Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Emma Kirkby @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

21 May 2009

St John's Smith Square

St John’s Smith Square (Photo: Matthew Andrews/SJSS)

This recital of early lute and harpsichord songs was specifically chosen by Dame Emma Kirkby, and covered a wide spectrum of early English songs. From Henry Lawes to Henry Purcell, her choice was both eclectic and judicious allowing her to show that even now she has few peers in this repertoire.

Given her choice of repertoire it should come as no surprise that despite the fact she has just turned 60, Emma Kirkby’s voice retains the girlish purity of a soprano half her age. She has always been astute in the choice of what she sings, and makes no pretence that hers is an early music voice free of vibrato and in possession of a bell-like clarity, that suits Baroque music like a glove. She has never tried to overstretch her instrument, unlike certain other sopranos who shall remain nameless, which is probably why her singing is as engaging now as it was when she started out back in the 70s.

Her voice may not be to everyone’s taste and I have to confess that by the end of this generous recital the ‘sameness’ of it all was beginning to tire, especially when one’s used to thrill of a big soprano voice, but I’d no more like to hear Dame Emma sing Strauss than I would Deborah Voigt sing Dowland, so I should be grateful for hearing her excel at what she does best.

The first half of the recital focussed on works by Henry Lawes, Robert Johnson, John Danyel and John Dowland where the primary accompaniment was in the form of a lute, expertly played by Jakob Lindberg. One of the most remarkable songs in this half was Aridane’s Lament by Lawes, which with its dramatic retelling of the Ariadne/Theseus story foreshadows Handel, and even Haydn, in its intensity. Kirkby plumbed the depths of despair and rose to giddy heights of ecstasy as she told the story of poor Ariadne’s fate. For a work written in the 17th century it seemed ahead of its time.

After the interval we were treated to some delicate renditions of songs by Maurice Greene and John Blow but it was the concluding works by Henry Purcell that not only showed what a genius Purcell was, but how Kirkby has honed her art to perfection. She was limpid and heart-breaking in She loves and she confesses too and fiery, demented and properly over the top in Bess of Bedlam and was superbly accompanied by Steven Devine on the harpsichord throughout. An undoubted highlight of what has been an unforgettable silver jubilee for the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music.

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