Whoever curated this programme, presented by Elin Manahan Thomas and the Academy of Ancient Music, is an uncanny forecaster.
The Four Seasons: Nature’s Voice and Verse could not have been more apt in its choice of extreme weather arias by Purcell and Handel, interspersed by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concerti.
As snow flurries swirled outside, an audience huddled in the Wigmore Hall to hear the penultimate leg of this enjoyable concert tour. One of the challenges the AAM set themselves was to cast fresh light on Vivaldi’s most famous works: partly this would come as a consequence of being performed by an early music ensemble (as opposed to a grandiose orchestra or, indeed, a mobile phone), and of the unique sound quality of period instruments, but they attempted to give the concerti further definition by prefacing each one with a sonnet on the relevant season, read in Italian by harpsichordist Giulia Nuti.
Like the seasons themselves, the band took a while to properly warm up, with “La Primavera” sounding a little stiff, but by “L’Estate” the instruments settled into an easy rapport. Director and soloist Pavlo Beznosiuk did not shy away from show, in “L’Autumno” he exaggerated the dissonant, drunken chords of the second movement, and inflected “L’Inverno” with quirky decoration, but nonetheless provided a supportive lead. Nuti’s continuo playing was tastefully elaborate throughout, but the poetry asides, whilst an attractive idea on paper, were of limited value in practice.
Manahan Thomas’ arias provided more welcome interludes between the concerti. This Welsh soprano has developed a distinguished solo career in recent years since emerging from the chorus of the Monteverdi Choir, and her pure, silvery voice is well suited to the early repertoire she favours. Arias and dances from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen seemed to highlight the chaste, almost ethereal quality of her voice: “See, even Night her self is here”, a saturnine study on the approach of dusk, and its joyful companion serenade to dawn, “Now the Night is chas’d away”, were especially beautiful.
With Handel’s “Like clouds, stormy winds them impelling” from his secular oratorio The Triumph of Truth and Time, a close replication of Nerone’s show-stopping aria from Agrippina, came a greater challenge. Clear enunciation of this breakneck libretto is near impossible, and although Manahan Thomas faired well with the fiendish runs of coloratura she was clearly more comfortable with the more lyrical description of light zephyr breezes in “Finch d’un Zeffiro Soave” from Ezio.
An inexorable conclusion came with the raging tempests of Cleopatra’s triumphant “Da Tempeste” aria from Giulio Cesare. My fear that Manahan Thomas’ soprano may be too pretty-pretty for this rather lascivious role was quickly allayed, and her interpretation was richly seductive with some plucky ornaments in the da cappo repeat. The encore was richly deserved and her choice of Vivaldi’s aria “Dell’aura al sussurrar”, which recycles the opening Primavera theme, brought us neatly full circle.