Mezzo Ambroisine Bré impresses with pared-down Les Talens Lyriques in Tragic Handelian figures

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Corelli, Tragic Handelian figures: Ambroisine Bré (mezzo-soprano), Les Talens Lyriques / Christophe Rousset (diirection and harpsichord). Wigmore Hall, London, 5.2.2023. (CC)

Christophe Rousset © Nathanael Mergui

Handel – Notte placida e cheta, HWV142 (1707/8); Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV17 (1724): Cara speme, questo core; Svegliatevi nel core; Arianna in Creta, HWV32 (1733/4): Son qual stanco Pellegrino; Trio Sonata in B minor, HWV386b / Op.2/1 (1733); Agrippina condotta a morire, HWV110

Corelli – Trio Sonatas:  G minor, Op.3/11 (publ. 1789); G major, Op.2/12 ‘Ciaccona’ (1685)

A pared-down Les Talens Lyriques visited the Wigmore this particular January evening. A trio of Trio Sonatas (two Corelli, one Handel, plus a Chaconne ‘bonus’) punctuated the ‘Handelian figures’ of the title. Mezzo-soprano Ambroisine Bré has impressed before, as Calliope/Iris/Syrinx/Hebé in Luly’s Isis in a concert performance at Versailles (review click here). She has a lovely voice, attractive, and particularly successful in more legato, slower music.

Christophe Rousset played on a beautiful copy of a Carlo Grimaldi harpsichord by Andrew Woodison. Worth noting that Rousset, while he has the figured bass in front of him, improvises on it during the performance – surely part of the spontaneity one feels.

The Handelian journey here began with the secular cantata Notte placida e cheta (Calm and soundless night). It contains some fascinating writing, not least Handel’s propensity for literally bringing the music to a full stop in the first aria, ‘Zeffiretti, deh! Venite’ (Come, of ye zephyrs), offering punctuating moments that are most arresting. Bré’s voice was of the utmost expression; recitatives were blissfully unrushed, allowing each syllable to register. The grace she and the players of Les Talens Lyriques brought to the music was remarkable.

Violinists Simone Pirri and Gabriel Grosbard seemed as one, especially when effortlessly tossing phrases between them; and what a glorious halo of sound they created around Bré’s voice in the Accompagnato, ‘Ma già che spande’ (But even now I feel the calm …)  and how determined they were opening the final aria, ‘Che non si dà’ (That no-one can achieve). With Rousset impeccable as always on harpsichord and Emmanuel Jacques offering an expressive bassline, everything was in balance. The second aria, ‘Per un istante’ (For an instant) was bright and had the most delightful spring in its step (perhaps just a touch more definition in the vocal melismas would have sealed the deal); and how gorgeous the repetitions of ‘Son felice’ (I am happy) in the penultimate aria, ‘Luci belle’ (Lovely eyes).

Those two violinists came to the fore in Corelli’s Trio Sonata in G minor, Op.3/11 (the Trio Sonatas Op.1 and Op.3 are church sonatas, those of Op.2 and Op.4 are chamber sonatas). Projection in the initial Largo was perfectly judged for Wigmore’s acoustic. It was Pirri initially who came into his own here, before we heard the two violins exchange lines, soaring over each other in turn. A magnificent experience, the very essence of Corelli. A vigorous Presto could hardly prepare one for the depths of the Adagio, while playful imitation shaped the finale. But the Ciaccona from the G Major Trio Sonata, Op.2/12 takes us to new spaces. Almost Handelian in its opening dignity, the piece unfolds naturally via masterful counterpoint. It was a pleasure and privilege to hear this music (which should get far more performances than it usually does) performed to such elevated standards.

Finally for the first half, two arias from Handel’s Giulio Cesare (1724, revised 1725-30). There was no recitative preceding ‘Caro speme’ (Dearest hope), making it all the more impressive that Bré’s slurs were so perfect. Rousset and his players created a gentle tread over which Bré’s lines softly unfolded. Incredibly touching, this led to the perfect contrast of ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ (Awaken my heart) – itself an aria of two contrasting sections, the active, bright ‘Svegiatevi nel core’ and the slower, darker shaded ‘L’ombra del genitore’ (The shadow of my father). The return to the A section certainly made an impact, too.

One of Handel’s lesser-known operas, Arianna in Creta (1733/4) was staged by the London Handel Festival in 2014. ‘Son qual stanco Pellegrino’ (I am like some weary traveller) features the cello prominently (beautifully, effortlessly, seamlessly delivered by Jacques). Some lovely decorations of line from Bré in the A1 section sealed the deal. A remarkable aria with cello obligato that formed the perfect second half opener.

The Handel Trio Sonata in B Minor, HWV 386b is a work of extraordinary invention. Dialogues on this occasion were perfectly managed between the two absolutely equal violins (Grosbard adding an almost smoky sound to the mix). The Largo was a moment of peace profound, Pirri’s decorations perfectly in style and sounding as if they were improvised. Such was its spell that the effect of the Largo lingered through the finale.

Finally, a dramatic secular cantata, Agrippina condotta a morire of around 1707/8 (not 1807/8, as the Wigmore Hall’s programme sheet claimed). This is a remarkable cantata: Agrippina is condemned to death for her plottings (the poisoning of her husband to make her son Nero Emperor). Basically, she is furious in this cantata: she asks Nature to reflect her plight in her first aria (‘Orrida, oscura l’etra si renda’ / Let the sky become horrible and dark) in her second aria, she asks to ’turn the tyrant to ashes’ (Renda cenere il tiranno); further highlights include the line ’Cada lacero e svenato’ (Let him fall, lacerated and bleeding). While there was plenty to admire in Bré’s delivery (including a notably urgent first recitative), it was hard to locate the fury at the heart of this piece. Listen to Kate Lindsey with Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen on Alpha (a disc entitled Tiranno) to really hear the measure of this piece.

One encore: Handel’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ from Act III Scene 3 of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, perhaps the perfect encore, blessed with a lovely vocal trill and superb violin decorations above the solo line in the repeated ‘A’ section.

Ambroisine Bré will sing the title role in Grétry’s Andromaque at the Grand Théâtre Massenet, Opéra Saint-Étienne on March 8, 10 and 12, a production conducted by Guido Prandi and directed by Matthieu Cruciani.

Colin Clarke

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