Au­tum­nal balm and breezes

Two en­sem­bles show­cas­ing Cornysh, Brit­ten and Cal­dara mixed sim­ple and sump­tu­ous to mag­i­cal ef­fect

The Observer - The New Review - - Classical -

The Six­teen

St James’s, Spanish Place, London W1; tour­ing un­til 9 Nov

La Serenis­sima

Wig­more Hall, London W1 Bri­tain’s mu­sic scene drew breath last week af­ter months of Proms and coun­try-house op­eras. Pomp, glit­ter and razzmatazz gave way to the in­ti­mate and the small scale; a gen­tle, au­tum­nal turn­ing down of the vol­ume be­fore the big or­ches­tras and larger venues open their new sea­sons.

First with the healing balm were the Six­teen, bring­ing their con­tin­u­ing, wan­der­ing cho­ral pil­grim­age to the el­e­gant con­fines of St James’s, Spanish Place, London. The church’s 19th-cen­tury gothic splen­dour beau­ti­fully matched the log­i­cal architecture of the pro­gramme, which show­cased Wil­liam Cornysh and Ben­jamin Brit­ten, com­posers sep­a­rated by four cen­turies but each uniquely Eng­lish and each equally at home in both sec­u­lar and litur­gi­cal mu­sic.

I say each, but the me­dieval Cornysh may well have been two peo­ple, pos­si­bly fa­ther and son. Manuscripts of­fer few clues as to who was who but it seems likely that the fa­ther wrote won­der­fully mus­cu­lar, elab­o­rately melis­matic Latin works, such as the Salve Regina and Ave Maria we heard sung with clar­ity and grace by this ex­cep­tional choir, while Cornysh Jr set more earthy Eng­lish texts, of­ten star­tling in their di­rect­ness. Woe­fully ar­ray’d, for in­stance, has Christ ad­dress­ing the crowd from the cross in po­etry of dis­arm­ing sim­plic­ity, pow­er­fully ex­pressed in a mov­ing per­for­mance of great beauty.

Brit­ten had a spe­cial af­fec­tion for sim­i­lar early Eng­lish texts. His Sa­cred and Pro­fane, which sets eight hugely var­ied me­dieval frag­ments, proved to be the last work he com­posed for pro­fes­sional singers. You would never guess that he was se­ri­ously ill when he wrote it, such is the vigour and com­plex­ity of the writ­ing. It’s a huge chal­lenge, but one met with serene ac­com­plish­ment by Harry Christo­phers and his elite cho­ris­ters. But the high­light of the evening was their read­ing of Brit­ten’s set­ting of Au­den’s Hymn to Saint Ce­cilia, sub­tly coloured and care­fully mea­sured in its dy­namic range. The break­neck cen­tral verse “I can­not grow” – a dan­ger zone for lesser choirs – was supremely deft and light as air.

The Six­teen’s pil­grim­age now moves on through the Mid­lands and the north. Catch it if you can. You won’t be dis­ap­pointed.

An al­to­gether more ob­scure Eng­lish com­poser sprang out of the shad­ows last week. Ni­cola Mat­teis the Younger was born in Restora­tion Eng­land to an Ital­ian fa­ther and an Eng­lish mother. He had a par­tic­u­lar tal­ent for dance mu­sic, and by 1714 he was in Vi­enna, writ­ing the mu­sic for bal­lets that were in­ter­po­lated into other com­posers’ op­eras, in a neat piece of labour-sav­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Vi­enna was the place to be for any am­bi­tious musician at that time. It was home to the court of Charles VI, Holy Ro­man Em­peror, a man with ap­par­ently lim­it­less funds and an equally lim­it­less pas­sion for Ital­ian opera. A ca­pa­ble musician him­self, he show­ered money on An­to­nio Cal­dara who, like his col­league Francesco Conti, pro­duced some 50 op­eras for the court, many of them en­hanced by Mat­teis’s jaunty bal­let scores.

Bring­ing this so­phis­ti­cated world to life at the Wig­more Hall last week were La Serenis­sima, Adrian Chan­dler’s mag­i­cal band of in­stru­men­tal­ists and singers, who for 25 years have steeped them­selves in the mu­sic of 18th-cen­tury Venice, work­ing from man­u­script or con­tem­po­rary sources in their quest for au­then­tic in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

Cho­ral ex­cerpts from Cal­dara’s Or­misda, re di Persia from 1721 were nicely done, but it was Mat­teis’s bal­let mu­sic from the opera that re­ally left an im­pres­sion, with a de­light­fully tangy the­o­rbo, recorder and bas­soon trio pre­ced­ing some de­li­cious, swing­ing cross rhythms set over a sim­ple ground bass.

It’s not hard to imag­ine mod­ern chore­og­ra­phy work­ing well with these ne­glected lit­tle won­ders.

Bass Neal Davies and con­tralto Hi­lary Sum­mers showed that Charles VI’s court was not above a bit of rol­lick­ing, lowlife fun as they bick­ered and flirted their way through a scene from Conti’s Il finto Poli­care from 1716, Chan­dler’s own free trans­la­tions of the li­bretto adding to the laughs (“You’re a hunk...”, “You’re well fit...”).

Cel­list Vladimir Waltham had to bor­row a five-string Amati to be able to master the fiendish ob­bli­gato that Cal­dara wrote for him­self in Sci­p­i­one nelle Spagna. At its pre­miere in 1722, the com­poser per­formed it along­side the cel­e­brated cas­trato Gaetano Orsini. Cas­trati be­ing rather thin on the ground these days, Sum­mers obliged with the nec­es­sary vo­cal range and dra­matic colour to more than match Waltham’s vir­tu­oso play­ing.

The sump­tu­ous in­tro­duc­tion to Cal­dara’s Caio Marzio Co­ri­olano from 1717 il­lus­trated just what lav­ish forces were avail­able to court com­posers in Vi­enna. Blaz­ing trum­pets and thump­ing drums drove home the mes­sage that Charles VI didn’t care too much about the cost when celebrating the empress’s birth­day, a largesse of­ten re­paid in the op­eras he com­mis­sioned by the ad­di­tion of a li­cenza or paeon of toad­y­ing praise to the em­peror. This was splen­didly sung by Sum­mers and the cho­rus, all di­rected from the vi­o­lin by Chan­dler, who just hap­pened to also play a Vi­valdi con­certo. Some peo­ple are just too tal­ented.

Fiona Mad­docks is away

The Holy Ro­man Em­peror’s court was not above a bit of rol­lick­ing, lowlife fun

‘Light as air’: the Six­teen, con­ducted by Harry Christo­phers, at St James’s, Spanish Place. Pho­to­graph by Andy Hall for the Ob­server

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