Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Arcangelo / Cohen @ Wigmore Hall, London

14 July 2015

An Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell composed by Purcell’s teacher and colleague John Blow, to words by John Dryden (an admirer and regular commissioner of Purcell’s music), promises a loving and brilliantly conceived tribute to ‘The British Orpheus’, and Arcangelo’s performance of it certainly delivered. Jonathan Cohen opted to use two high tenors (the hautes-contre of French Baroque tradition) – rather than the more usual countertenors – for the performance, and the vocal power generated by this combination, together with the two recorders and continuo, made for a high-octane experience. Blow’s use of word painting (a rapid repetition of the word ‘jarring’, accompanied by percussive effects from the theorbo, for example) was beautifully accomplished, and his references to Monteverdi’s style – through the use of repeated throat-articulated notes – reminded the listener, appropriately enough, of the latter composer’s Orfeo.

In celebration of Bastille Day, the Blow was framed by two French works from the same period. The first of these, François Couperin’s trio for two violins and continuo, Parnasse: L’Apothéose de Corelli, was also a tribute piece. It consisted of six very short dance movements, of different speeds and moods, designed as a flattering imitation of the hugely popular music of Arcangelo Corelli. The musical performance was flawless, but the spoken introduction to the movements (each of which lasted barely two minutes) meant that the changes in tempo lost their dramatic effect, and the piece had a fractured feel to it. Ultimately, the slight sense of dissatisfaction experienced came not from the (excellent) performance, but from the piece itself; somehow, in creating a tribute to Corelli, Couperin had lost his own mannered style, and gained little of Corelli’s simple brilliance.

Marc-Antonie Charpentier’s Trois leçons de Ténèbres pour le mercredi saint, the last of the three works presented, was a more sombre affair altogether. A setting of the lessons for the Tenebrae service on Wednesday of Holy Week, it made use of the full instrumental forces, and saw the lighter-toned viola da gamba replaced by the larger violone as a bass continuo instrument. The work was an accumulation of settings – written across a period of ten years in Charpentie’s career – of three chapters from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the words of each chapter darker and more portentous than those of the previous; the chapters were sub-divided into verses, each preceded by a sung Hebrew letter. The first and third chapters were sung by Stéphane Degout, whose rich but incisive baritone voice and nuanced French pronunciation gave the words an appropriate solemnity; in these settings he was accompanied by alternating pairs of flutes and violins, whose counterpoint, together with that of the violone, weaved sinuously around his simple lines. The contrasting central setting was sung by Thomas Boden in his effortless high-tenor register, accompanied by the continuo instruments alone. As with the Couperin, however, the listener was left questioning the programming of such a work. The performance was exemplary, and the combination of voices and instruments (particularly in the way that each verse was gently and elegantly finished with a coda consisting of the Hebrew letter of the next verse) was atmospheric and very much of its period. But for all that, the work is a severe (for the place and period) liturgical piece, rather than a concert work, and it presents the listener, essentially, with thirty minutes of accompanied recitative unrelieved by the passages of choral counterpoint often provided in Charpentier’s other religious works.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.

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