Et in Arcadia Ego: A Highly-Enjoyable Evening from Concentus VII

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lotti, Barsanti, Vivaldi, Handel, Scarlatti, Bach: Concentus VII, St Mary’s Church, Totnes, 29.4.2017. (PRB)

Concentus VII - credit Philip R Buttall
Concentus VII (c) Philip R Buttall

Antonio Lotti – Ti sento, O Dio bendato
Francesco Barsanti – Sonata Op.1 No.3
Vivaldi – Sonata in C minor, RV 53
Handel – Pensieri notturni di Filli (Nel dolce dell’oblio)Mi palpita il cor
Scarlatti – Bella, s’io t’amo
Bach – Concerto in D minor, BWV 974

Totnes is a market town at the head of the estuary of the River Dart in South Devon, in England’s far South West, and has a long recorded history dating back to AD 907. Today it is a thriving centre for music, art, theatre—and natural health. In 1999 Totnes Early Music Society (TEMS) was set up to offer historically-informed recitals in the genre, regularly bringing leading exponents and ensembles to the area. The town is also close to Dartington, acclaimed for its international Summer School held each August. TEMS concerts are now given in association with The Arts at Dartington. It is nevertheless a great tribute to the support of its informed audience base, and the indefatigable input from its administration team, that it continues to function so successfully in a niche market. It would undoubtedly be really difficult to garner similar support in the county’s largest conurbations many times the size of this mini-metropolis.

Vocal and instrumental ensemble Concentus VII had the privilege of bringing the current season to a close. It was especially apt that the performance should take place in the town’s Mother Church—the society’s spiritual home, as described by TEMS Chair in her brief opening address. It also provided the perfect opportunity for performers and audience alike to appreciate the new staging which the society first made use of at a previous recital last month. It is very easy to take such matters as presentation for granted, in purpose-built venues, but this new, locally-sourced staging has simply transformed TEMS and other performances in the church, both in terms of visibility and sound. It has been undeniably well worth the financial outlay borne partly by the Arts Council, the church itself, and the generosity of local donors.

Concentus VII titled the evening’s programme Et in Arcadia Ego—in acknowledgment of the Academy of Arcadia. That Italian literary society was established in 1690 to reform Italian poetry, which had been deemed to have become too extravagant. It advocated a simpler, direct style, taking its inspiration from an idealised world of rural innocence. In 1696 the Academy admitted musicians. Handel, for example, attended meetings when he was in Italy, and Alessandro Scarlatti was also a member. Et in Arcadia Ego also happens to be the title of the ensemble’s latest CD, conveniently available, of course, on the night, but also as a perfect souvenir of the highly-enjoyable music-making on offer.

The concert opened with Lotti’s Ti sento, O Dio bendato for soprano, oboe and continuo. The pure clarity of diction, ease of production and effective use of ornamentation from American-born soprano Emily Atkinson made a tremendous impression, not only from the simply technical standpoint, but also in terms of demeanour and body language. While the text and translation were available for each vocal item, it almost seemed superfluous, such was Atkinson’s tremendous ability to characterise every word sung, and convey its intent (even if full understanding would be restricted only to those with a good working knowledge of the Italian language).

Equally, cellist Sophie Willis despatched the continuo part with panache, especially where there was some opportunity to shine. Otherwise she still never made it sound merely the all-important bass-line as such, doubled by the keyboard player’s left hand. Similarly Dan Tidhar’s accompaniment at the harpsichord was assured, and the harmonies realised with ample invention, though never to the detriment of the ensemble balance, nor the hierarchy of the vocal line and obbligato oboe part. That part was effectively delivered by Belinda Paul.

Barsanti’s Sonata for Recorder Op.1 No.3 introduced another member of the ensemble, Louise Strickland. She proved an accomplished soloist throughout each of the work’s four varied movements, although at times was somewhat overpowered, particularly by the harpsichord. It was clear that she had virtually committed the solo recorder part to memory, so rather than having the music directly in front, somewhat physically obscuring the emerging sound from her instrument, the music stand might have been better placed slightly off-centre. In fact, when Strickland returned to the platform for a subsequent number, she had a different instrument to hand, a treble. Perhaps not as intimate-sounding as the previous, it would still have projected better in the Barsanti. Of course, such subtle questions of balance are not helped by practising in an empty church, but having a large, and inevitably sound-absorbing audience later.

The Barsanti was followed by a similar instrumental work, this time from the eminently more prolific pen of Vivaldi. Here, similar problems of balance did not obtain, given the far greater ability of the baroque oboe to dominate the texture whenever necessary.

Two more vocal items gave Atkinson further opportunity to shine. Clearly, the fact that she could deliver the complete programme from memory—without the physical barrier imposed either by holding or reading from the musical score—added greatly to the effectiveness of the performance.

The next item was Bach’s Concerto in D minor BWV 974, after the Oboe Concerto by Alessandro Marcello. It provided respite for the other three performers. It also offered a good example of a Vivaldi craze which swept across Germany. Composers imitated the Italian’s style, and the Court at Dresden also commissioned many works from him. Unsurprisingly Bach was profoundly influenced by all this, and made several transcriptions for solo harpsichord of Italianate concertos. In the process, he adapted works by Torelli, Marcello, and, of course, Vivaldi. The original Marcello oboe concerto was a good example of this, and gave Tidhar an opportunity to put his two-manual instrument from veteran British harpsichord-maker Colin Booth through its paces. Even so, it seemed a pity that all four instrumentalists could not have come together and given one of the plethora of Trio Sonatas instead, for example, by Loeillet or Telemann.

But despite that minor disappointment, the final work more than made amends,. It allowed Atkinson to demonstrate yet another of her impressive vocal attributes, and only really hinted at earlier: her exciting use of coloratura, so necessary in much of Handel’s solo output. With nigh-perfect control, she made light work of the bristling technical difficulties, which never got in the way of the simple, yet vital art of musical communication. Even though no encore was ultimately forthcoming, the memory of Atkinson’s most beguiling charm and vocal prowess will remain for some time to come. All in all, then, it was the ideal way to sign off another outstanding season from Totnes Early Music Society.

Philip R Buttall

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