Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse – the period instrument ensemble that he
co-founded in 2002 – offered a wonderful Handel-fest/feast at the Wigmore
Hall, following the release of their

Handel Album

last month on the Erato/Warner Classics label. In the liner notes to that
disc, Jaroussky comments that although ‘it’s only in the last few years
that I’ve been able to play the big Handel roles on stage … I wanted to
choose a selection of arias from less well-known operas’. And, so,
alongside arias from Radamisto, we had a selection which dipped
into the lesser-known waters of Tolomeo, Flavio, Siroe (kings of
Egypt, Longobardi and Persia respectively) and Imeneo.

Handel is, in every sense, a ‘man of the theatre’, and this concert was
structured into quasi-operatic sequences of arias and instrumental items
that, performed segue, carried us through varied moods in discrete
groups. Occasionally the juxtapositions were startling, even a little
disconcerting, but they created a vitalism that surged through the
sequences. ‘Theatricality’ was at the heart of this recital. After
accompanying the ensemble onto the platform at the start, Jaroussky
retreated, returning during the archlute’s striking prefaces, or during
improvised instrumental bridges, or – in the case of Radamisto’s ‘Vile! se
mi dai vita’ – bursting passionately through the players during the
accompanied recitative.

Jaroussky’s effortless lyricism and dulcet tone have long been acclaimed,
but his countertenor has now acquired an increasing weight and diversity of
colour, and the aria choices seemed designed to show-case this, with rapid
and rage-fired numbers outweighing those of limpidity and lament. The
seductive slipperiness of the voice across and between ranges remains,
though, as does the ease with which it pours smoothly through the extended
coloratura that Handel spins – as in ‘Se parla nel mio cor’ from Guistino.

While Jaroussky had the resonance to penetrate through the vibrant
instrumental accompaniments, his voice is not necessarily best suited to
Handel’s ‘rage arias’. His vocal agility impressed, but he couldn’t quite
capture Radamisto’s burning outrage when he is condemned by the tyrannous
Tiridate (‘Vile! se mi dai vita’), despite the turbulent, quasi-percussive
string fire; but there was melodic nuance and a shining melisma expressing
confident defiance. In contrast, ‘Ombra cara’ from the same opera, was a
peak of unaffected beauty: every note, every phrase was perfectly shaped
and controlled, Jaroussky’s vocal shading ever-alert to the major/minor
coloration and chromatic nuances in the instrumental accompaniment.

Flavio, re de’ Longobardi
framed the programme, and the opening aria, ‘Bel contento’, conveyed all of
the protagonist’s impetuous joy as Guido expresses his delight at his
forthcoming marriage to Emilia. Jaroussky’s lower range pulsed with varied
colours and matched the strings’ sprightly dotted rhythms. The voice surged
through the triplets as if overflowing with content, and the da capo
elaborations were both idiomatic and enriching, particularly as the
expansion of range showcased the bright purity of Jaroussky’s upper voice.
Handel’s heroic roles were composed for Senesino, who was renowned for the
projection of his messa di voce, and his alto timbre must have
been quite different to Jaroussky’s light soprano-light colour.

A beguiling solo by concert-master Raul Orellana seemed to invite Jaroussky
back onto the platform for Tirinto’s beautiful ‘Se potessero i sospir’
miei’ from Imeneo – an aria which borrows from David’s ‘O Lord,
whose mercies numberless’ from Saul, which Handel was composing
simultaneously. The sweetness of the quiet close of the B-section, as
Tirinto prays that his beloved Rosmene will return safely, was simply
magical, and with the gentility of the final cadence and trill Jaroussky
really did seem, as Tirinto sings, to ‘breathe out every sigh in my heart’.
Best of all was Tolomeo’s ‘Stille amare, gia vi sento’ from Tolomeo, in which both players and singer were astonishingly
responsive to Handel’s extraordinary depth and range of expression. In the
recitative, Marc Wolff’s enticing archlute made the cup of poison seem as
sweet as honey, while the strings’ brusque down bows urged him to drink.
The intensity of the vocal line at the end of the recitative was salved by
the light, trilling quavers of the upper strings – ‘bitter drops’ which,
paradoxically, ease Tolomeo’s pain as he approaches death, his acceptance
finding expression through Jaroussky’s wonderful lyricism and

