United Kingdom Monteverdi, Schubert, Brahms. Francesca Aspromonte (soprano), Krystian Adam (tenor), Peter Davoren (tenor), Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Wigmore Hall, London, 4.5.2015 (RB)
Monteverdi – Hor che’l ciel e la terra e’l vento tace
Lamento della ninfa
Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
Tirsi e Clorinda
Schubert – Gondelfahrer
Brahms – Liebeslieder Waltzes Op 52
The Wigmore Hall was packed for this long-awaited comeback concert by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Sir John Eliot Gardiner was on the podium and soloists Francesca Aspromonte, Krystian Adam and Peter Davoren joined the choir for the opening Monteverdi madrigals.
The opening three madrigals were taken from Monteverdi’s Book VIII which he entitled Madrigali guerrieri ed amorosi (‘Warlike and amorous madrigals’) while the last is from Book VII. All four use different vocal and instrumental groupings. The opening Hor che’l ciel e la lerra e’l vento tace (‘Now that sky and earth and wind are stilled’) is based on a sonnet by the great Italian poet, Petrarch. It was written in the shadow of the Thirty Years War and uses the composer’s elaborate stile concitato. The Monteverdi Choir opened with beautifully blended hushed polyphonic textures – the intonation and diction were excellent. The subsequent elaborate vocal gymnastics were handled well and there were some highly dramatic and thrilling contrasts; the violinists of the English Baroque Soloists stood up to accompany the singers and gave us vigorous playing. Gardiner did a marvellous job keeping a grip on the fluctuating musical pulse and I particularly enjoyed his handling of the composer’s rich expressive harmonies and textures in the last two lines of the poem.
In Lamento della ninfa three shepherds act as our narrators in a scene which describes a nymph’s distress after being thwarted in love. Francesca Aspromonte took on the role of the nymph – there was a gorgeous sheen to her voice and she produced a very pure focused sound. Occasionally she used a very light vibrato and there were very subtle and elegantly shaded vocal inflections. Peter Davoren with Gareth Treseder and David Shipley from the Monteverdi Choir took on the role of the shepherds and they did an excellent job setting the scene and providing a commentary on the drama. I was struck by some of the extraordinary dissonances in this piece for example on the words “suo dolor”. David Miller provided a deft and tastefully executed accompaniment on the lute.
Gardiner left the stage for the next piece and the three vocal soloists were joined by the English Baroque Soloists for Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. The battle between the two eponymous protagonists takes place at night and is described in a poem by Tasso. I found this to be the least successful performance of the evening. Polish tenor, Krystian Adam, took on the role of the narrator and had the lion’s share of the singing. He brought a warm lyricism to the role and he handled the tongue twisting rapid vocal figurations very well. However, the dramatic scenes described never really sparked into life – a wider range of vocal timbres and dynamics might have helped with this. Occasionally, the balance was not quite right and his voice was drowned out by the English Baroque Soloists. Aspromonte and Davoren did a reasonably good job with the roles of Tancredi and Clorinda although Aspromonte’s intonation in the upper vocal register was not quite right at the very end of the piece. Aspromonte and Adam joined Sir John and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists for the final madrigal, Tirsi e Clori which is a celebration of the dance. Gardiner kept the lilting dance rhythms springy and light while the two soloists were both superb in the roles of Tirsi and Clori, offering fresh and invigorating singing. The Monteverdi Choir ended the first half in style with increasingly animated rhythms in a joyous and unbridled piece of singing.
Charlotte Forrest and Eleanor Meyrell were the pianists for the second half which opened with three choral songs by Schubert. The men of the Monteverdi Choir gave us flowing lyrical lines in Gondelfahrer. Esther Brazil, a member of the Monteverdi Choir produced some ravishing singing in Ständchen and there was excellent interplay between her and the tenors and basses from the choir. The Schubert selection concluded with Gebet which the composer wrote in 1824 when he was staying with the Esterhazy family. It was originally written for vocal quartet and piano but it was here arranged for the full choir and four soloists. This was a dramatic and powerful performance which unleashed the full expressive potential of the song while retaining the lyricism and poetry at the core of the piece.
I remember listening to the Monteverdi Choir performing Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes many years ago at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. On that occasion they were accompanied on a period piano and mezzo and tenor soloists sang the seventh and penultimate waltzes. For this concert the pianists were playing on a modern Steinway and Gardiner also decided to use a small cohort of mezzos and tenors for the aforementioned waltzes rather than soloists. I was completely bowled over when I heard Gardiner’s choir in this piece before and they have lost none of their magic. I loved Gardiner’s elegant shaping of the lilting waltz rhythms and the way in which he characterised each of the individual songs while at the same time linking them together so seamlessly. There was sense of lightness and playfulness in the first waltz while the eighth was graceful and elegant and had some lovely tapered phrases. There was power and passion in Am Gesteine rauscht die Flut and the pain of rejection in Wohl Schön bewandt. Am Donaustrande had a soft blossoming radiance while Ein kleiner hübscher Vogel was supremely playful and coquettish. The tenors gave us a sensitive, gorgeous rendition of Nicht Wandle, mein Licht. The pianists did an excellent job characterising each of the individual dances and brought out the distinctive charm of the set.
Overall, this was superlative music making of the highest order.