This concert at Wigmore Hall by Arcangelo, under their director Jonathan Cohen, explored German-Italian cultural crosscurrents in the early 18th century. So, we had a motet dating from the Italian sojourn of the young Georg Frederic Handel, alongside a concerto grosso from the composer’s later years, providing evidence of the ongoing influence of Arcangelo Corelli’s concerto style as encountered by Handel in Rome in the 1720s. Vivaldi’s impact on northern Europe was suggested by the theatricality of one of his cantatas, designed for performance by the pupils at the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, and one of his string concertos from the Op.3 set, L’estro armónico. And, Johann Sebastian Bach’s interest, during the 1740s, in fashionable Italian styles was represented by his adaptation of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, in his setting of the Psalm 51, Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden (translated here as ‘Blot out, Highest, my transgressions’).
Deftness, discipline and meticulous craftmanship were the touchstones here, Arcangelo and the two soloists who joined them, soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Tim Mead, performing with natural grace and effortless virtuosity. Carolyn Sampson’s silvery tone and easeful facility ensured that the bright Latin motet, Silete venti (Be silent, winds), sparkled. Unlikely to have been designed for sacred use in England, and composed sometime during the 1720s – possibly for Handel’s visit to Venice in 1729, but certainly before 1732 when Handel indulged in some self-borrowing for the London production of Esther – Silete venti is structured like an instrumental suite. The strings and oboes of Arcangelo brought plenty of bite to the taut rhythms of the French-style overture and the ensuing instrumental fugue raced tumultuously, until it was silenced by Sampson’s authoritative command. Sampson evinced a lovely, carefree simplicity in the sweet da capo aria, ‘Dulcis amor, Jesu care’, her elegant vocal line born aloft by an urbane bass-line perambulation and invigorated by the inventive colourings of Thomas Dunford’s lute. The pastoral calm of the second aria, ‘Date serta’, was lovingly ruffled by some ‘resplendent breezes’ from Heaven, conjured by Cohen’s economical but telling gestures, and the final ‘Alleluia’, with its ceaseless vocal curlicues, showcased Sampson’s agility and poise.
Vivaldi wrote nearly 40 chamber cantatas, twelve of which are for alto soloist and possibly intended for Anna Giraud, whom Vivaldi met when he moved to Mantua in 1718 to become Director of Chamber Music for Prince Darmstadt, and with whom he enjoyed a long professional collaboration. If Cessate, omai cessate (Cease, henceforth cease) is somewhat conventional of form and style, then it has an interesting, quite elaborate accompaniment and some striking passages of recitative, which Tim Mead delivered with keen expressivity – the ‘gloomy places’ and ‘silent horrors’ in which the spurned lover nurses his grief and pain were hauntingly evoked. Mead’s control of the melodic line in the first da capo aria, ‘Ah ch’infelice sempre’, was superb, while the rhetoric of the B section was discerningly exploited. He has a wide range and traversed it effortlessly here, the peaks particularly sweet and clear, while his ornamentation was the epitome of good taste. The fiddles’ pizzicato imbued the voice’s reproachful imploring with vigour and character. Mead was totally untaxed by the virtuosic unleashing of anguish in the aria di furore, ‘Nell’ orrido albergo’, and his vengeful protestations were complemented by the strings’ bristling agitations.
With its richly intertwining melodies and sweet pathos, few works epitomise the values of the Neapolitan vocal style more exquisitely than Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, composed in 1736 for the Confraternity of the Cavalieri della Vergine dei Dolori in Naples. It is thus somewhat disconcerting to hear its familiar verses, by turns dramatic and sorrowful, in association with a German text. However, although J.S. Bach’s own aesthetic shared little with the Italian idiom, when Pergolesi’s manuscript circulated in Germany during the 1740s Bach chose to adapt the Stabat Mater for the Protestant liturgy, making only a few alterations to the score but replacing the 13th-century Latin text with a German paraphrase of Psalm 51. The arrangement is somewhat darker in colour and denser in texture than Pergolesi’s score and the new text required some modification to the melodic phrases, though Sampson and Mead sculpted some beguiling vocal arcs and long liquid lines of great beauty. The duet ‘Wer wird seine Schuld verneinen’ was especially eloquent. Cohen worked hard to draw dramatic detail and tension from the instrumental accompaniments: the counterpoint imbued duets such as ‘Lass mich Freud und Winne spüren’ with vigour, while the sprightly rhythms in ‘Öfne Lippen, Mund und Seele’ contrasted effectively with Mead’s extended lyricism. The tempi never sagged, and the concluding ‘Amen’ was brisk and rapturous.
These musicians are probably incapable of performing with anything less than immaculate technical artistry and tasteful refinement. Sometimes, though, one wants something else too – a frisson of risk, perhaps, or an unanticipated moment of drama. There were flashes of character and exuberance in Arcangelo’s performance of Handel’s Concerto Grosso in F Op.3 No.4, which had a lively communicativeness, but it was a terrific rendition of Vivaldi’s Concerto for two violins in A Minor Op.3 No.8 that really raised the thermometer as Michael Gurevich and Beatrice Philips traded vivacious musical arguments with brilliance and verve, relishing Vivaldi’s invention.
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen (director, harpsichord/organ)
Handel – Silete venti HWV242, Concerto Grosso in F Op.3 No.4 HWV315; Vivaldi – Cessate, omai cessate RV684, Concerto for 2 violins in A minor Op.3 No.8 RV522 (L’estro armónico); Bach – Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden BWV1083
Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 19th February 2022.