Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

‘Vergn¸gte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’ (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure
of the soul) was composed by Bach for performance in St Thomas’s Church,
Leipzig, on the sixth Sunday after Trinity and was first heard on 28 July 1726.
The text speaks of the desire to lead a virtuous in order to enter Heaven. The
opening aria, with its lilting, flowing rhythms, was endowed with a tender,
pastoral mood, the oboe d’amore (Alexandra Bellamy) blending soothingly with
the strings and organ. Robin Blaze’s pure, even vocal line complemented the
instrumental timbre and his delivery was confident and focused, although the
text was not always enunciated with absolute clarity. Blaze spun sustained
legato lines, particularly in the piano passages, but at times I found
the countertenor’s tendency to heighten a particular word or phrase with a
sudden crescendo or dynamic emphasis created an overly stark contrast of tone
and diminished the effect of the effortlessly unfolding melodic contours.

Expressive contrasts of this nature were, however, put to good use in the
following recitative, ‘Die Welt, das S¸ndenhaus’ (The world, that house of
sin), which paints a picture of a sinful earth in league with the devil. Blaze
almost snarled as he presented a vision of man who ‘sucht durch Hass und
Neid/ Des Satans Bild an sich zu tragen’ (seeks through hate and spite/ The
devil’s image e’er to cherish), while his humble address, ‘Gerechter
Gott, wie weit ist doch der Mensch von dir entfernet’ (O righteous God, how
far in truth is man from thee divided), was hushed and distant, aptly conveying
meekness and regret.

The second aria, ‘Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen’ (What
sorrow fills me for these wayward spirits) opened with a dry preface,
indicative of the speaker’s grief for the ‘wayward spirits’ who have
ignored the Word of God. With the continuo line silent, Blaze struggled at
times to blend with the rather sparse, and unusual, instrumental texture of
two-part organ (now taking an obliggato role) with violins and violas
in unison; in the lower pitched passages the countertenor sometimes lacked
impact, although Blaze demonstrated virtuosic agility in the more florid
passage work.

The following recitative, ‘Wer sollte sich demnach/ Wohl hier zu leben
w¸nschen’ (Who shall, therefore, desire to live in this existence) was dark
and eerie; the still chords of the strings and continuo plunged to a lower
register to haunting effect, while the strings brought bright movement to the
singer’s earnest plea, ‘bei Gott zu leben,/ Der selbst die Liebe heiflt’
([my heart] seeks alone with God its dwelling,/ Who is himself called love).

The rather bleak text of the final aria, ‘Mir ekelt mehr zu leben’ (I am
sick to death of living), was mitigated by the glowing warmth of the oboe
d’amore and the delicate traceries of the organ’s florid ornamentation
(played with assurance by Terence Charlston) which together beautiful embodied
the comforts and glory of Heaven. Blaze’s vocal phrases were impassioned but
controlled, the lines graceful and flowing, the text imbued with meaning
without recourse to melodrama.

Pergolesi’s ‘Salve Regina’ — originally in C Minor for soprano but
later adapted for countertenor in F Minor — was composed during the last
years of the composer’s short life, when he was in the employ of the Duke of
Maddaloni. Suffering from tuberculosis, Pergolesi at times withdrew to a
Franciscan monastery in Pozzuoli, Naples, and the ‘Salve Regina’ was
written during the composer’s final retreat.

Here, Robin Blaze adopted a more theatrical mode, bringing greater urgency
to the text which eulogises the Virgin Mary in a series of contrasting
movements. Following a plangent string introduction, the singer issued resonant
entreaties to the Virgin, to cast her blessing and mercy on the ‘poor
banished children of Eve’ who languish on earth. Blaze’s elongated lyrical
lines were deeply expressive of the mourning of mankind, ‘in hac lacrimarum
valle’ (weeping in this valley of tears). He brought initially a surprising
vigour to his plea, ‘Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventis tui’ (show unto us
the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus), then allowed the melody to evolve with
poise and sweetness.

A heartfelt cry, ‘O clemens’, opened the final aria, as Blaze conveyed
the sincere and solemn emotions of the text, before a final whispered
declaration of reverence. Overall, this was a well-considered interpretation,
one which balanced dramatic intensity with elegant grace, and which revealed
Blaze’s wide-ranging technical expertise.

The vocal items were nested within various instrumental works. In the
opening item, Telemann’s Overture in A Minor for Recorder and strings,
director Ashley Solomon used an engagingly wide range of dynamics and
impressively shaped crescendos to draw in the listener; the melodic lines had
an extensive fluidity, while the ‘Air ‡ Italien’ benefited from some
markedly vigorous accents from the cello which acted as a springboard for the

Throughout the evening, the instrumental support from the members of
Florilegium was unfailingly sensitive and idiomatic: textures were homogenous
and mellifluous, and a shared awareness of stylistically appropriate ‘good
taste’ was ever-present. What was perhaps lacking was a dash of the
spontaneous or unpredictable, and, at times, greater rhythmic verve and vigour
— although Jennifer Morsches’ pizzicato cello utterances did much to
brighten and enliven. That said, the facility and virtuosity of all, and the
sweetness of tone — invigorated with occasional harmonic piquancy — ensured
the audience’s considered and appreciative attentiveness. The running
semiquavers of Handel’s Sonata in Bb for solo violin and strings were
injected with drama. And, the Andante of Telemann’s Concerto in E for flute,
oboe d’amore, viola d’amore and strings possessed a beautifully airy
weightlessness, while the subsequent Allegro showcased the expressive presence
and eloquence of Alexandra Bellamy’s oboe d’amore playing.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Telemann — Suite in A minor TWV55:A3; J.S. Bach — Cantata BWV170
‘Vergn¸gte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’; Handel — Sonata a 5 in Bb HWV288;
Pergolesi — Salve Regina in F minor; Telemann — Concerto in E for flute,
oboe d’amore and viola d’amore TWV53:E1

Florilegium — Ashley Solomon (Director), flute/recorder; Robin
Blaze, countertenor; Alexandra Bellamy, oboe d’amore; Bojan Cicic, violin
1/viola d’amore; Sophie Barber, violin 2; Magdalena Loth-Hill, violin 3;
Malgorzata Ziemkiewicz, viola; Jennifer Morsches, cello; Carina Cosgrave, bass;
Terence Charlston, harpsichord/chamber organ. Robin
Blaze, countertenor. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 23rd October

product_title=Florilegium, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Florilegium