Soprano recital with baroque oboe: Rowena Simpson and Samantha Owens

Works by LEGNANI, D.SCARLATTI, HANDEL (arr. Babell) and KUSSER

Rowena Simpson (soprano), Samantha Owens (baroque oboe), Emma Goodbehere (‘cello), Douglas Mews (Harpsichord)

St. Andrew’s on the Terrace

Wednesday 18th February

A most engaging programme, this, mellifluous and varied, and expertly performed by soprano Rowena Simpson, with her instrumental partner, baroque oboist Samantha Owens, and their sterling continuo duo cohorts, Emma Goodbehere (‘cello) and Douglas Mews (harpsichord). I had not previously heard a note of music written by either Angelo Domenico Legnani (1663-1700), or Johann Sigismund Kusser (1660-1727) – or “Cousser” as he was known in France., so the concert was an education for me as well as a delight. Legnani’s Cantata “Chi sa dove e la speranza” is a setting of a highly over-wrought text concerned with love, despair and grief, which the music and the performance illuminated with spirit and skill.

Rowena Simpson’s light but agile soprano gained in strength and confidence as episode followed episode, with florid runs capped by pinging top notes, and with Samantha Owens’ beguilingly-voiced oboe complementing the singer with both shared and contrapuntal lines. Not every turn of phrase was wholly accurate in pitch but the spirit of the music was wonderfully stirred and shaken throughout., the continuo of Emma Goodbehere’s ‘cello and Douglas Mews’ keyboard providing admirable support.

Douglas Mews then gave us the well-known “Cat’s Fugue” by Domenico Scarlatti, giving us a short illustrated explanation of the title before playing the work proper, which both entertained and enlightened his audience. This was a cat whose keyboard figurations gave a sense of the animal hardly being able to believe its own ears at the sounds, whose stepwise progressions then developed into wonderfully labyrinthine complexities before finding their way through to the end once again – a nice performance.

William Babell’s “arrangements” of opera arias and overtures were represented by a transcription of an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo – uncommonly civilised keyboard sounds, working up a bit of energetic contrast in a middle section, but ultimately confirming Charles Burney’s verdict that Babell’s arrangements “astonished ignorance…at small expense” – still, Douglas Mews enjoyed himself thoroughly and delighted us accordingly.

My education was advanced further by hearing Johann Sisimund Kusser’s music, a selection of arias from an opera Ariadne, dealing with the well-known story of the daughter of King Minos of Crete and her lover Theseus, the Athenian prince who overcame the monstrous Minotaur in the labyrinth. The music’s considerable demands enabled Rowena Simpson to demonstrate her skills as a singer developed during nine years of study and performance based in The Hague Royal Conservatoire, and various engagements throughout Europe.

Kusser’s vocal writing demands considerable flexibility and agility, with frequent treacherous leaps and large reserves of breath, and both singer and oboist were up to negotiating nearly all the music’s requirements without mishap, even if some of the awkward intervals proved difficult to properly “pitch”. Emma Goodbehere played a ‘cello transcription of one of the arias with Samantha Owens, ‘cello and oboe dancing nicely together, fleet-of foot and bright-eyed.

A smallish audience was captivated by the music and its performance, and saluted the performers at the concert’s conclusion with great enthusiasm – a promising beginning to what appears to be a year’s thoroughly worthwhile music-making at St. Andrew’s.

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