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Bejun Mehta [Photo by Josep Molina / MolinaVisuals]
03 Dec 2015

Bejun Mehta: Yet can I hear that dulcet lay

The American countertenor Bejun Mehta exhibited a considerable range of vocal colours, refined phrasing and spectacular virtuosity in this programme of Baroque cantatas and arias, with La Nuova Musica, under the direction of the ensemble’s founder, David Bates.

Yet can I hear that dulcet lay

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Bejun Mehta [Photo by Josep Molina / MolinaVisuals]

 

As they explored the Baroque Italian cantata, on the genre’s journey from its homeland, across Europe to England and Germany, Mehta also communicated an infectious enjoyment and enthusiasm. And, considerable pleasure in making and performing this music — its sentiments amorous, its articulation dramatic — was evidently shared by all the collective musicians.

Mehta did not start the evening entirely comfortably though. Handel’s ‘Siete rose rugiadose’ (You are dewey roses) was not the sweet and delicately moist number we might have expected, as intimated by its title; the instrumental introductory bars were serene and poised, but Mehta found it difficult to match the continuity of line established by the theorbo, viola da gamba and harpsichord, and the fragmentary and ornate phrases of the initial vocal utterance were somewhat unsettled. It was as if considerable intellectual effort was being expended but the requisite suavity of phrasing remained elusive. Mehta’s tone felt a little constricted above the sparse accompaniment, and though he worked hard to focus the intonation at the cadence before the da capo repeat, there was some unease.

Fortunately, the virtuosic roulades of the first aria — an outburst of breathless love — of the composer’s ‘Mi palpita il cor’ (My heart throbs), delivered here with impressive precision, seemed to release whatever knot was causing the vocal tightness. Perhaps the fuller accompanying support helped too, as flute and double bass joined the ensemble; and, the moving inner voices of Bates’ organ continuo created both interest and succour. Mehta’s performance confirmed the emergence of Handel’s genius during his Italian journey in the opening years of the eighteenth century: the recitative combined grace and rhetoric; there was urgency in the melodic inventiveness. In the second aria, the countertenor used the harmonic nuances expressively, and he built effectively through the subsequent recitative. The final aria, which tells of the lover’s hopes that his devotion will be rewarded, was enriched by the bright warmth and agility of Georgia Browne’s flute; and this number was characterised by active communication between the musicians, encouraged by Bates, which ensured our strong engagement.

The first half of the recital concluded with Alessandro Scarlatti’s ‘Perchè tacete, regolati concerti?’ (Why are you silent, you well-ordered harmonies?), which saw violins and double bass join the ensemble to perform the cantata’s nine movements featuring an overture — which showcased some very agile cello and double bass playing in the fugal section — and various arias and recitatives. The through-flowing emergence of sentiments and moods of these strophic numbers made a satisfying change from the intense but fixed emotions of the da capo forms. Mehta’s tone was rich and replete with sensuous allure, and the climax of the cantata, the tender lullaby ‘Dormi, ch’il mio dolor/Nenia al tuo sonno’ (Go to sleep, but know at least that I die for you) was gorgeously seductive. Mehta’s control of musical line and dramatic peak was impressive, and the emotional intensity was extended by the tender, thoughtful instrumental contributions. There was an almost Monteverdian piquancy about the chromaticisms, and the delicacy of the violins in the instrumental postlude were a wonderful representation of the protagonist’s closing assertion that, after the fierce attacks which have assaulted his heart, ‘La mia piaga proverà/ Men crudo il duol’ (My wound will make my sorrow less painful).

The second half of the recital introduced two German cantatas, and if Mehta’s diction in the Italian works had occasionally been approximate, here he showed an instinctive feeling for the music’s spirit as expressed through the language; I was not surprised to find consequently, when reading the artist’s biography in the programme, that Mehta has a degree in German literature from Yale. The combination of sweetness and plangent lamentation in the instrumental opening of J.C. Bach’s ‘Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte’ (O, that I had tears enough in my head; a reference to the Book of Jeremiah) was captivating, and the sublime expressivity of Mehta’s subsequent melody utterly transfixing. The line was effortlessly sustained, though textual details were brought to the fore: there was a growing intensity, as tears flowed from the poet-speaker’s eyes (‘Und meine beiden Augen fließen mit Wasser’, while the oppression of the heart (‘und mein Herz ist betrübet’) was strikingly enunciated.

Melchior Hoffmann’s ‘Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde’ (Strike then, long awaited hour) was deeply affecting; Mehta employed an ‘open’ sound for the gentle melodies, which were complemented by quietly tolling hand-bells — a literal representation of the funereal clarion which accompanies the poet-singer’s passage to the after-life, marking the ticking clock as the singer approaches the death for which he longs. The processional character of the work was wonderfully conveyed, and the protagonist’s anticipation of heaven was deeply consoling.

The highlight of the recital was Vivaldi’s ‘Piani, sospiri e dimandar mercede’ (Weeping, sighing, and asking recompense). Here, Mehta’s countertenor was expressively flexible — it swooning beguilingly to depict the tempting breeze which tempts the boatman from the safety of the harbour, to confront the storm; large vocal leaps were despatched with ease, conveying the fickleness of the poet-speaker’s beloved. The instrumentalists contributed to the alternating melodious beauty and dramatic unrest, and the prevailing lyricism revealed the essential naivety of the helmsman. This is not ‘easy’ music: there are many harmonic twists and turns, and the intonation was sure. The rhetorical flourishes of the concluding aria, as the voice darted urgently, were theatrically striking.

Between the cantatas were interspersed some superbly executed instrumental works, including the Symphony, Song and Chaconny from Purcell’s King Arthur, in which the coloristic variations which imbued ‘Fairest Isle’ were eloquent and enthralling. Here, though the dynamic contrasts seemed surprisingly modern, the overall utterance was convincingly authentic. A striking variety of pace and weight of bow stroke distinguished the movements of Heinrich Biber’s Mensa Sonora Suite III in A Minor; similarly, there was a convincing juxtaposition of blended voices and vigorous dialogue.

The recital closed with Handel’s ‘Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay’ from The Choice of Hercules. Though the text of this rare English cantata by the composer seems to have possessed little to inspire Handel, there are momentary beauties — including this number in which Hercules refuses Pleasure’s offer of the blisses of Elysium. Mehta and his fellow musicians wonderfully drew forth the subtleties of this aria, and lulled us into peaceful contentment.

Claire Seymour


Performers and programme:

Bejun Mehta, countertenor; La Nuova Musica, David Bates, director. Wigmore Hall, London, Monday 30th November 2015.

George Frideric Handel: Cantata — ‘Siete rose rugiadose’ HWV162, Cantata — ‘Mi palpita il cor’ HWV132c; Henry Purcell: King Arthur — A Symphony, A Song and Chaccone; Alessandro Scarlatti: Cantata — ‘Perchè tacete, regolati concerti?’; Johann Christoph Bach: ‘Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte’ (Lamento); Antonio Vivaldi: ‘Pianti, sospiri e demandar mercede’ RV676; Heinrich Biber — Mensa Sonora Suite III in A minor; Melchior Hoffmann: ‘Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde’; George Frideric Handel: The Choice of Hercules HWV69 Part 2 No.10 ‘Yet can I hear that dulcet lay’.

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