013.

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