Bejun Mehta: Yet can I hear that dulcet lay

As they explored the Baroque Italian
cantata, on the genre’s journey from its homeland, across Europe to
England and Germany, Mehta also communicated an infectious enjoyment and
enthusiasm. And, considerable pleasure in making and performing this music
— its sentiments amorous, its articulation dramatic — was evidently
shared by all the collective musicians.

Mehta did not start the evening entirely comfortably though. Handel’s
‘Siete rose rugiadose’ (You are dewey roses) was not the sweet and
delicately moist number we might have expected, as intimated by its title; the
instrumental introductory bars were serene and poised, but Mehta found it
difficult to match the continuity of line established by the theorbo, viola da
gamba and harpsichord, and the fragmentary and ornate phrases of the initial
vocal utterance were somewhat unsettled. It was as if considerable intellectual
effort was being expended but the requisite suavity of phrasing remained
elusive. Mehta’s tone felt a little constricted above the sparse
accompaniment, and though he worked hard to focus the intonation at the cadence
before the da capo repeat, there was some unease.

Fortunately, the virtuosic roulades of the first aria — an outburst of
breathless love — of the composer’s ‘Mi palpita il cor’
(My heart throbs), delivered here with impressive precision, seemed to release
whatever knot was causing the vocal tightness. Perhaps the fuller accompanying
support helped too, as flute and double bass joined the ensemble; and, the
moving inner voices of Bates’ organ continuo created both interest and
succour. Mehta’s performance confirmed the emergence of Handel’s
genius during his Italian journey in the opening years of the eighteenth
century: the recitative combined grace and rhetoric; there was urgency in the
melodic inventiveness. In the second aria, the countertenor used the harmonic
nuances expressively, and he built effectively through the subsequent
recitative. The final aria, which tells of the lover’s hopes that his
devotion will be rewarded, was enriched by the bright warmth and agility of
Georgia Browne’s flute; and this number was characterised by active
communication between the musicians, encouraged by Bates, which ensured our
strong engagement.

The first half of the recital concluded with Alessandro Scarlatti’s
‘Perchè tacete, regolati concerti?’ (Why are you silent, you
well-ordered harmonies?), which saw violins and double bass join the ensemble
to perform the cantata’s nine movements featuring an overture —
which showcased some very agile cello and double bass playing in the fugal
section — and various arias and recitatives. The through-flowing
emergence of sentiments and moods of these strophic numbers made a satisfying
change from the intense but fixed emotions of the da capo forms. Mehta’s
tone was rich and replete with sensuous allure, and the climax of the cantata,
the tender lullaby ‘Dormi, ch’il mio dolor/Nenia al tuo
sonno’ (Go to sleep, but know at least that I die for you) was gorgeously
seductive. Mehta’s control of musical line and dramatic peak was
impressive, and the emotional intensity was extended by the tender, thoughtful
instrumental contributions. There was an almost Monteverdian piquancy about the
chromaticisms, and the delicacy of the violins in the instrumental postlude
were a wonderful representation of the protagonist’s closing assertion
that, after the fierce attacks which have assaulted his heart, ‘La mia
piaga proverà/ Men crudo il duol’ (My wound will make my sorrow less

The second half of the recital introduced two German cantatas, and if
Mehta’s diction in the Italian works had occasionally been approximate,
here he showed an instinctive feeling for the music’s spirit as expressed
through the language; I was not surprised to find consequently, when reading
the artist’s biography in the programme, that Mehta has a degree in
German literature from Yale. The combination of sweetness and plangent
lamentation in the instrumental opening of J.C. Bach’s ‘Ach, dass
ich Wassers gnug hätte’ (O, that I had tears enough in my head; a
reference to the Book of Jeremiah) was captivating, and the sublime
expressivity of Mehta’s subsequent melody utterly transfixing. The line
was effortlessly sustained, though textual details were brought to the fore:
there was a growing intensity, as tears flowed from the poet-speaker’s
eyes (‘Und meine beiden Augen fließen mit Wasser’, while the
oppression of the heart (‘und mein Herz ist betrübet’) was
strikingly enunciated.

Melchior Hoffmann’s ‘Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde’
(Strike then, long awaited hour) was deeply affecting; Mehta employed an
‘open’ sound for the gentle melodies, which were complemented by
quietly tolling hand-bells — a literal representation of the funereal
clarion which accompanies the poet-singer’s passage to the after-life,
marking the ticking clock as the singer approaches the death for which he
longs. The processional character of the work was wonderfully conveyed, and the
protagonist’s anticipation of heaven was deeply consoling.

The highlight of the recital was Vivaldi’s ‘Piani, sospiri e
dimandar mercede’ (Weeping, sighing, and asking recompense). Here,
Mehta’s countertenor was expressively flexible — it swooning
beguilingly to depict the tempting breeze which tempts the boatman from the
safety of the harbour, to confront the storm; large vocal leaps were despatched
with ease, conveying the fickleness of the poet-speaker’s beloved. The
instrumentalists contributed to the alternating melodious beauty and dramatic
unrest, and the prevailing lyricism revealed the essential naivety of the
helmsman. This is not ‘easy’ music: there are many harmonic twists
and turns, and the intonation was sure. The rhetorical flourishes of the
concluding aria, as the voice darted urgently, were theatrically striking.

Between the cantatas were interspersed some superbly executed instrumental
works, including the Symphony, Song and Chaconny from Purcell’s King
, in which the coloristic variations which imbued ‘Fairest
Isle’ were eloquent and enthralling. Here, though the dynamic contrasts
seemed surprisingly modern, the overall utterance was convincingly authentic. A
striking variety of pace and weight of bow stroke distinguished the movements
of Heinrich Biber’s Mensa Sonora Suite III in A Minor; similarly, there
was a convincing juxtaposition of blended voices and vigorous dialogue.

The recital closed with Handel’s ‘Yet, can I hear that dulcet
lay’ from The Choice of Hercules. Though the text of this rare
English cantata by the composer seems to have possessed little to inspire
Handel, there are momentary beauties — including this number in which
Hercules refuses Pleasure’s offer of the blisses of Elysium. Mehta and
his fellow musicians wonderfully drew forth the subtleties of this aria, and
lulled us into peaceful contentment.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Bejun Mehta, countertenor; La Nuova Musica, David Bates, director. Wigmore
Hall, London, Monday 30th November 2015.

George Frideric Handel: Cantata — ‘Siete rose rugiadose’
HWV162, Cantata — ‘Mi palpita il cor’ HWV132c; Henry Purcell:
King Arthur — A Symphony, A Song and Chaccone; Alessandro
Scarlatti: Cantata — ‘Perchè tacete, regolati
concerti?’; Johann Christoph Bach: ‘Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug
hätte’ (Lamento); Antonio Vivaldi: ‘Pianti, sospiri e demandar
mercede’ RV676; Heinrich Biber — Mensa Sonora Suite III in A minor;
Melchior Hoffmann: ‘Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde’; George
Frideric Handel: The Choice of Hercules HWV69 Part 2 No.10 ‘Yet
can I hear that dulcet lay’.

image_description=Bejun Mehta [Photo by Josep Molina / MolinaVisuals]
product_title=Yet can I hear that dulcet lay
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Bejun Mehta [Photo by Josep Molina / MolinaVisuals]