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Christina Pluhar
12 Jul 2014

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Christina Pluhar


As the four-bar circular ground basses unfolded, theorbo-player and director Christina Pluhar and her musical partners produced an ever-changing kaleidoscope of harmonic, rhythmic and textural variations, blending the ‘authentic’ Baroque with the relaxed rhythms and evocative colours of jazz, folk and world music; the idioms segued seamlessly, underpinned by a firm structural core and articulated with astonishing skill and imagination.

Around countertenor Philippe Jaroussky’s effortlessly graceful melodies, the instrumentalists invented and improvised, intuitively conversing with the other voices in the musical exchange and demonstrating consummate understanding of the art of Baroque extemporisation and ornamentation combined with the flexible responsiveness of modern jazz.

Jaroussky sings with wonderful precision and control; his beautiful, clean sound strokes the long, phrases into being, with just a dash of flexibility to bring a modern touch to the classical melodies. In ‘An evening hymn’ and ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’ the vocal line, at times pure, then more sensuous, seemed to float in and out of the instrumental solos; in the latter, Sarah Ridy’s harp commentary was especially affecting. ‘Strike the viol’ was more rhythmically free and like the bawdy ‘‘Twas within a furlong of Edinboro’ Town’ (from The Mock Marriage) had an infectious energy, driven by Boris Schmidt’s springy bass. Jaroussky displayed a judicious feeling for the comic in ‘Man is for the woman made’, performed as a wry encore; elsewhere he emphasised the ethereal beauty of Purcell’s sighing melodies, as in ‘One charming night’ from The Faerie Queen.

One could not pick out an individual instrumentalist for especial praise; this is truly a collective performance and they all impressed both in the Purcell inventions and in the intervening instrumental items such as Maurizio Cazzati’s Ciaccona Op.22 No.14 and Nicola Matteis’s La dia Spagnola, in which the centuries between the time of composition and the modern world seemed to disappear. Doron Sherwin’s cornetto was by turns expressive and seductive, enfolding the voice, and bright and jazzy, his extravagant flourishes thrilling as they chased the racing embellishments of Veronika Skuplik’s baroque violin. All the players moved between modes and moods with total naturalness; the merest changes of articulation effected imperceptible transitions, as when Schmidt’s tender pizzicato strokes took on a brighter, jazzier hue, lifting a melancholy, introspective ground bass into a spirited dance.

When I heard L’Arpeggiata in October last year, I noted that percussionist David Mayoral’s ‘astonishing percussion playing drew gasps … as he coaxed a magical array of tones and beats, sometimes simultaneously, from the simplest of musical means: a single drum skin emitted a panoply of strokes, taps and pitches.’ Mayoral cast his percussive spell once more in an extended improvisation in which he seemed almost entranced by his own rhythmic invocation, his hypnotic riff bringing a smile of pleasure and affection to the lips of his fellow musicians.

Pluhar’s wonderful invention and technical mastery was showcased in Giovanni Kapsberger’s Toccata arpeggiata; and, in the closing song, the plaint ‘O let me weep’ from The Faerie Queen,Skuplik and Jaroussky wove a wonderfully sensitive duet for baroque violin and voice, profound with melancholy.

L’Arpeggiata did not simply perform arrangements of Purcell; rather they created entirely new, highly original, works. Their musicianship, technical prowess and the joy that their shared musical dialogue so obviously inspired, both on the platform and among the audience of the Wigmore Hall, made this performance an absolute delight. It was standing-room only, and two encores — a wry touch of self-parody followed by a beautifully simple rendition of Dido’s lament, ‘When I am laid in earth’ — just didn’t seem enough. The final bass pizzicato whispered and faded into the still air; a magical, otherworldly moment to close an utterly bewitching performance.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Christina Pluhar — director, theorbo; Philippe Jaroussky — countertenor; Veronika Skuplik — baroque violin; Doron Sherwin — cornetto; Sarah Ridy — baroque harp; Eero Palviainen — lute; Boris Schmidt — double bass; David Mayoral — percussion; Francesco Turrisi —harpsichord, organ; Haru Kitamika — harpsichord, organ. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 10th July 2014.

Cazzati, Ciaccona; Purcell, ‘Music for a while’, ‘‘Twas within a furlong of Edinboro’ Town’; Matteis, La dia Spagnola; Purcell, ‘An evening hymn’, ‘Strike the viol’; Kapsberger, Toccata arpeggiata; Purcell, ‘O solitude, my sweetest choice’, ‘Two in One upon a Ground’, ‘A Prince of glorious race descended’, ‘One charming night’; Anonymous (instrumental); Purcell, ‘How the Deities approve’; Improvisation; Purcell, ‘Curtain tune’, ‘The plaint’.

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