English Concert, Wigmore Hall

Led by their current Artistic Director, Harry Bicket, The English Concert
invited one of their regular guest soloists, soprano Lucy Crowe, to explore
cantatas and arias composed by Georg Frederic Handel during his Italian sojourn
of 1707-09, framing the vocal numbers with Antonio Vivaldi’s Four
For Handel, this was a period of astonishing creative energy and
musical invention, and the selected works demonstrated the melodic grace,
rhetorical power and innate dramatic judgement that characterises the operas
and oratorios composed in the subsequent years.

‘Dietro l’orme fuggaci’ dates from late May 1707, when Handel was
resident at the Ruspoli family’s summer villa in Vignanello. Adapted from
Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, it tells of the sorceress Armida’s
fury, forgiveness and suffering after her lover Rinaldo has deserted her. Swift
movement through a sequence of recitative (with extended use of
accompagnato) and florid arias creates a tense dramatic energy.

Lucy Crowe seemed uncharacteristically out-of-sorts, however, with the
tempos and transitions between movements unsettled and hasty. The opening
recitative, in which a narrator establishes the situation and introduces the
bitter, grieving Armida, lies quite low, and the thin accompanying texture
didn’t offer Crowe much support. As she vented the sorceress’s wrath in the
succeeding aria, ‘Ah! crudele, e pur ten’ vai’, Crowe seemed to skate
over the elaborate runs and flights rather than sing through them; and the
pitch was not always fully centred, particularly in the passages where
chromatic nuances and twists depict Armida’s anguished love. Despite some
melodic inaccuracies, idiomatic ornaments and some imaginative
re-interpretations embellished the da capo repeat.

The secco recitative in which Armida laments her unwavering
devotion was more controlled, and the headlong rush into the orchestral
outburst which commences the accompagnato, ‘O voi,
dell’incostante’, full of excitement. But, once again, the haste with which
Crowe sped through the final words, ‘Ah! no, fermate’ , as Armida retracts
her request to the gods to send sea monsters to consume her betrayer, risked
turning melodrama into farce. The large leaps of the ensuing aria, ‘Venti
fermata’, demonstrated Crowe’s vocal agility and she negotiated the
disjunct line fluently, the flowing triplets mimicking the rolling waves which
threaten to submerge Rinaldo. At phrase endings, the soprano chose at times to
rise an octave higher than notated, her bright clear tone highlighting
Armida’s tenderness and emotional ambivalence.

The orchestral lilt was quite subdued in the closing Siciliana, above which
Crowe glistened, applying judicious decorations and dissonant appoggiaturas to
the cantabile line. The higher register felt more comfortable, and as the
movement gradually quietened, closing with just ripieno strings, Crowe
demonstrated her ability to sing softly and purely at the top. Her final call
to the God of Love to free her from her devotion to the traitorous Rinaldo was
moving, but overall Crowe did not quite master the psychological ambiguity of
this cantata.

After the interval, ‘Alpestre montre’ saw the soprano back on form.
Written in Venice during the winter of 1708-09, the cantata presents a
desperate man, alone in a mountain forest, searching for the beloved to whom he
yearns to confess his love, consoling himself that death may at least end his

The dry staccato quavers of the two obbligato violins at the opening of the
first aria, ‘Io so ben ch’il vostro orrore’, evoked the unending onward
tread of the wanderer. Reflecting on the shadowy gloom of the forest, which
mirrors his inner desolation, Crowe produced sostenuto singing of
great eloquence, sustaining an unfailingly legato line and using melisma
expressively. Bicket made much of the nuanced accompanying textures, with their
motivic echoes and shifting colours. In the following short recitative,
Crowe’s sensitive declamation emphasised the composer’s impressive
heightening of the text.

I found the tempo of the second aria, ‘Almen dopo il fato mio’, in which
the young man longs for death, much too fast, although the string timbre was
mellifluous. Crowe exhibited superb breath control, singing richly through the
expansive lines and spanning the large leaps cleanly.

Things went from good to better in the final vocal contribution: three arias
from Handel’s second Italian opera, Agrippina (1710). In Poppea’s
‘Vaghe perle’ Crowe acted with body and voice, flirtatiously batting her
eyelids and casually spilling stratospheric ornamentations and trills, as the
sensuous Poppea admires herself in a looking-glass. Agrippina’s scheming
confidence presented a dramatic contrast in the following ‘Ogni vento’; the
accompanying triplet rhythms were assured, the string tone full, and together
with the exuberant vocal line conveyed Agrippina’s faith that her murderous
plan will run smoothly.

‘Se giunge un dispetto’, in which Poppea warns that she is a woman not
to be scorned, saw both singer and ensemble take furious flight, in some
incredibly long and florid melismas and supporting passagework. Crowe’s
technique was flawless: superbly controlled coloratura, imaginative adornments
in the da capo, and a bright resonance at the top.

The concertos which form Vivaldi’s Four Seasons framed the vocal
items, and were similarly uneven. While Simon Standage and the players of The
English Concert produced stylish playing that was tasteful and never mannered,
there was little to excite in ‘La Primavera’ or ‘L’Estate’, and the
Largo of the former was marred by over-enthusiastic viola interjections, the
repeated down-bow punctuations overly aggressive and intrusive. Perhaps the
recordings of Kennedy or Fabio Biondi and the Europa Galante have familiarized
the ear to greater rhetoric and dynamism, but Standage, though technical
impeccable, seemed to lack presence. Eloquent cello contributions and the
bright timbre of Alex McCartney’s baroque guitar enlivened the outer
movements of ‘L’Estate’.

‘L’Autunno’ was, by contrast, a revelation, full of rhythmic bite and
vitality, with incisive passagework and impressive double-stopping from
Standage. Dark sound worlds were conjured in the Adagio molto — as the
harvesters all lulled to sleep by the breeze. Overall, the ensemble was much
more convincingly synchronized than in the first two concerti. Similarly
engaging, and unnerving, was the dry coldness of the opening staccato quavers
of ‘L’Inverno’. Both Standage and the accompanying instrumentalists
displayed remarkable agility and clarity in the plummeting scalic runs with
which the concerto concludes.

So, it was an oddly uneven concert; but Poppea’s feisty audacity was worth
waiting for.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

The English Concert: Harry Bicket, director, harpsichord; Simon
Standage, violin; Lucy Crowe, soprano. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday
21st May 2014.

Handel — Cantata: ‘Dietro l’orme fuggaci’ (‘Armida
abbandonata’) HWV105; Cantata: ‘Alpestre monte’ HWV81; Arias from
Agrippina HWV6; Vivaldi — The Four Seasons

image_description=Lucy Crowe [Photo © Marco Borggreve]
product_title=English Concert, Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Lucy Crowe [Photo © Marco Borggreve]