Baroque on the High Seas: A Memorable Voyage.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, Anne Katharina Schreiber (violin/director). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 18.5.2013 (CC)

Vivaldi: Siam navi all’onde (L’Olimpiade)
Concerto in F, RV572, “Il Proteo o sia il mondo al rovescio”
Handel: Finchè un zeffiro soave (Ezio)
Io son quella navicella (Imeneo)
Scherza in mar la navicella (Lotario
Telemann: Suite in C major, “Hamburger Ebb und Fluth”
Vivaldi: Sum in medio tempestatum, RV632

This was a tremendously programmed concert and, moreover, one which delivered its promise. The central idea of the sea – a prime metaphor for tempestuous emotions, after all – formed the basis for a trawl through well- and lesser-known waters.

That’s enough water-based puns. British soprano, Carolyn Sampson is one of our finest singers in this repertoire, as her many recordings attest. Part of the appeal of this concert was the appearance of an aria from an opera by Vivaldi (we need to hear more of these). “Siam navi all’onde” (‘We are ships abandoned’) was an appropriately gritty, active way to launch the evening. Vivaldi’s long melismas were expertly given by the clearly unflappable Sampson. The chill waters were clearly complemented by a bracing wind, with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on top form, antiphonal violins giving their all. The orchestra got a chance to shine in the F major Concerto, RV572, “Il Proteo o sia il mondo al rovescio”, a tribute to the sea-god who could change shape at will. The Freiburg ensemble was able to project the various characters of the movements with aplomb, and director, Anne Katharina Schreiber got a chance to shine: the performance was beautifully jaunty in the opening Allegro, gallant in the central Largo, followed by a final Allegro full of clean lines. In short, a joy.

The suave lines of the aria from Ezio, “Finchè un zeffiro soave” (‘So long as a gentle breeze’) revealed Sampson’s exquisite breath control. Restrained yet gloriously radiant, Sampson was as impressive in Handel’s expressive mode as she was in Vivaldi’s exuberance. The aria from Imeneo, “Io son quella navicella” (‘I am like a little boat’), which contains some remarkably imaginative writing from Handel, showed clearly Sampson’s strength over her entire range, while the Lotario excerpt, “Scherza in mar la navicella” (‘The little boat rocks in the sea’) rounded off the Handel group with the expected fireworks – but not without Sampson re-stamping her expressivity on the music in the more restrained section, “Non così questo mio core” (‘But my heart will not so easily yield’).

To provide respite for Sampson, Telemann’s orchestral Suite, “Hamburger Ebb und Fluth” was the perfect choice. Those of us who love to fight Telemann’s corner – there’s something about his cleanliness of approach, his directness, that is utterly charming – can point to works like this as evidence of his talent. The piece, for all its occasional naivety, is ravishing. In a sense it is Telemann’s Water Music, although it was not used for anything as ceremonial as Handel’s music. Telemann instead depicts water’s myriad forms. The lachrymose opening of the Overture and its counterpart, a bustling allegro, leads into the eloquent, recorder-dominated Sarabande, “Der schlafende Thetis” (‘Thetis asleep’). A sequence of dance movements – a string of pearls, really – moves through a Bourée, a softly swaying Laure (“Der verliebte Neptunus” – ‘Neptune in Love’), a cheeky Gavotte (Naiads at play), a tempest and a fascinatingly scored Gigue, “Ebb ubd Fluth” before a final Canarie – a fast dance – winds up the fun with decidedly rustic merrymaking. The Freiburgers seemed to be able to shift Affekt on a whim. Telemann deserves performances like this – and, indeed, thrives on them.

The return to Vivaldi showcased the ecclesiastical side of his output with the motet Sum in medio tempestatum (‘I am like a troubled ship’). Sampson did not disappoint, her intervals clean and smooth. Two arias are separated by a dramatic recitative before a florid “Hallelujah” closes the work. The second aria is far more reflective than the first – having discovered that the love of Jesus is the answer to her problems, the later aria celebrates the stars shining down calmly on her. Tender and glowing, Sampson was underpinned by the most intimate of accompaniments from the Freiburg orchestra. This was remarkable singing, and from the orchestra, remarkable playing. A most memorable concert.

Colin Clarke