Sensuous Songs from Ciara Hendrick, Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque at Kings Place

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Maria, dolce Maria (various): Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano), Rachel Podger (baroque violin), Brecon Baroque [Rachel Brown (flute), Reiko Ichise (gamba), Daniele Caminiti (theorbo/guitar), Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord)], Kings Place, London, 22.2.2019. (CS)

Rachel Podger (c) Theresa Pewal
Rachel Podger (c) Theresa Pewal

Francesca Caccini – Selections from Il primo libro delle musiche: ‘Romanesca’ (arr. Luigi Cozzolino); No.4 Madrigal, ‘Maria, dolce Maria’; No.34 Canzonatta, ‘Fresche aurette’; No.28, Canzonatta: ‘Non sò se quell sorriso’
Isabella Leonarda – Sonata duodecima Op.16 No.12
Handel – Selections from Neun Deutsche Arien: ‘Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden’ HWV210; ‘Künft’ger Zeiten eitler Kummer’ HWV202
Caccini – ‘Ciaccona’ from Il primo libro delle musiche
Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre – Violin Sonata No.2 in D,
J.S. Bach – Cello Suite No.2 in D minor BWV1008 (transposed into A minor for violin)
Jacquet de La Guerre
– ‘Les Sommeil d’Ulisse’ from Cantates françoioses No.3

More Venuses were ‘unwrapped’ at Kings Place, in this joyful concert by Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque, in which stylishness was enlivened with ripples of zest and consummate poise was balanced with a consoling playfulness.

Francesca Caccini’s Primo libro delle musiche was published in Florence in 1618 and was a notable contribution to secular and sacred monody.  Born in Florence on 18 September 1587, the daughter of Giulio Caccini (1546–1618), Francesca was educated by her father and raised in the midst of the flourishing creativity of the Medici court.  She sang as part of a family ensemble, the Concerto Caccini, and later in an ensemble of three sopranos with her sister and Vittoria Archilei, a concerto delle donne in the model of the legendary Three Ladies of Ferrara.  She was an accomplished instrumentalist, performing on lute, guitar, and keyboard; oh, and she wasn’t bad at poetry either, writing in both classical Latin and vernacular Tuscan.  Il primo libro delle musiche, a collection of thirty-six pieces including songs for one and two voices, firmly established her reputation.

The poet-protagonist of ‘Maria, dolce Maria’ may sing of a heart set on fire with celestial love, but the melodic and melismatic worship of the eponymous sacred and holy lady is of a decidedly sensuous tone, especially when sung with such silky fluency, expressive flexibility and deep colour as the mezzo-soprano Ciara Hendrick displayed.  Caccini’s forms are diverse: this madrigal was preceded by a toe-tapping Romanesca, made vibrant by Reiko Ichise’s shapely, buoyant bass line and the apparent spontaneity of Daniele Caminiti’s theorbo elaborations.  Two canzonattas followed.  ‘Fresche aurette’ danced with asymmetrical glee, conjuring the sprightliness of a popular song, as nymphs and shepherds, and ‘children of Love,/sensuous/and naked’ were bathed in cool breezes.  ‘Non sò se quell sorriso’ is a more formal lover’s complaint against the fickle betrayals enacted by women and Love.  The final tierce de Picardie conveyed a delicious irony, as the singer-poet for whom such pain is a creative fount professed to scorn the ‘sweetness of an imagined gift’, not wanting to ‘burden my enslaved soul with new misery’, just as Hendrick’s beautiful vocal line wooed and beguiled us.  No wonder the performers shared a wry smile.  We heard more from Caccini at the end of the first half: a Ciaccona (arranged like the Romanesca by Luigi Cozzolini) which swayed, stamped and shifted, major and minor tonalities tugging vibrantly at each other, as Rachel Podger’s recitative-like elaborations surged ever more vividly and the harmonic twists and turns deepened.

Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) also enjoyed respect and repute during her own lifetime.  She had been introduced as a child prodigy at the court of Louis XIV and remained a favourite throughout his reign.  And, no wonder, if the Violin Sonata No.2 in D is anything to judge by.  Its four movements may be brief but they sparkle.  The sparse harpsichord accompaniment to the second movement Adagio made the expressive crafting of Podger’s solo line even more poignant.  The violinist played the third movement Presto with a fleet ease and the racing Finale had a stunning clarity for music of such intricacy.

Earlier we had heard another violin sonata, the Sonata Dueodecima of Isabella Leonarda (1620-1704), an Ursuline nun.  Podger’s dark G-string tone made a wonderful impression in the winding, piquant harmonies of the opening Adagio, while a vivacious sense of ‘debate’ infused the hurtling lines of the following Allegro e presto.  After the first four short movements, the theatrical scope of the Veloce came as a surprise, as Podger took us on an almost operatic tour through diverse moods with a persuasive impression of invention and clear-mindedness.  The ensemble tone was ever resonant, and the phrasing executed with precision.

These female composers did not have it all their own way though.  Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Frederic Handel made their voices heard between the ladies’ compositions, but the latter were in no way diminished by the comparison.  Handel’s German arias are intimate in nature, possibly composed when Handel was in London, sometime between 1724-26, for performance in a private venue.  Hendrick imbued the vocal line of Handel’s ‘Flammende Rose, Zierde der Erden’ (Flaming rose, ornament of the earth) with a vibrant passion, but her expressiveness was never mannered.  After a ‘B-section’ rippling with vocal lustre, accompanied by violin and gamba, she showed great agility in the da capo, drawing all the music’s freshness to the fore.  In his 1995 book, Text and Act, Richard Taruskin bemoaned the ‘authentic’ performer who, ‘seem[s] to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions’.  This certainly could not be said of the music-making here.  ‘Künft’ger Zeiten eitler Kummer’ (Vain worries about future times) evinced an earnest loveliness; Hendrick exploited Handel’s text-setting genius to the full, blossoming through the sustained image of a ‘carefree life’ (‘unbesorgten Leben’) and Podger’s beautiful closing commentary was an equally emotive song.

Podger followed Jacquet de La Guerre’s aforementioned sonata with an unaccompanied one by Bach – but not one of the familiar six sonatas and partitas for solo violin; rather, a transposition of the Cello Suite No.2 in D minor.  Before she had played a note I was mulling over my reservations; while she was playing most of these were forgotten!  This was wonderfully free and poetic playing.  The higher pitch brought a lightness and agility, which lifted the final section of the Prelude and brought clarity to the voicing in the two Minuets.  But, while the Allemande danced airily, at times one missed the stateliness that the weight of the bass can convey.  Podger re-tuned several times between movements, but if she felt unsettled then such feelings were clearly banished as soon as her bow touched the string.  There was such heart-warming joy in her playing.

Jacquet de La Guerre’s cantata, ‘Le Sommeil d’Ulisse’, closed the concert.  It relates an episode from Homer’s Odyssey where Ulysses, having angered Neptune, is ship-wrecked, rescued by Minerva and prepared for reception at the court of Alcinoüs.  Hendrick’s opening recitative drew the listener into the tale, the vividness of the declamation enhanced by the flute (Rachel Brown) and violin interjections.  When the tempest came, one realised how much power Hendrick had in reserve, as the instrumentalists conjured the sea-god’s wrath.  Hendrick sculpted the recitative sections beautifully, complemented by delicate theorbo and expressive gamba as Minerva assuaged the hero’s pain.  And, as she lulled Ulysses to sleep (more lovely flute playing here) and charmed his dreams, we returned to the spirit of sensual enchantment found in the Caccini madrigal with which we had begun.

This concert was recorded and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30pm on Thursday 7th March 2019.

Claire Seymour

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