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Sophie Bevan
29 Feb 2016

Sophie Bevan, Wigmore Hall

The meaning of the term cantata (literally, ‘sung’ from the Italian verb, cantare) may have changed over time, but whether sacred or secular, the form — with its combination of declamatory narration and emotive arias — is undoubtedly a dramatic one, as this performance by Dunedin at the Wigmore Hall of cantatas by J.S. Bach and Handel confirmed.

Sophie Bevan, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sophie Bevan


The programme was clearly selected to show-case the qualities and strengths of soprano Sophie Bevan. And, her vocal assets were immediately evident in the opening work, Bach’s Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht! (False world, I do not trust you! (1726)). The fine definition of her phrasing, her evenness across the range, and the directness of Bevan’s stage manner made for an immediate and captivating opening recitative, which presents a sombre response to the Pharisees’ intention to trick Jesus, who has been preaching against them, into betraying himself.

From the assertive falling sixth and tight rhythm of the opening accusation, ‘Falsche Welt’, Bevan responded to every nuance in the text and score, avoiding extravagant gesture and letting the inherently dramatic music do the work. Vocal leaps were clean and the tuning of the biting chromatic twists was spot on. The richness that was evident in the anger conveyed here was strengthened in the confident assertions of the following aria, ‘Immerlin, immerlin’ (No matter); the repetitions of the short motif, ‘immerlin’, danced lightly and the rapid running passages — in which Bevan was partnered by an agile bass line — were gracefully nimble. In the central section, in which celebrates the singer’s faith in God’s friendship despite the falsity of the earthly world, Bevan revealed a plusher, fuller tone.

The triple-time second aria offered a calm contrast, ‘Ich halt es mit dem lieben Gott’ (I put my faith in God; as the singer spurns the world and joins with God, the oboes added to the lilting sweetness and composure, while the off-beat interjections of bassoon and bass helped to maintain rhythmic tension. Bevan’s singing was bright and joyful, endearingly candid and unfussy.

The opening sinfonia of the cantata is an adaptation of Brandenburg Concerto 1, and director John Butt and the players of Dunedin began in ebullient fashion, the musical arguments thrown buoyantly between the instrumental voices, with the pungent horns warmly supplementing the racing semiquavers of the violins and oboes. The players’ dynamism and clarity complemented the freshness of Bevan’s singing, although in the chorale — which was originally scored for four voices — single-handedly she could not quite match the strength of the horns.

Handel’s Alpestre monte (Alpine mountain) — written during the composer’s Italian ‘apprenticeship’ and after a perilous journey through the Alps — is perhaps more explicitly dramatic, but also quite madrigalian and cinematic. The opening recitative describes a Gothic terrain — ‘Triste albergo d’orror,/ Nido di fere,/ Fra l’ombre cupe e nere’ (sad refuge of fear, lair of wild beasts in the gloomy shadows) — and the chromatic contortions of the vocal line, atmospheric string playing and low vocal register created a sinister, twisted mood. There was further expressive sentiment from the strings in the following aria, ‘Is so ben ch’il Vostro orrore’ (I know well that the horror you inspire), and a stunning pianissimo which conveyed the potency of the pathetic fallacy (‘As in this surrounding gloom, so my heart is surrounded by shadows, horrible and fierce ghosts’).

Bevan treated the text luxuriantly in the recitatives, underscoring the tragic intensity of a love that is so fierce, ‘Al fin perdei me stesso,/ E il cor perdel’ (I ended up losing myself and losing my heart). And, in the final aria (‘Almen dopo il fato’) she made used of copious vocal light and shade, blending beautifully with the two violins, and imbuing the falling lines with poignancy. The soprano also appreciated — as is not always the case with soloists at the Wigmore Hall — how to modify her voice for the size and acoustic of the venue; and in so doing, she proved herself to be a real ‘singing actress’.

Handel’s Gloria HWV deest was the final vocal item. It’s a work which was only fairly recently identified as a Handel work, when in 2001 Professor Hans Joachim Marx’s research — while preparing a new edition of Handel’s Latin church music — led him to deduce that Handel was indeed the composer. It’s virtuosic in the extreme; but Bevan sang rings round the solo part — her technical arsenal enabled her to despatch ornate melisma, long-breathed phrases, rapid repetitions and octave transferences with ease. She also enjoyed the musical rhetoric: the suspensions and sequences that entwine with the vocal lines were teasingly articulated. The vocal delivery implied an insouciance which cheekily contradicted the sincerity of the text! — most especially when the ‘Amen’, switching to a duple metre, took off precipitously, and joyously.

The players of Dunedin also got their chance to shine, in instrumental works woven between the vocal items. Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto was rhythmically alert (hemiolas rarely sound this theatrical!), airy of texture, the phrasing by turns punchy and warmly rounded. Cecilia Bernardini’s solo violin phrases were elegantly shaped, while the recorder solos of Catherine Latham and Pamela Thorby had great character. My only query was whether Butt needed to work quite so hard, cueing all and sundry, and maintaining a dynamic presence throughout, when his players seemed to have an innate appreciation of the festive spirit which he sought to capture? Contrast, vibrancy and revelry were also features of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in Bb Op.3 No.2 (though why were the two oboes hidden away behind the string ripieno?).

In 2013 Bevan was awarded the ‘Young Singer’ award at the inaugural 2013 International Opera Awards. This was an enchanting performance which confirmed her vocal stature and maturity, and her stage presence.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Dunedin Consort: John Butt — director/harpsichord, Sophie Bevan — soprano, Cecilia Bernardini — violin, Pamela Thorby & Catherine Latham — recorder

J.S. Bach — Cantata: Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht BWV52, Brandenburg Concerto No.4 in G major BWV1049; Handel — Cantata:Alpestre monte HWV81, Concerto Grosso in B flat major Op.3 No.2 HWV313, Gloria HWV deest. Wigmore Hall, London, Friday 26 th February 2016.

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