A New Year Visit to Seventeenth-Century Venice

United KingdomUnited Kingdom ‘Echoes of Venice’: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Matthew Wadsworth (theorbo). Wigmore Hall, London, 3.1.2013 (MB)

Monteverdi: Si dolce è’l tormento
Barbara Strozzi: Rissolvetevi pensieri (from op.6)
Alessandro Piccinini: Toccata X
Ciaccona in partite variate
Strozzi: L’amante segreto (from op.2)
Giovanni Kapsberger: Libro quarto d’intavolatura di chitarrone: Passacaglia
Strozzi: Che si può fare
Francesca Caccini: Lasciatemi morire
Benedetto Ferrari: Voglio di vita uscir
Piccinini: Toccata VI
Partita variate sopra quest’aria frances detta l’Alemana
Corrente terza
Strozzi: L’Eraclita amoroso (from op.6)

In a fit of excessive New Year enthusiasm, I initially typed the year for this recital as 3013. It transpires that a further millennium has not yet passed, though nevertheless a degree of time travel somehow seemed comforting on a dark early January night, that time travel taking us back to seventeenth-century Venice. Monteverdi one might have expected, yet he appeared but once, at the very beginning – and what a change it was to hear in a recital focused upon any period – or none – the music of not just one but two female composers.

Monteverdi’s Si dolce e’l tormento was as notable for its theorbo ‘accompaniment’, Matthew Wadsworth offering considerable variation in attack, dynamic contrast, and mood, as for Carolyn Sampson’s intelligent ornamentation, admirably suited to the text. Barbara Strozzi provided the greater part of what remained of the first half. Sampson and Wadsworth showed her to be far more than an ‘interesting historical figure’. Despite the strophic form of the Monteverdi item, Strozzi’s Rissolvetevi, pensieri sounded in a sense simpler, perhaps more of a song in the modern sense, melody very much to the fore. At the same time, here and elsewhere, one felt that the opera stage was not so very distant; both ‘song’ and ‘aria’, then, seemed apposite frames of reference. L’amante segreto sounded almost as an operatic scena. Its plaintiveness was established from the outset by Sampson; even if one did not have, or did not understand, the words, one would readily have guessed their meaning. Her voice sounded ‘pure’ without the bloodlessness that afflicts a good number of ‘early music’ sopranos. This sounded very much as the post-Cavalli music that it is, certain aspects of melody and harmony recalling Strozzi’s teacher. Che si può fare was likewise beautifully sung. If, for my taste, a little more vibrato would not have gone amiss, there was nothing aggressive about its denial and there was no denying the cleanness of Sampson’s tone and the sincerity of her delivery.

In between the Strozzi items came solo pieces for Wadsworth. A little of such music goes a long way for me, I am afraid; I suspect it is infinitely more rewarding for the player than the listener, especially when the latter finds himself in a relatively large hall. (A seventeenth-century octagon room, such as that at Salzburg’s Schloss Hellbrunn, might well offer a different experience.) In the two pieces by Alessandro Piccinini, Wadsworth was an admirable guide, happy to leaven his tone with vibrato. The constant need to retune is a bit of a bore, but the fault lies with the instrument, not the performer. A passacaglia by Giovanni Kapsberger was cleverly programmed so that its ground bass ran straight into Strozzi’s Che si può fare, the solo item functioning as a prelude.

Francesca Caccini, daughter of Giulio, opened the second half. Her ‘Lasciatemi qui solo’ was again song-like, seemingly in the tradition of her father’s music. Sampson’s Italian sometimes sounded a little careful, though meaning was always conveyed in an intimate performance, her deathly closing whisper, ‘Gia sono esangu’e smorto,’ a case in point. Benedetto Ferrari’s ‘Voglio di vita uscir’, despite its title, offered a lively contrast, something of a relief given the general tenor of the programme. Monteverdi sounded closer than elsewhere, both Zefiro torna and the notorious closing duet of L’incoronazione di Poppea – Ferrari a prime candidate as composer – coming to mind. Three more pieces by Piccinini followed. Again they were clearly well performed, yet to my doubtless untutored ears they proved rather tedious; perhaps some people feel the same about nineteenth-century piano music, but I think I shall stick with Chopin and Liszt. Strozzi’s L’Eraclito amoroso seemed to breathe the world of a small opera stage, though equally one could imagine it properly in more intimate surroundings, performed by the composer herself.

If it would be difficult to claim any of this repertoire, even Monteverdi’s contribution, as ‘great’ music, much of it affords ample interest, especially when performed as well as here. It was a pity, then, that the programme note, arguably more important for listeners in a concert of unfamiliar repertoire than in, say, a performance of Winterreise, was often confusing and/or poorly-written. Rick Jones’s opening sentences read as follows:

In 1612, Venice ended 45-year old Monteverdi’s year of unemployment since walking out on Mantua. He’d become famous through his operas Orfeo and the lost Arianna [certainly not lost in 1612!], and defended his ideas in the press, so that most employers were afraid to take him on. The merchant city state in the north was up for it though and never regretted it.

Alas, matters did not improve thereafter. It was a rare lapse, though, in terms of the Wigmore Hall’s typically high standards and did not detract unduly from the music, which for the most part spoke very well for itself.

As an encore, we were offered the English folksong, ‘I will give my love an apple’. Wadsworth explained that it was a somewhat oblique contribution to Britten year, given that Britten once set the song. At any rate, this was a loving and lovely performance.

Mark Berry