This was the second appearance of the countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic at the Wigmore Hall, a year after his acclaimed debut. On that occasion he brought with him a clutch of flashy arias by Vivaldi and his Venetian contemporaries. This recital was more balanced and reflective in tone, with eight operatic highlights by German-born composer Johann Adolph Hasse.
Married to the notoriously feisty prima donna soprano Faustina Bordoni and hugely successful in his lifetime (both artistically and financially), Hasse has been a neglected figure since his death in 1783. Even the Baroque opera revival of the last 20 years has seen him side-lined, despite being championed by the likes of Cencic in concert halls and on disc. In a sense, one can see why. Compared to the likes of Handel, Vivaldi and even Porpora, Hasse’s music lacks distinction and feels especially formulaic, with little differentiation between and within the 60-odd stage works he composed in a long international career.
Still, Cencic did his best to vary the programme with four pairs of arias, alternating the pace between slow and fast. The gentler arias proved the most affecting – melodically fairly simple, but sung with expressiveness and clarity of pronunciation. ‘Se mai senti’ from Tito Vespasiano and ‘Per pietà, bell’idol mio’ from Artaserse were especially well done in this respect. Of the more virtuosic numbers, ‘Solca il mar e nel periglio’ from Tigrane best suited Cencic’s style, with its gutsy rhythm and runs of high notes, bristling with vibrato, sung against a background of rocking strings imitating the sea storm of the libretto.
In this, the six members of Greek Baroque ensemble Armonia Atenea, under director and harpsichordist George Petrou, provided solid support – despite the odd sour violin note and some very lengthy tuning up in between works. Petrou has worked closely with Cencic before on a disc of Hasse arias and a full-length recording of Siroe, re di Persia, but he and his instrumentalists were equally at ease with Vivaldi’s beautiful Mandolin Concerto in G in which the fastidious Theodoros Kitsos took the tricky solo part. Armonia Atenea’s rustic, tub thumping delivery of Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata in D minor, with its variations on the Spanish dance tune ‘La Follia’, proved something of a show stopper, and also served to reveal why that composer’s reputation has continued to prosper, while Hasse’s has not.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.