The instrumental items were as ‘theatrical’ as the arias. Ensemble
Artaserse have a tonal brightness and vitality of articulation which makes
the ear sit up, and their risk-taking musical rhetoric rivals that of Fabio
Biondi’s Europe Galante. Whether there are twenty or three
instrumentalists, playing the sound is airy and buoyant – bow strokes rose
and hovered far above the string – but the tone quality has a real ‘bite’.
Tempi were generally on the swift side. There was no languorous lingering
in the Adagio from the Concerto Grosso in C (incorporated into the 1736 ode Alexander’s Feast), which showcased the strongly defined
meatiness of Nicolas AndrÈ’s bassoon line complemented by the richly
coloured resonance of Guillaume Cuiller’s oboe.

Drama was sought, and found, in each diverse movement – in the gritty down
bow strokes at the start of the Grave from the C minor Concerto Grosso, in
the beautiful song for cello and oboe in the Largo from the Bb concerto
Op.3 No.2, in the fugal intensity of the Allegro ma non troppo from the
sixth of the Op.6 set. But, such drama was balanced with delicacy in the
Largo from the Op.6 No.2 concerto; and, having generally emphasised the
incisive individualism of the parts, the instrumentalists blended in plush,
warm, layers in the Largo from the Concerto Grosso in A minor Op.6 No.4.
The Sinfonia from Solomon flashed by with such brio and brightness
that it was as if we were hearing the celebratory announcement of the
arrival of the Queen of Sheba for the first time: one could image the Queen
floating in triumphantly on the shimmering sheen of sound.

This was a generous concert but – judging from the players’ smiles, and
their physical and musical responsiveness to each other throughout – the
musicians were enjoying the music-making as much as we were; and, so, we
had three encores – two from Serse, including that enduring
favourite ‘Ombra mai fu’, and ‘Pena tiranna’ from Amadigi di Gaula
in which bassoonist AndrÈ and oboist Cuiller joined Jaroussky at the front
of the platform for a sarabande of exquisite intimacy and grace.

Claire Seymour

Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor), Ensemble Artaserse

Handel: Radamisto HWV12 – Overture; Flavio, re di Longobardi HWV16 – ‘Son pur felice al fine … Bel
contento gi‡ gode quest’alma’; Concerto Grosso in G Op.6 No.1 HWV319
(Allegro); Concerto Grosso in C HWC318 (Alexander’s Feast); Siroe, re di Persia HWV24 – ‘Son stanco, ingiusti Numi … Deggio
morire, o stelle’; Sinfonia from Solomon ( Arrival of the Queen of Sheba); Concerto Grosso in C minor Op.6
No.8 HWV326 (Grave); Imeneo HWV41 – ‘Se potessero i sospir miei’;
Concerto Grosso in A minor Op.6 No.4 HWV322 (Largo and Allegro); Radamisto – ‘Vieni, d’empiet‡ mostro … Vile! Se mi dai vita’;
Concerto Grosso in F Op.6 No.2 HWV320 (Largo); Giustino HWV37 –
‘Chi mi chiama alla gloria? … Se parla nel mio cor’; Concerto Grosso in F
Op.6 No.6 HWV320 (Allegro ma non troppo); Concerto Grosso in Bb Op.3 No.2
HWV 313 (Largo); Tolomeo HWV25 – ‘Inumano fratel, barbara madre …
Stille amare, gi‡ vi sento’; Concerto Grosso in A minor Op.6 No.4
(Larghetto affetuoso and Allegro); Radamisto – ‘Ombra cara di mia
sposa’; Concerto Grosso in G Op.3 No.3 HWV315 (Adagio); Flavio, re di Longobardi – ‘Privarmi ancora … Rompo i lacci, e
frango i dardi’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 26th November 2017.

image_description=Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall
product_title=Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Philippe Jaroussky

Photo credit: Simon Fowler