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29 May 2019

Time Stands Still: L'Arpeggiata at Wigmore Hall

Christina Pluhar would presumably irritate the Brexit Party: she delights in crossing borders and boundaries. Mediterraneo, the programme that she recorded and performed with L’Arpeggiata in 2013, journeyed through the ‘olive frontier’ - Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Spain, southern Italy - mixing the sultry folk melodies of Greece, Spain and Italy with the formal repetitions of Baroque instrumental structures, and added a dash of the shady timbres and rhythmic litheness of jazz.

Time Stands Still: L’Arpeggiata at Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Céline Scheen

 

Music for a While similarly brought the Baroque into relaxed conversation with jazz, folk and world music; La dama d’Aragó homed in on songs and dances from Catalonia and Mallorca. More recently, in Himmelsmusik , L’Arpeggiata explored connections between the seventeenth-century German and Italian traditions, as German traditions of counterpoint and chorale were both sustained and developed, while also integrating Italian innovations such as poly-choral antiphony and solo song.

Time Stands Still , presented last night at Wigmore Hall, was a rather curious affair, though. Even the title seemed paradoxical, as Alexandra Coghlan points out in her programme article: ‘it’s a concert of musical change and evolution, tracing the shifts, twists and turns of a century of social, political and aesthetic upheaval for the British Isles’. (Plus ça change, then …)

So, we started with a sequence celebrating the Art of Melancholy, as Dowland couched political complaint within romantic suffering. Then followed some sweetly soporific songs by Robert Johnson and John Bennet, while the latter part of the programme - performed without an interval, with several items segue, and lasting just over one hour - took us into the Jacobean alehouse for Broadside ballads and dances by John Playford et al. Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’ brought proceedings to a close, Dryden’s imagery of medicine, science and religion mingling with Purcell’s music to evoke the latter’s power. On paper, at least, it looked a bit of a musical menagerie.

The vocal items were sung by Belgian soprano Céline Scheen. Commenting on the above-mentioned Himmelmusik, I remarked the ‘purity’ of Scheen’s soprano, her ‘exquisite phrasing and carefully placed nuance’ which ‘perfectly captured the text’s spirit of tenderness and love’, her ‘crystalline tone, and considerable vocal agility’. All such attributes were again on display.

But, on the previous occasion I also felt that the ‘purity’ of the tone did not always serve the text well and wished for ‘greater variety of colour to complement and bring to the fore the textual inflections’. And, if the ‘sacred’ items of Himmelmusik were sometimes well served by Scheen’s angelic ethereality, then that wasn’t the case in Time Stands Still. Quite simply, the text - which allows the singer to communicate and the listener to understand the context - matters in these items: as much in Dowland as in a bawdy ballad. Both may hold covert meaning and messages. Both are powerfully ‘human’ in expression, whether employing and demonstrating a refined sensibility or more earthier energies.

Scheen had a heavy music book in her hands, often holding it quite high before her and peering closely; however, I could scarcely discern a single word of the texts she sang. Her soprano is beautiful, and it is pure: so much so that it seemed almost disembodied on this occasion. And, its pristineness is unblemished, never tainted by even the most tantalising dust-speck of colour. There is undoubtedly repertoire for which such a voice is ‘perfect’, but Dowland’s lute songs are not that repertoire.

A good singer of lute song needs not just a clear voice and flexibility in the upper range - both of which Scheen possesses - but also refined poetic understanding. For example, in ‘Sorrow stay’, the penultimate line, ‘But down, down, down I fall,’ embodies the poet-protagonist’s struggle and defeat, but Scheen’s distorted vowel (I seemed to hear two syllables on ‘down’) and changeless tone did not communicate this, as had Ian Bostridge , for example, with Elizabeth Kenny at Kings Place in 2014.

In ‘Time stands still’ and ‘Flow, my tears’ it was, paradoxically, only when the instrumentalists joined the song that human emotions breathed and flowed. The warmth of Doron Sherwin’s cornetto was a delight throughout the evening while Francesco Turrisi played the organ with imaginative and wry fingers, developing counterpoint, elaborating ornaments. In ‘Flow, my tears’, Pluhar was eloquent in her engagement with the voice. In ‘I saw my lady weep’ it as Sherwin - performing from memory throughout the recital - who exploited the chromatic nuances and rhythmic tangles and tugs.

Perhaps Scheen’s soprano was more suited to Robert Johnson’s ‘Care-charming sleep’ and John Bennet’s ‘Venus’s birds’ where the lovely clean sound was beguiling, and the words are designed to be cumulative in effect rather than deliberately pointed. But, when we reached the ‘traditional’ songs and ballads, the story-teller’s glee and mischief was sadly missing. It take a natural ‘actor’, one with a love of language that can be expressed through articulation and tone, to make lines such as the repeated ‘Hi diddle um come feed-al’ of ‘The Tailor and the Mouse’ come alive and feel rich, raw and rollicking. Though, it must be noted that Turrisi did a good job of conjuring the mouse’s scurrying and fleeing from the tailor’s intent pursuit! Sherwin showed how it should be done in his forthright interjections in ‘The Frog and the Mouse’: now we had words, vibrancy and directness.

It was, in fact, the instrumental items that made the strongest impression. William Brade’s ‘Scottish Dance’ got my foot tapping as Sherwin pushed ‘freedom within constraints’ to its expressive peak, and Turrisi mimicked a brusque bag-pipe drone. Playford’s ‘Stanes Morris’ was similarly abandoned in its rhythmic fire, but never other than consummately controlled. The latter’s ‘Parson’s Farewell’ seemed to embody a neat ironic detachment, while in ‘Paul’s Steeple’ I loved the rhetorical confidence, even cheekiness, of Josep María Martí Duran’s baroque guitar as he explored timbre and texture with panache, while Turrisi brushed a tambourine with style.

We had an encore in which Morley’s ‘There was a lover and his lass’ morphed from madrigal to jazz improv, and Sherwin’s cornetto became Acker Bilk’s clarinet. But, such immediacy, invention and sheer fun wasn’t quite enough to overcome the preceding programme’s distance and detachment.

Claire Seymour

L’Arpeggiata: Céline Scheen (soprano), Francesco Turrisi (harpsichord, organ), Josep María Martí Duran (lute, baroque guitar), Doron Sherwin (cornet), Christina Pluhar (director, theorbo)

John Dowland - ‘Time stands still’, ‘Flow my tears’, ‘Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears’, Anthony Holborne - ‘The Image of Melancholy’; Dowland - ‘I saw my Lady weep’; Robert Johnson - ‘Care-charming sleep’, ‘Have you seen the bright lily grow?’; John Bennet - ‘Venus’ birds’; William Brade - Scottish Dance; Trad/English - ‘The Three Ravens’; John Playford - Stanes Morris; Trad/English - ‘The Tailor and the Mouse’; Playford - ‘Parson’s Farewell’; Trad/English - ‘The Oak and the Ash’; Playford - ‘Paul's Steeple’; Trad/English - ‘The Frog and the Mouse’; Henry Purcell - ‘Music for a while’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 28th May 2019.

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