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30 Sep 2014

Anna Caterina Antonacci, Wigmore Hall, London

Presenting a well-structured and characterful programme, Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci demonstrated her prowess in both soprano and mezzo repertoire in this Wigmore Hall recital, performing European works from the early years of the twentieth century. Assuredly accompanied by her regular pianist Donald Sulzen, Antonacci was self-composed and calm of manner, but also evinced a warmly engaging stage presence throughout.

Anna Caterina Antonacci, soprano; Donald Sulzen, piano, Wigmore Hall London 24th September 2014

A review by Claire Seymour


Elegant and restrained, she did not need fancy costumes or extravagant gestures to convince of her star quality; instead, she drew us into the distinct world of each of the thoughtfully selected series of songs - by Respighi, Poulenc, Ravel and de Falla - by means of deeply expressive singing and detailed acting. Resting at times on the piano, she effectively embodied the songs’ personae and voices, and conveyed precise moods and sentiments.

Carl Orff is one of the classical music world’s ‘one-piece’ composers; how many could name any of his compositions other than Carmina Burana? And, those who are familiar with his intense, richly scored scenic cantata would probably find the suggestion that he had anything in common with the Renaissance sensitivities of Claudio Monteverdi an improbably proposition. However, Orff’s Lamento d’Arianna (after Monteverdi), composed in 1925 and subsequently revised in 1940, reveals more shared threads than one might imagine: Orff’s freedom of metre recalls the flexible declamatory style of the Renaissance madrigal and opera, and while their harmonic language may appear incongruous, the directness of the dramatic and rhetorical expression also unites the two composers. Such correspondences were movingly communicated in this rendering of Orff’s own piano reduction of his original orchestral score.The opening bars of Donald Sulzen’s piano introduction were, however, striking and attention-grabbing: grand and opulent statements, encompassing a wide tessitura, alternated with sparser more intimate gestures, creating a dynamic and moving rhetoric.

Indeed, Antonacci sensitively balanced tenderness and magnificence throughout the lament. Dynamics were finely graded and judged: in the first verse Arianna professes her desire to reject life, ‘In così gran martire’ (in such bitter suffering), a line which faded into a whisper, while her impassioned cry ‘O Madre, O Padre mio!’ glistened sonorously. Antonacci tamed her vibrato in the more introverted reflection but allowed the tone to bloom in anguished outbursts of accumulating intensity; Sulzen was an alert commentator, the jagged punctuation and huge spread chords of the final section effectively complementing Arianna’s grief-stricken apostrophising. After a powerful chordal piano postlude, the final, gently placed tierce de Picardie was a surprise: an unexpected note of consolation and peace.

When Orff presented arrangements of Lamento d’Arianna and another Monteverdi composition, Ballo dell’ingrate, the early music revival was just beginning in Europe, and interestingly at this time Ottorino Respighi made his own performing version of Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo. It was a fitting choice, therefore, to following the Orff with seven songs by Respighi, in which Antonacci frequently floated fine threads of soaring sound. Sulven was sensitive yet always unobtrusive; his precise, clear textures skilfully underscored textual details, as when evoking the translucent rippling waters of ‘O falce di luna’ (O crescent) or when - by means of nuanced harmonic inflections and suspensions, and an oscillating pattern in the middle voice - suggesting the dark hues of the abandoned garden in ‘Crepuscolo’ (Twilight).

Antonacci revealed not just her expansive tessitura but also her multi-coloured tonal variety: in ‘Acqua’ (Water) she modulated the weight and focus of her voice most expressively to convey the soft brushing of the whispering reeds wiggling along the bank (‘Acqua, e, lungh’essi I calami volubili/ Movendo in gioco le cerulee dita’) and a wonderful sense of lyrical freedom captured the fleeting motions of the water (‘Tu che con modi labii deduci’). In ‘Stornellatrice’ (Singer of Stornelli) alternate lines of burnished low mezzo and higher, lighter soprano effectively suggested the singer’s inner conflicts and questioning, before a self-possessed close: ‘Quando poi l’eco mi risponde: mai?’ (When the echo answers me: never?) A highlight of the sequence was ‘Sopra un’aria antica’ (On an old aria): again registral contrasts were employed to powerful effect and Antonacci delivered both the florid melodies and the detailed text emotively. Sulven’s delicate trills conjured a neoclassical air and served to meld old and new.

