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Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall
28 Nov 2017

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

‘His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven’: ‘a common fountain’ from which flow ‘pure silver drops’. At the risk of effulgent hyperbole, I’d suggest that Antonio’s image of the blessed governance and purifying power of the French court - in the opening scene of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi - is also a perfect metaphor for the voice of French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, as it slips through Handel’s roulades like a silken ribbon.

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Philippe Jaroussky

Photo credit: Simon Fowler

 

Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse - the period instrument ensemble that he co-founded in 2002 - offered a wonderful Handel-fest/feast at the Wigmore Hall, following the release of their Handel Album last month on the Erato/Warner Classics label. In the liner notes to that disc, Jaroussky comments that although ‘it’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to play the big Handel roles on stage … I wanted to choose a selection of arias from less well-known operas’. And, so, alongside arias from Radamisto, we had a selection which dipped into the lesser-known waters of Tolomeo, Flavio, Siroe (kings of Egypt, Longobardi and Persia respectively) and Imeneo.

Handel is, in every sense, a ‘man of the theatre’, and this concert was structured into quasi-operatic sequences of arias and instrumental items that, performed segue, carried us through varied moods in discrete groups. Occasionally the juxtapositions were startling, even a little disconcerting, but they created a vitalism that surged through the sequences. ‘Theatricality’ was at the heart of this recital. After accompanying the ensemble onto the platform at the start, Jaroussky retreated, returning during the archlute’s striking prefaces, or during improvised instrumental bridges, or - in the case of Radamisto’s ‘Vile! se mi dai vita’ - bursting passionately through the players during the accompanied recitative.

Jaroussky’s effortless lyricism and dulcet tone have long been acclaimed, but his countertenor has now acquired an increasing weight and diversity of colour, and the aria choices seemed designed to show-case this, with rapid and rage-fired numbers outweighing those of limpidity and lament. The seductive slipperiness of the voice across and between ranges remains, though, as does the ease with which it pours smoothly through the extended coloratura that Handel spins - as in ‘Se parla nel mio cor’ from Guistino.

While Jaroussky had the resonance to penetrate through the vibrant instrumental accompaniments, his voice is not necessarily best suited to Handel’s ‘rage arias’. His vocal agility impressed, but he couldn’t quite capture Radamisto’s burning outrage when he is condemned by the tyrannous Tiridate (‘Vile! se mi dai vita’), despite the turbulent, quasi-percussive string fire; but there was melodic nuance and a shining melisma expressing confident defiance. In contrast, ‘Ombra cara’ from the same opera, was a peak of unaffected beauty: every note, every phrase was perfectly shaped and controlled, Jaroussky’s vocal shading ever-alert to the major/minor coloration and chromatic nuances in the instrumental accompaniment.

Flavio, re de’ Longobardi framed the programme, and the opening aria, ‘Bel contento’, conveyed all of the protagonist’s impetuous joy as Guido expresses his delight at his forthcoming marriage to Emilia. Jaroussky’s lower range pulsed with varied colours and matched the strings’ sprightly dotted rhythms. The voice surged through the triplets as if overflowing with content, and the da capo elaborations were both idiomatic and enriching, particularly as the expansion of range showcased the bright purity of Jaroussky’s upper voice. Handel’s heroic roles were composed for Senesino, who was renowned for the projection of his messa di voce, and his alto timbre must have been quite different to Jaroussky’s light soprano-light colour.

A beguiling solo by concert-master Raul Orellana seemed to invite Jaroussky back onto the platform for Tirinto’s beautiful ‘Se potessero i sospir’ miei’ from Imeneo - an aria which borrows from David’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ from Saul, which Handel was composing simultaneously. The sweetness of the quiet close of the B-section, as Tirinto prays that his beloved Rosmene will return safely, was simply magical, and with the gentility of the final cadence and trill Jaroussky really did seem, as Tirinto sings, to ‘breathe out every sigh in my heart’. Best of all was Tolomeo’s ‘Stille amare, gia vi sento’ from Tolomeo, in which both players and singer were astonishingly responsive to Handel’s extraordinary depth and range of expression. In the recitative, Marc Wolff’s enticing archlute made the cup of poison seem as sweet as honey, while the strings’ brusque down bows urged him to drink. The intensity of the vocal line at the end of the recitative was salved by the light, trilling quavers of the upper strings - ‘bitter drops’ which, paradoxically, ease Tolomeo’s pain as he approaches death, his acceptance finding expression through Jaroussky’s wonderful lyricism and ornamentation.

