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Reviews

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L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Traditional: ‘La dama d’Aragó’; Canario (anon./improvisation); ‘Bella, de vós som amorós’ (from Cançoner del Duc de Calabria, pub. 1556); Traditional (Catalonia): ‘La Filadora’, ‘La Margarideta’, ‘Mareta, no’m faces plorar’, ‘La gata i en belitre’; Antonio Soler, Fandango; Traditional (Catalonia): ‘La presó de Lleida’, ‘La ploma de perdiu’; ‘Durme, durme’ (Canción Sefardí); Antonio Bertali, Chiacona; Traditional (Catalonia): ‘La Mare de Déu’, ‘El Cant dels aucells’, ‘Eixa nit és nit de vetlla’; Jota Marineira (Traditional, Mallorca); Traditional (Catalonia): ‘El Mariner’; Traditional (Mallorca): ‘Bolero de s’escandalari’, L'Arpeggiata, Wigmore Hall, London 21st December 2015

A review by Claire Seymour

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Their 2013 recording Mediterraneo (Erato) journeyed through the ‘olive frontier’ - Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Spain, southern Italy; here they honed in on the north west Mediterranean and with soprano Núria Rial - herself a native of Aragón - presented a sequence of songs and dances from Catalonia and Mallorca.

One cannot imagine anyone more fitting to sing this music. Rial’s well-rounded soprano is clean and relaxed; at times cool and dreamy, elsewhere warm but insouciant, then fervent and full of yearning. Much of the charm derives from her fluent, supple phrasing, which is elegant but unaffected. Utterly unforced and perfectly tuned, her soprano sounds ‘natural’ - though Rial is a trained classical singer who focuses on Baroque and early Classical repertoire - and the ‘artlessness’ of the delivery is captivating.

This suppleness and ease were immediately apparent in the opening Catalonian song ‘La dama d’Aragó’ (The lady of Aragon). Rial is a natural story-teller and balladeer, and she effortlessly conjured the Aragon lady, ‘as fair as the sun, Her flaxen hair flows down to her feet. Ah, the lovely Anna aria, thief of love …’. The pace was spacious, gently propelled by director Christina Pluhar’s dulcet theorbo. Rial applied a little vibrato here, a darkening of hue there, and the odd rolled ‘r’, to add spice to the tale, while Doron Sherwin’s between-verse cornetto elaboration warmly reflected on La dama’s incomparable allure.

The programme revealed ancient Aragón to be a cultural melting pot: the empire extended from Iberia, through France and the Balearic Islands, to Sardinia, Naples and Sicily. Moreover, European influences combined with Moorish and Sephardic elements. And, the music itself travelled far and wide: ‘Bella, de vós som amorós’ (My beauty, I’m in love with you) was published in Venice in a collection known as El Cançoner del Duc de Calabria in 1556, which was widely known across Europe, from the Mediterranean to Sweden. In this song, the sighs and runs in the vocal line had an almost madrigalian quality.

Tempos and rubatos were well-considered and the songs were grouped in unbroken sequences adding to the air of spontaneity. Thus, the free giocoso mood of ‘La Filadora’ (The spinning girl), with its playful interjections by the cornetto and violin (Veronika Skuplik), generated a natural accelerando at the close. The final phrase, ‘Tra la ra la, she spins finely and goes on her way’, skipped into the next song, ‘La Margarideta’ (Maggie) in which Rial demonstrated her vivacious showmanship, embodying the lazy girl who insists she cannot get out of bed as she has no bloomers, stockings, or - the tempo slowing deliciously - shoes to put on, her craftiness underpinned by the chromatic tinges in the accompaniment. In contrast, in the succeeding ‘Mareta, no’m faces florar’ (Mummy, don’t make me cry), Rial became a guileless child and then, the clear tone enriched and warmed, a loving mother who promises to sing her daughter a song to lull her to sleep. The instrumental commentary - poignant prefatory remarks by harp (Sarah Ridy) and bass (Boris Schmidt), and after-word by psaltery (Margit Übellacker) and theorbo - gave this song depth and stature.

