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Lucy Crowe [Photo © Marco Borggreve]
22 May 2014

English Concert, Wigmore Hall

With the FIFA World Cup just three weeks away perhaps it is permissible to use a sporting metaphor, for this performance by The English Concert at the Wigmore Hall — part of the ensemble’s 40th anniversary celebrations — really was a game of two halves.

English Concert, Wigmore Hall

A review Claire Seymour

Above: Lucy Crowe [Photo © Marco Borggreve]

 

Led by their current Artistic Director, Harry Bicket, The English Concert invited one of their regular guest soloists, soprano Lucy Crowe, to explore cantatas and arias composed by Georg Frederic Handel during his Italian sojourn of 1707-09, framing the vocal numbers with Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. For Handel, this was a period of astonishing creative energy and musical invention, and the selected works demonstrated the melodic grace, rhetorical power and innate dramatic judgement that characterises the operas and oratorios composed in the subsequent years.

‘Dietro l’orme fuggaci’ dates from late May 1707, when Handel was resident at the Ruspoli family’s summer villa in Vignanello. Adapted from Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, it tells of the sorceress Armida’s fury, forgiveness and suffering after her lover Rinaldo has deserted her. Swift movement through a sequence of recitative (with extended use of accompagnato) and florid arias creates a tense dramatic energy.

Lucy Crowe seemed uncharacteristically out-of-sorts, however, with the tempos and transitions between movements unsettled and hasty. The opening recitative, in which a narrator establishes the situation and introduces the bitter, grieving Armida, lies quite low, and the thin accompanying texture didn’t offer Crowe much support. As she vented the sorceress’s wrath in the succeeding aria, ‘Ah! crudele, e pur ten’ vai’, Crowe seemed to skate over the elaborate runs and flights rather than sing through them; and the pitch was not always fully centred, particularly in the passages where chromatic nuances and twists depict Armida’s anguished love. Despite some melodic inaccuracies, idiomatic ornaments and some imaginative re-interpretations embellished the da capo repeat.

The secco recitative in which Armida laments her unwavering devotion was more controlled, and the headlong rush into the orchestral outburst which commences the accompagnato, ‘O voi, dell’incostante’, full of excitement. But, once again, the haste with which Crowe sped through the final words, ‘Ah! no, fermate’ , as Armida retracts her request to the gods to send sea monsters to consume her betrayer, risked turning melodrama into farce. The large leaps of the ensuing aria, ‘Venti fermata’, demonstrated Crowe’s vocal agility and she negotiated the disjunct line fluently, the flowing triplets mimicking the rolling waves which threaten to submerge Rinaldo. At phrase endings, the soprano chose at times to rise an octave higher than notated, her bright clear tone highlighting Armida’s tenderness and emotional ambivalence.

The orchestral lilt was quite subdued in the closing Siciliana, above which Crowe glistened, applying judicious decorations and dissonant appoggiaturas to the cantabile line. The higher register felt more comfortable, and as the movement gradually quietened, closing with just ripieno strings, Crowe demonstrated her ability to sing softly and purely at the top. Her final call to the God of Love to free her from her devotion to the traitorous Rinaldo was moving, but overall Crowe did not quite master the psychological ambiguity of this cantata.

After the interval, ‘Alpestre montre’ saw the soprano back on form. Written in Venice during the winter of 1708-09, the cantata presents a desperate man, alone in a mountain forest, searching for the beloved to whom he yearns to confess his love, consoling himself that death may at least end his torment.

The dry staccato quavers of the two obbligato violins at the opening of the first aria, ‘Io so ben ch’il vostro orrore’, evoked the unending onward tread of the wanderer. Reflecting on the shadowy gloom of the forest, which mirrors his inner desolation, Crowe produced sostenuto singing of great eloquence, sustaining an unfailingly legato line and using melisma expressively. Bicket made much of the nuanced accompanying textures, with their motivic echoes and shifting colours. In the following short recitative, Crowe’s sensitive declamation emphasised the composer’s impressive heightening of the text.

I found the tempo of the second aria, ‘Almen dopo il fato mio’, in which the young man longs for death, much too fast, although the string timbre was mellifluous. Crowe exhibited superb breath control, singing richly through the expansive lines and spanning the large leaps cleanly.

Things went from good to better in the final vocal contribution: three arias from Handel’s second Italian opera, Agrippina (1710). In Poppea’s ‘Vaghe perle’ Crowe acted with body and voice, flirtatiously batting her eyelids and casually spilling stratospheric ornamentations and trills, as the sensuous Poppea admires herself in a looking-glass. Agrippina’s scheming confidence presented a dramatic contrast in the following ‘Ogni vento’; the accompanying triplet rhythms were assured, the string tone full, and together with the exuberant vocal line conveyed Agrippina’s faith that her murderous plan will run smoothly.

‘Se giunge un dispetto’, in which Poppea warns that she is a woman not to be scorned, saw both singer and ensemble take furious flight, in some incredibly long and florid melismas and supporting passagework. Crowe’s technique was flawless: superbly controlled coloratura, imaginative adornments in the da capo, and a bright resonance at the top.

The concertos which form Vivaldi’s Four Seasons framed the vocal items, and were similarly uneven. While Simon Standage and the players of The English Concert produced stylish playing that was tasteful and never mannered, there was little to excite in ‘La Primavera’ or ‘L’Estate’, and the Largo of the former was marred by over-enthusiastic viola interjections, the repeated down-bow punctuations overly aggressive and intrusive. Perhaps the recordings of Kennedy or Fabio Biondi and the Europa Galante have familiarized the ear to greater rhetoric and dynamism, but Standage, though technical impeccable, seemed to lack presence. Eloquent cello contributions and the bright timbre of Alex McCartney’s baroque guitar enlivened the outer movements of ‘L’Estate’.

‘L’Autunno’ was, by contrast, a revelation, full of rhythmic bite and vitality, with incisive passagework and impressive double-stopping from Standage. Dark sound worlds were conjured in the Adagio molto — as the harvesters all lulled to sleep by the breeze. Overall, the ensemble was much more convincingly synchronized than in the first two concerti. Similarly engaging, and unnerving, was the dry coldness of the opening staccato quavers of ‘L’Inverno’. Both Standage and the accompanying instrumentalists displayed remarkable agility and clarity in the plummeting scalic runs with which the concerto concludes.

So, it was an oddly uneven concert; but Poppea’s feisty audacity was worth waiting for.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

The English Concert: Harry Bicket, director, harpsichord; Simon Standage, violin; Lucy Crowe, soprano. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 21st May 2014.

Handel — Cantata: ‘Dietro l’orme fuggaci’ (‘Armida abbandonata’) HWV105; Cantata: ‘Alpestre monte’ HWV81; Arias from Agrippina HWV6; Vivaldi — The Four Seasons

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