Innovative programming is always welcome, and of course the name of Ian Bostridge attached to anything will guarantee healthy ticket sales, but even for a diehard curmudgeon who actually believes Schubert’s dictum that “there is no happy music,” this was too much of a dirge-fest. However, the evening’s central work, Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is infrequently performed, so it was good to hear it given with such commitment and in the presence of such a packed and appreciative house.
It was preceded by a forgettable instrumental piece by Biagio Marini, and then Monteverdi’s florid Tempro la Cetra. The sentiment that the singer means to praise warfare but can only sing of love is evoked rather better by Schubert a couple of centuries later, with ‘An die Leier,’ but Bostridge and the band gave it all they had, the singer’s astringent tone getting as near to sweetness as he ever gets these days in ‘altro ch’amori’ and relishing the irony of the ‘rozzi accenti indegni’ (‘rough and wretched voice’).
The story of the battle between the crusader Tancredi and the Saracen Clorinda is a kind of mini-opera, here narrated by Angelika Kirchschlager and Bostridge, with the protagonists’ small parts taken by the clear-voiced Julia Doyle and the very promising Matthew Long. The latter’s CV includes the role of Handel’s Jupiter — not too shabby for someone so young, and he is clearly a name to watch. Did it all work? Up to a point; some might feel that this mezzo’s voice is not really suited to ‘early music’ and that it’s not really possible to equal, let alone surpass Nigel Rogers in the tenor narrative, but all concerned certainly projected the drama with fervour.
Gesualdo began the second half, with three madrigals which gave both the instrumentalists and singers plenty of chances to shine, and the concert closed with Stravinsky’s Cantata. This setting of Middle English and sixteenth and seventeenth century lyrics represents the composer’s wish to set English words in a “purer, non-dramatic form” than he had worked with in The Rake’s Progress. The music has some aspects in common with the florid phrasing of Monteverdi, so it was an appropriate inclusion although it felt like too much lamentation after what had gone before.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org