L’Arpeggiata’s Mediterraneo disc featured traditional plucked instruments, with qanun, saz, Greek lyre, lavta, fado viola and Portuguese guitar complementing the authentic baroque collection. Though the former were absent here, the sound world created by baroque harp and violin, cornetto, psaltery, harpsichord, double bass and theorbo seemed no less ‘authentic’. But, there were some surprises too: in ‘La gata i el belitre’ (The cat and the rascal) Francesco Turrisi spun from his harpsichord to the piano, creating a brighter more penetrating sound world in which the violin’s pseudo-melancholic reflections on whatever it was that was ‘lost’ were transformed into the bass’s pounding energy, representing the protagonist’s fury: ‘If I get my hands on him, a la nyigo, nyigo, nyigo, nyigo, I’ll certainly make him pay!’ The piano was also employed in the strophic ballad ‘La presó de Lleida’ (Lleida prison), one of the highlights of the programme, in which Rial’s voice balanced lucidity with emotive strength (most touchingly in the poignant question which the prisoners, entranced by her singing, are asking by the little girl, ‘Are you short of food or drink?’); the high bass pizzicato episodes between stanzas added further expressive nuance. Pluhar’s quietening, slowing cadential figure was beautifully crafted but there was to be no consoling point of rest, for it was picked up and transformed by Mayoral into the lively accompaniment to ‘La ploma de perdiu’ (The partridge feather), which raced along, propelled by cornetto and violin contributions, to the singer’s happy-go-lucky parting line: ‘I want to give her a little hug!’

Each song had unusual features - of instrumental timbre, rhythm or vocal colour - to catch the ear, such as the bass’s fluttering gesture at the start of ‘La Mare de Déu’ (Mary Mother of God) and the gentle diminuendo of the angel’s promise, ‘On Christmas night you will give birth … you will have a little boy as fair as a star’, as piano engaged delicately with the cool soprano line; or, the penetrating presence of the quotation of the linnet’s song, ‘Oh, how sweet and fair is the song of Mary!’, in the subsequent ‘El cant dels ocells’ (The Song of the birds). ‘Eixa nit és nit de vetlla’ (Tonight is the watch night of the vigil) began with an unaccompanied stanza which established a narrative mood, while in ‘El Mariner’ (The sailor) interesting modal tints coloured the repeating melodic and harmonic gestures.

Between the vocal numbers were interspersed various instrumental improvisations. A canario (a frolicking dance) was a fountain of colour and pulsation: Schmidt’s agile double bass pizzicato, became a fluid cornetto song, before Mayoral presented a fantasia of rhythmic reverie. A fandango by Antonio Soler demonstrated both the players’ artistry - a simple descending violin line was eloquent and affecting - and the symbiotic interaction between the instrumentalists, as the alert introduction by theorbo and percussion spurred first cornetto and harp, then psaltery and bass to ever more elaborate invention. Skuplik took centre-stage in an impressive rendition of Antonio Bertali’s Chiacona, beginning with refined control and organically developing more vigorous, exuberant gestures, while retaining a warm, focused tone.

I could have listened all night; a sentiment shared, I imagine, by many of the Wigmore Hall patrons who had filled the seated auditorium and crowded into a standing area at the very back of the Hall. (I did wonder, though, why there wasn’t more evidence of toe-tapping among the clientele, given the infectious spiritedness of the music; and, perhaps the stark lighting in the Hall might have been softened a little? It seemed a night for the Wigmore Hall to let its hair down …) We were treated to two encores. The first reaffirmed the skilfu manner in which Sherwin and Skuplik had blended ingenuity and sensitivity in accompanying the voice throughout the evening. The second, as the rolling ground bass triggered jazz-infused invention from first an enlivened Turrisi (on piano) and then a relaxed Schmidt, was a wonderful illustration of the seamless tapestry of folk, baroque and jazz threads that L’Arpeggiata weave.

Claire Seymour

Christina Pluhar - director, theorbo, Núria Rial - soprano, Doron Sherwin - cornetto, Veronika Skuplik - baroque violin, Margit Übellacker - psaltery, Sarah Ridy - baroque harp, David Mayoral - percussion, Boris Schmidt - double bass, Francesco Turrisi - harpsichord/piano

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