Monday evening at The Wigmore was a highly enjoyable southern-European collaboration between the Catalan counter-tenor Xavier Sabata and the Greek orchestral ensemble Armonia Atenea.
Sabata has a deliciously emollient voice; it steers the middle line of the counter-tenor spectrum – between the full-bodied and the reedy – and is full of subtle, honeyed overtones: perfect for the Italian Baroque repertoire that made up the evening. Particularly impressive were his accounts of the plaintive arias Già mi sembra al carro avvinto, Voi d’un figlio tan to misero and Or, mi pento by Orlandini, Vivaldi and Hasse respectively, in which he allowed emotion to build slowly throughout the repeated sections, such that the final da capo passages received the full weight of ornamentation (in this respect, the decoration of the final cadence in the Hasse was spine-tingling). Perhaps his most moving rendition, though, was saved for the only modern piece of the evening, the first of his two encores, Pera sto tholo potami by the Greek composer, Manos Hatzidakis. This was a gentle lullaby, accompanied by the lightest of orchestral tones (including the other-wordly sound of the harpsichord strings being stroked with the back of a hand).
Baroque performance-practice these days seems to have entered a phase of exploration of texture – ensembles such as L’Arpeggiata are full of the sound of percussion and plucking – and if this appeals, then Armonia Atenea is an ensemble to look out for. The band’s seven players, directed by George Petrou from the harpsichord, produce a wide range of haunting, zesty and robust tones that have an extraordinary earthy quality to them: harmonically vibrating attacks from the bowed double-bass; strings slapped against finger-boards; strings bowed lightly to produce wind-across-a-pipe harmonics; gently whispered arpeggios from the theorbo (an example of the latter, over the quiet strings in the da capo section of Vivaldi’s Gelido in ogni vena was truly magical). The interpretations, too, are inspired: the brief bowed section in the central movement of Vivaldi’s C-major Mandolin Concerto contrasted splendidly with the delicate pizzicato with which the rest of the concerto was accompanied; dotted rhythms were severely observed, such that the D-minor Trio Sonata by the same composer had an unrelentingly mannered feel to it – although the Vivace movement was performed as a steam-engine trope, with a slow, halting beginning that gradually increased to express-speed. Like L’Arpeggiata, Armonia Atenea are unafraid to inject a little crossover into their performances, and the two outer movements of Vivaldi’s G-minor Concerto for Strings that opened the evening were given over to cheekily jazzy syncopation. Unfortunately, Armonia Atenea’s current discography doesn’t include an album of these Baroque instrumental works, but they need to release one, as they are attractive and accomplished performances.
The melding of the soloist and instruments, however, was not always successful. While Armonia Atenea’s tone was vibrant and exciting, it sometimes (and particularly in the first half) swamped Sabata’s voice; the low furioso passages in Orlandini’s Ciò che donò la frode, and O del mio caro ben, for example, were a little lost, but where Sabata’s pitch was high (such as in Torri’s Vorresti col tuo pianto), his tone was able to cut through the texture, and the quiet, intense passages in Handel’s Orride larve demonstrated a gloriously synergetic interpretation of the idiom by all performers.