Kings Place’s Venus Unwrapped season (celebrating music written by women across the centuries) opened on Thursday evening with a sparkling presentation of works by the 17th-century Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi by members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and nine singers (including Mary Bevan) under the direction of Christian Curnyn. Strozzi’s work was also contrasted with a couple of medium-length pieces by her contemporary, Claudio Monteverdi.
The seven Strozzi pieces – mostly madrigals – covered a range of moods and scorings, from the busy and up-beat L’amante modesto to Bevan’s solo lament Lagrime mie, each with a beautifully judged instrumentation that made for a range of orchestral textures: the instrumental mix contained not only a triple harp (whose rippling continuo, adding to the more assertive chords from the theorbo, provided a suitably gossamer-like backing for Lagrime…) but also that rare beast, a lirone, whose gentle buzz imparted a satisfying edge to the continuo sound. The use of a baroque guitar was also inspired, as it provided a rhythmic drive of elegantly restrained wildness to the more vigorous numbers, such as Pace arrabbiata, a 17th-century incels’ lament for three male voices.
Curnyn is to be congratulated not only for his precise direction and for the colourful instrumental realisations of Strozzi’s dots on the page (which are only the beginning, as performance practice in music of the period accounts for a great deal), but also for the choice of voices, which complemented the music perfectly. There might have been a temptation to use singers with a straighter, more otherworldly sound, but the secular (and sexually charged) text demanded (and received) more body. Mary Bevan is well known, and the contrasting emotions she imparted to the mournful Lagrime… and the distracted È pazzo il mio core were special indeed. Of the other voices, Miriam Allen’s clear, joyous soprano, Helen Charlston’s rich, solid, sensuous contralto, and David Shipley’s fantastically sonorous basso profundo stood out. Particularly enjoyable was Le tre Gratie a Venere, which featured Allen, Charlston and Zoe Brookshaw in a trio that followed the classic early-baroque model of nimble, pinging phrases that, after abrupt cessation, moved into prolonged, winding suspension-filled cadences. The closing set of staggered entries on a descending phrase of the four-part Silentio nocivo, brought the first half to an impressive close.
It was, perhaps, slightly naughty to contrast Strozzi’s work with a pair of pieces that are arguably among the best Monteverdi wrote. The Strozzi madrigals were good, and provided an excellent apéritif, but the drama that Monteverdi conveys – even with just a single, accompanied solo line – in Volgendo il ciel and Il ballo delle ingrate demonstrates why he stands head and shoulders over his contemporaries; the single, daringly dirty, false relation in the final ‘Apprendete pietà…’ of Il ballo… alone makes his genius manifest.
The alternating choruses, solos and instrumental interludes of Volgendo… were contrasted adroitly through changes in instrumental and vocal texture (the added strings for this half of the concert made for an even fuller sound), and the ‘riffs’ (such as a few complimentary bars of rippling harp after the text reference to a lyre, or the frisky guitar strumming to depict the fleeing storms) were witty additions.
Il ballo…, Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo revisited, featured some magnificent singing from Charlston (as Venus) and Shipley (as Pluto); their parts are mostly recitative, but the quality and timbre of their voices, the gracefully applied decorations and the precisely controlled instrumental underlay, made for drama enough. With Zoe Brookshaw’s light, playful depiction of Cupid, and Mary Bevan’s sobbingly sotto voce Ingrate, perfection was achieved.