The Brook Street Band Banish Dreary January with a Trip to Eighteenth-Century Italy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rome, Venice and Naples – Handel’s Italian Legacy: The Brook Street Band (Nicki Kennedy [soprano], Rachel Harris & Farran Scott [baroque violin], Tatty Theo [baroque cello], Carolyn Gibley [harpsichord]), St John’s Smith Square, London, 29.1.2017. (CS)

Vivaldi Lunga dal vago volto Rv.680
Corelli – Trio Sonata Op.3 No.12 in A
A. Scarlatti – Cantata: La Fenice
Handel – Sinfonia HWV339 in Bb
Corelli – Trio Sonata Op.4 No.8 in D minor
Vivaldi – Trio Sonata Op.1 No.9 Rv.75
Handel – Gloria

It was a pity that there was not a larger audience for The Brook Street Band’s Sunday afternoon programme of sacred and secular cantatas, and assorted trio sonatas, at St John’s Smith Square. For, the directness and sincerity of the group’s playing which charmed our ears was as heart-warming and heart-winning as the platform glow of complementary primary colours – red curtains, royal blue attire and emerald lighting – which assuaged a damp, dark January day.

We enjoyed an Italian sojourn at the turn of the eighteenth century – a tour focused upon Rome, where Corelli and Alessandro Scarlatti developed esteemed careers, Vivaldi spent three Carnival seasons, and Handel visited and played under Corelli’s direction. The programme offered both vocal and instrumental fare in the form of solo cantatas and trio sonatas.

Mezzo-soprano Nicki Kennedy tapped into just the right mode for the varied cantatas: communicative and expressive but never overly operatic, her performances made me reflect on the way these Italian cantatas formed a bridge between Italian opera seria and the earliest dramatic cantatas in Germany.

Vivaldi’s yearning tale of the shepherd Fileno’s unrequited love for Elvira, Lungi dal vago volto, opened the concert. It was notable for the lovely interplay between the vocal line and Rachel Harris’s agile, expressive and characterful violin – the obbligato partnerings were a delight throughout the programme – and also for Kennedy’s superb breath-control during Vivaldi’s extensive, elaborate phrases in the slow episodes. Here, as elsewhere, Kennedy gracefully swept vocal challenges aside and displayed a bright sound and impressive accuracy. Harris was unruffled by Vivaldi’s double-stopped motifs and she evinced bucolic sturdiness.

The form of Vivaldi’s cantata follows a conventional recitative-aria-recitative pattern, and the concluding aria – in which Fileno wins back his love and clasps her tightly, promising to be faithful – was full of delightful humour. We did not know the exact context and events that were being depicted, though, as no text was printed in the programme. As I lamented this omission to my guest, cellist Tatty Theo announced that, in fact, text-sheets should have been distributed; and so we were able to enjoy the subsequent vocal items from a position of knowledge!

Alessandro Scarlatti’s cantata, La Fenice (1703), is one of more than seven hundred such works that the composer penned – miniature scenas which often incorporated solo instruments whose musical arguments were designed to set off the vocal line. This particular cantata was robust of phrasing and thrilling of tone as delivered by Kennedy. The two violins formed an expressive pair to complement Kennedy’s depiction of the phoenix which rises from ashes, a symbol of freedom for the Arcadian nymphs and shepherds. The fiddles’ fluid commentary was no less affecting than the cello’s contribution to the gentle, expansive recitatives. The final recitativo accompagnato – depicting the phoenix’s ascent to heaven – was striking: sterling pedals in the bass with vibrant string-crossings from the fiddle portraying the fiery bird’s resurrection.

In 2001 Handel’s 15-minute Gloria, apparently dormant for 300 years, was unearthed. The musical archeologist Hans Joachim Marx, who brought the ‘lost’ work into the light, was quoted at the time, in The Times, as saying that the significance of the work was immediately apparent but that he recognised that he would have a lot of work to do to prove the Gloria’s value and authenticity. In fact, scholars and aficionados have been equally eager to accept and praise the work.

Whatever the ‘veracity’ of the ascription, Kennedy’s performance was convincing and admirable: she soared through the long lines without strain; sought every opportunity to underscore the text; exhibited vocal sheen and reverential awe as required; and indulged in flamboyant showmanship in the concluding, extravagant Amens.

The programme’s instrumental works offered an opportunity to hear the forthright, but unostentatious, dramatic declamations of Harris’s fiddle pronouncements; the complementary subtleties of Farran Scott’s more lyrical dialogues; and, Tatty Theo’s impressively agile forays up and down the cello’s fingerboard. I’d have liked more theatrical flair from Carolyn Gibley, whose harpsichord – at least from my vantage point mid-Hall – was sometimes scarcely audible. For example, the Grave which opens Corelli’s Op.3 No.12 sonata seems positively and deliberately to invite exuberant showmanship – but while the fiddles obliged, GIbley was fairly restrained.

That said, The Brook Street Band sashayed us stylishly through the baroque suspensions, cycles-of-fifths, major-minor contrasts and ornamental flourishes. This is familiar terrain, but one was still taken unawares by the varied bow strokes, the dynamic fiddle-duetting, the incredibly agile – and impressively clean – cello scurrying.

The Andante of Handel’s ‘Sinfonia’ HWV339, performed here in its trio sonata variant, was particularly eloquent, the octave leaps in the bass complemented by sinuous upper parts. Harris’s string-crossing heroics in the Gigue of the same work were astoundingly relaxed.   In the Allemande: Vivace, Theo scampered furiously but gracefully.

This was a well-constructed, well-considered and well-received programme.

Claire Seymour

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