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Reviews

<em>Mortal Voices</em>Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court Concert Hall
16 Feb 2018

Mortal Voices: the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court

The relationship between music and money is long-standing, complex and inextricable. In the Baroque era it was symbiotically advantageous.

Mortal VoicesAcademy of Ancient Music at Milton Court Concert Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Tim Mead

Photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

 

On the one hand, a musician’s survival depended on patronage: wealthy individuals, and the institutes of state and Church, put their hands in their pockets and enabled budding young composers to learn their craft, and geniuses to get on with the business of composing masterpieces. On the other, the reflected glory - reputation for cultural discernment and refinement, social status among the wealthy elite - derived from works composed on demand was worth paying for.

Handel arrived in Rome in 1707 and one of his patrons was Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni who, each Wednesday, held concerts in his Palazzo della Cancelleria, directed by Corelli. Some think that Handel’s solo cantata, ‘Ah! che troppo ineguali’, may have been commissioned by Ottoboni; others that the commission came in 1708 from Cardinal Colonna, in celebration of the feast of the Madonna del Carmine. Whatever and whoever, the Church clearly had a hand in the composition: the text is religious, but non-liturgical, the brief recitative and short aria comprising a supplication to the Queen of Heaven to send peace down to earth - most likely a response to the War of the Austrian Succession in which the Papal States were then engaged.

Canadian soprano Keri Fuge, who won second prize in the 2011 Handel Singing Competition, seemed a little tense during the recitative, and took a while to gage the dimensions of the Milton Court Concert Hall. But, the slight shrillness and over-emphatic accents had gone by the time Fuge reached the da capo repeat, and though she employed what I thought was a rather wide vibrato, she summoned a noble eloquence which matched the sentiments of the accompaniment provided by members of the Academy of Ancient Music, directed by Christian Curnyn who made much of the expressive contrast between the high shine of the violins and the low sonorous of the bass strings and organ.

Fuge was joined by countertenor Tim Mead for Handel’s duet-cantata ‘Il Duello Amoroso’, which was composed in 1708 for Marquis Francesco Maria Ruspoli, a member of the Arcadian Academy. It presents a stand-off between a love-sick Arcadian shepherd, Daliso, and the scornful and supercilious Amarilli. Handel’s setting is characteristically playful: when Daliso threatens to subdue the teasing nymph, ‘either by force or inclination or resentment before the enticing pains of death come’, Amarilli doesn’t bat an eyelid: ‘No more! I would have you satisfy the wicked desire that torments you; unfeeling man, come! Why delay? Take the blade and strike it into this heart.’ The humiliated Daliso retreats and demands that she return his heart only to be further emasculated: ‘you do not have the torch that can kindle my flame.’

Keri Fuge.jpgKeri Fuge.

The menuetto of the three-part overture was delicately wry, but Mead initially seemed quietly crestfallen even stoical, rather than indignant and resentful, about his rejection. That said, his countertenor was agile and light, then sensuously legato, in the two parts of his opening aria, and later he summoned a simple plaintiveness - ‘Is it better to hear many times promises of love but not when they may be fulfilled?’ - which was complemented by some finely phrased violin-playing from the AAM. Fuge was more ‘on score’ and this, as well as Mead’s tendency to prioritise mellifluous beauty over dramatic impact, did temper the dramatic frisson between the pair. But, Amarilli’s cruelty was evident in a slight edge to the voice and in the pointed echoes between soprano and violins, though as the temptress’s fury rose so Fuge’s focus and intonation became less consistent. The showdown was spirited with Mead summoning an angry pride, expressed through vivid adornment - ‘Sì, , lasciami ingrate’ (Very well, leave me alone, heartless girl) - his bitterness highlighted by the contrast between the high vocal line and low-pitched accompaniment of cellos, bass and continuo.

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater - commissioned by the Brotherhood of the Vergine dei dolori in Naples, in 1736 - followed after the interval, with the original vocal ensemble reduced to just two voices. I’m not sure of the wisdom of this slimming down of the vocal sound: in the opening duet, the poignant suspensions did not register as emphatically or with the immediacy that one might expect. Moreover, despite their concerted efforts to blend their voices, particularly in the duet ‘Sancta mater, istud agas’ (Holy mother, pierce me through), Fuge’s soprano was often dominant.

That said, the soprano aria ‘Vidit suum dulcem natum’ (She beheld her gentle child) which lies lower in the voice was very affecting, unfolding quietly and lyrically above hesitant accompanying phrases. And, the fugal duet, ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum’ (Make me feel as thou has felt), generated fervency and passion.

Mead’s aria, ‘Fac ut portem Christi mortem’ was beautifully sung and his strong technique - well-crafted phrasing, assured breath control, impressive trills - apparent; the orchestral unisons added rhetorical weight.

In the final duet, ‘Quando corpus morietur’ (While my body here decays), the violas and celli shuddered with a suffering that was more tender than tragic. One was reminded of the question asked by Jean Frangois Marmontel in the Mercure de France (September 1778): ‘Does it not cause tears to fall?’ And as the vocal lines wound around each other the resultant dissonances made for a delicate but affecting statement of anguish and faith.

In this concert, The Academy of Ancient Music confirmed their status as perhaps the finest period-instrument ensemble performing today, not least with the fleet-footed performance of Corelli’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.1 in D major that opened the programme. The antiphonal placement of the violins created drama and excitement - there was some wonderfully seamless interplay between both section-leaders, Bojan Čičić and Rebecca Livermore, and the full violin ranks, particularly in the second Allegro. And, Curnyn drew a warm, full sound from his fairly small ensemble, Alastair Ross’s organ providing sonorous depth, particularly in the slow movements. The upper string players were standing throughout the concert which encouraged vitality and freedom - lead viola Alexandru-Mihai Bota exhibited surprising balletic nimbleness, despite his height! - but it was a pity that cellist Joseph Crouch was rather ‘buried’ amid the ensemble, for his contributions to the concertante episodes were beautifully dulcet yet incisive. The facility of all conveyed a virtuosic ease which, at the final cadence, cohered into a closing gesture of graciousness and taste.

Claire Seymour

Keri Fuge (soprano), Tim Mead (counter-tenor), Christian Curnyn (director, harpsichord), Academy of Ancient Music.

Corelli - Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.1 in D major, Handel - Cantatas HWV230 ‘Ah! Che troppo ineguali’ and HWV82 ‘Il Duello Amoroso’, Pergolesi - Stabat Mater.

Milton Court, London; Thursday 15th February 2018.

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