The instrumental items were as ‘theatrical’ as the arias. Ensemble Artaserse have a tonal brightness and vitality of articulation which makes the ear sit up, and their risk-taking musical rhetoric rivals that of Fabio Biondi’s Europe Galante. Whether there are twenty or three instrumentalists, playing the sound is airy and buoyant - bow strokes rose and hovered far above the string - but the tone quality has a real ‘bite’. Tempi were generally on the swift side. There was no languorous lingering in the Adagio from the Concerto Grosso in C (incorporated into the 1736 ode Alexander’s Feast), which showcased the strongly defined meatiness of Nicolas André’s bassoon line complemented by the richly coloured resonance of Guillaume Cuiller’s oboe.

Drama was sought, and found, in each diverse movement - in the gritty down bow strokes at the start of the Grave from the C minor Concerto Grosso, in the beautiful song for cello and oboe in the Largo from the Bb concerto Op.3 No.2, in the fugal intensity of the Allegro ma non troppo from the sixth of the Op.6 set. But, such drama was balanced with delicacy in the Largo from the Op.6 No.2 concerto; and, having generally emphasised the incisive individualism of the parts, the instrumentalists blended in plush, warm, layers in the Largo from the Concerto Grosso in A minor Op.6 No.4. The Sinfonia from Solomon flashed by with such brio and brightness that it was as if we were hearing the celebratory announcement of the arrival of the Queen of Sheba for the first time: one could image the Queen floating in triumphantly on the shimmering sheen of sound.

This was a generous concert but - judging from the players’ smiles, and their physical and musical responsiveness to each other throughout - the musicians were enjoying the music-making as much as we were; and, so, we had three encores - two from Serse, including that enduring favourite ‘Ombra mai fu’, and ‘Pena tiranna’ from Amadigi di Gaula in which bassoonist André and oboist Cuiller joined Jaroussky at the front of the platform for a sarabande of exquisite intimacy and grace.

Claire Seymour

Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor), Ensemble Artaserse

Handel: Radamisto HWV12 - Overture; Flavio, re di Longobardi HWV16 - ‘Son pur felice al fine … Bel contento già gode quest’alma’; Concerto Grosso in G Op.6 No.1 HWV319 (Allegro); Concerto Grosso in C HWC318 (Alexander’s Feast); Siroe, re di Persia HWV24 - ‘Son stanco, ingiusti Numi … Deggio morire, o stelle’; Sinfonia from Solomon ( Arrival of the Queen of Sheba); Concerto Grosso in C minor Op.6 No.8 HWV326 (Grave); Imeneo HWV41 - ‘Se potessero i sospir miei’; Concerto Grosso in A minor Op.6 No.4 HWV322 (Largo and Allegro); Radamisto - ‘Vieni, d'empietà mostro … Vile! Se mi dai vita’; Concerto Grosso in F Op.6 No.2 HWV320 (Largo); Giustino HWV37 - ‘Chi mi chiama alla gloria? … Se parla nel mio cor’; Concerto Grosso in F Op.6 No.6 HWV320 (Allegro ma non troppo); Concerto Grosso in Bb Op.3 No.2 HWV 313 (Largo); Tolomeo HWV25 - ‘Inumano fratel, barbara madre … Stille amare, già vi sento’; Concerto Grosso in A minor Op.6 No.4 (Larghetto affetuoso and Allegro); Radamisto - ‘Ombra cara di mia sposa’; Concerto Grosso in G Op.3 No.3 HWV315 (Adagio); Flavio, re di Longobardi - ‘Privarmi ancora … Rompo i lacci, e frango i dardi’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 26th November 2017.

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