Poulenc’s seven settings of Paul Éluard which form La fraîcheur et le feu (The coolness and the fire) concluded the first half; these miniatures capture a multitude of moods and the performers moved easily from the fiery drama of ‘Rayons des yeux et des soleils’ (Beams of eyes and suns) to the lyrical expanse of ‘Le matin les branches attisent’ (The branches fan each morning). In the latter Antonacci once more demonstrated her vocal control, steadily withdrawing to suggest the tranquillity of the evening trees, ‘Le soir les arbres sont tranquilles’. In contrast, her glossy soprano swooped luxuriantly in ‘Tout disparu même les même toits le ciel’ (All vanished even the roofs even the sky) to suggest the glistening stars which mimic the singer’s tears, ‘Soeurs miroitières de mes larmes’. Sulven’s jazzy harmonies and parallel chords created drama and depth in ‘Homme au sourire tendre’ (Man with the tender smile), complementing Antonacci’s tone of tendresse.

A languid, silky rendition of Henri Duparc’s La vie antérieure (A previous life) followed the interval; the crescendo and accelerando in the second stanza powerfully conveyed the singer’s growing excitement, as reflected in the swells of the sea which create a ‘mellow music’, portrayed by Sulven’s low, grand gestures. After an impassioned outburst as she recalled her life of ‘sensuous repose’, Antonacci retreated into recollections of ‘Le secret douloureux qui me faisait languir’ (the secret grief which made me languish), her sadness sensitively evoked by Sulven’s long, poignantly unravelling postlude.

Ravel’s Cinq melodies popuiaires grecques were vibrant in their simplicity and directness. The ostinato patterns of ‘Le réveil de la mariée’ (The bride’s awakening) created an excited air of expectation, while the flattened seconds of the modal ‘Là bas, vers l’église’ (Down there by the church) were sensuously nuanced. Antonacci’s folky rhetoric in the unaccompanied ‘Quel galant m’est comparable?’ (What gallant can compare with me?) was delivered with confidence, an affirmation which found equal but contrasting voice in the free vocalise of ‘Chanson des cueilleuses de lentisques’ (Song of the lentisk gatherers). The exuberant repetitions, ‘Tra-la-la!’, and Sulven’s revolving patterns propelled ‘Tout gai!’ (So merry!) to a jubilant conclusion. In ‘Kaddish’, one of Ravel’s Deux melodies hebraïques, Antonacci’s strong mezzo voice captured the rapturous spirituality of the devotional sentiments, culminating in a hypnotic, melismatic ‘Amen’, while 'Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera' showcased her vocal flexibility and virtuosity.

Finally, we turned from Italy and France to Spain, Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas concluding the recital. Antonacci’s dramatic temperament was to the fore in these seven songs: the accusative fury at the end of the ‘Seguidilla murciana’ (Seguidilla from Murcia) was thrilling, while the sentiments of the quiet lament, ‘Asturiana’, were conveyed by Antonacci’s serene presentation of the sorrowful, restrained melodic contours, long even rhythmic values and by the unpredictable dissonances in the accompaniment. The asymmetries of ‘Jota’ (a lively Spanish dance) were playful and the vigorous rhythms were nimbly executed, while in ‘Nana’ (Lullaby) the singer’s melismatic phrase-endings had a charming ‘oriental’ colour. The final song, ‘Polo’, was brisk and passionate, Sulven’s persistent repeating patterns evoking the rhythms of a flamenco guitar, and the final heated and heartfelt ‘Ay!’ serving as a reminder that Antonacci has proven herself an impressive Carmen!

Claire Seymour

Anna Caterina Antonacci, soprano; Donald Sulzen, piano
Orff: Klage der Ariadne (after Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna); Respighi, ‘O falce di luna’, ‘Van li effluvi de le rose’, ‘Sopra un' aria antica’, ‘Stornellatrice’, ‘Acqua’, ‘Crepuscolo’, ‘Pioggia’; Poulenc: La fraîcheur et le feu: Duparc: ‘La vie antérieure’; Ravel: Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, Deux mélodies hebraïques, Vocalise-étude en forme de habanera; Falla: Siete canciones populares españolas

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