Purcell’s “happier graces” prevail in concert of improvisations

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
L’Arpeggiata – Music for a while
Improvisations on Henry Purcell

L’Arpeggiata – the Musicians:
Christina Pluhar (director – theorbo)
Céline Scheen (soprano)
Vincentzo Capezzuto (alto)
Gianluigi Trovesi (clarinet)
Doron Sherwin (cornetto)
Veronika Skuplik (baroque violin)
Eero Palviainen (Baroque guitar / archlute)
Sergey Saprychev (percussion)
Boris Schmidt (double-bass)
Francesco Turrisi (piano)
Haru Kitamika (harpsichord)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday 18th March 2017

This was a concert whose music-making seemed to connect with practically everybody who sat within coo-ee of me in the Michael Fowler Centre, judging by the warmth and enthusiasm of the reception for the musicians at the end of the evening. While I must confess I wasn’t as obviously enamoured of some of the concert’s offerings as most people were, I certainly registered the individual and corporate skills of the musicians of the ensemble L’Arpeggiata, who delighted us with their virtuosity across a fantastic range of playing styles.

The concert’s title “Music for a while” suggested that we would be treated to an evening of music owing its inspiration to that of Henry Purcell, England’s greatest Restoration composer. Only two of the eighteen individual pieces were by composers other than Purcell, the “Ciaccona” by Maurizio Cazzati which opened the concert, and “La Dia Spagnola”, another instrumental-only item which followed soon after. The rest was written by, derived from or inspired by Purcell’s music.

The two “odd ones out” were Maurizio Cazzati from Mantua and Nicola Matteis, a Neapolitean, both seventeenth-century composers, and both almost forgotten today, though each was prominent in the musical world of their time. Cazzati’s composition was a Ciaccona (Chaconne), begun by the ensemble in conventional baroque fashion until the da capo, at which point the double bass and piano improvised bluesy lines and catchy rhythms, inspiring Gianluigi Trovesi’s saxophone to contribute swinging, sultry utterances to the mix. Matteis’s “La Dia Spagnola” began with the lute and violin setting up a definite harmonic round-like pattern before the cornetto counterpointed with what seemed like an improvised line, joined by the clarinettist, and then the drummer, the latter chalking up a percussive moment of glory.

These items framed two Purcell songs, firstly the “Music for a while” exerpt from the composer’s settting of Dryden’s adaptation of Sophocles the King, soprano Céline Scheen’s singing of the words (atmospheric and true-toned, but difficult to hear and make sense of the words) preluded and postluded by a bluesy clarinet line, voice and instrument conveying some of the context’s ghostly ambience, a voice from the Underworld. Then came a contrasting jolly number “‘Twas within a furlong of Edinburgh Town”, from a play called “the Mock Marriage”, featuring the group’s second singer, alto Vincenzo Cappezzuto – again the vocal means produced a generally mellifluous result, but the words were often lost. Had the group been performing in the Town Hall I’m certain the impact made by the singers would have been more sharply and pleasingly defined.

Next was “A Prince of Glorious Race Descended” taken from his Birthday Ode “Who can from joy refrain”, written for the Young Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (all part of the duties expected from a Court Composer, which Purcell had become at this time) – another Birthday Ode (perhaps the most well-known) was “Come Ye, Sons of Art” from which the vigorous “Strike the Viol” was taken, both sung by Céline Sheen – though sung with by turns, proper ceremony and spirit, I thought the instrumental accompaniments tended to stylistically “generalise” the music, so that we found ourselves having to reinvent its context, one far removed from its origins and with its own set of rules.
In places throughout the concert I found myself feeling unsure of just what these rules were – yes, the voices had affiliations with jazz and blues which I recognised, but I found it difficult to go further and focus the sounds on specific feelings. I’m sure it was my particular problem, because the audience response was generally rapt and responsive to whatever these musicians did.

I related much more readily to the recognisably (for me) Purcellian moments of the concert, specifically Céline Sheen’s moving rendition of Dido’s final aria from the composer’s eponymous opera “When I am laid in earth”, introduced by a wistful, atmospheric piano, the music drifting in a forlorn manner, and commented on by clarinet and double bass, with the percussion further colouring the ambiences. The singer’s beautifully-shaped way with the melody reached impassioned heights at “Remember me”, with the cornetto adding its sorrowing voice, before the double bass, then clarinet, then piano all commented with great sensitivity on the tragedy, in the singer’s wake.

Earlier, I’d thought the ensemble’s treatment of “Ah Belinda” also from “Dido and Aeneas” had a counter-intuitive effect in terms of its accompanying the words “I am pressed with torment” with cool-sounding jazz textures, suggesting liquid serenities rather than mental anguish, which the pianist’s subsequent improvisatory meditations similarly ignored. Still, the later “Here the Deities Approve” was good fun, the note-spinning aspect of the music given plenty of shared energy from singer Vincenzo Capezzuto and the ensemble, before adroitly morphing into a kind of calypso rhythm, with a saucy clarinet solo – here, Purcell was, I thought, really “jazzed up”, with exhilarating results!

I got myself confused over the relationship between the “Curtain Tune on a Ground” and the extended percussion solo with preceded it (I think!) – be that as it may, the percussionist Sergey Saprychev showed extraordinary skill throughout his display, involving first one then two tambourine-like instruments, passing the single drum from hand to hand while rhythmically activating its surface over an astonishing variety of pitches and timbres. With the use of two drums the performance tensions sharpened to the point where the player spun one drum on the floor, creating both a visual and sonic counterpoint to the rhythms played on the other – a tour de force!

After Vincenzo Capezzuto’s entertainment of us with the racy “Man is for Woman made”, where amongst the players’ madcap instrumental textures the word-clarity was less important than gesture, expression and overall insinuation, we eventually arrived at its antithesis, the heartfelt “O let me forever weep”, with Céline Sheen’s voice supported by lute accompaniment in counterpoint with Veronika Skuplik’s baroque violin, the conception close to Purcell’s own, especially at the beginning, but with no dilution of or distraction from the essential feeling of the music – here, instead was an appropriate intensification, with everything beautifully played.

We were helped return to our lives by the performance of the final listed item in the programme, “Hark! How the songsters of the groves”, the infectious running rhythms brought out by the instruments allowing the singers’ duet to take wing (figuratively as well as literally), the piece a celebration of the union of music with nature in the form of birdsong.

An extremely poetic duet version of “Pokarekare Ana” sung by soprano and alto further delighted the audence at the end, most of whom stood and applauded after the final programme number. We actually got TWO encores, the second one being a lively song-and-dance item during which the singers indulged themselves in a few measures of hip-hop rhythmic contrast and conveyed to us huge enjoyment of it all.

As I’ve already indicated, the audience response to the concert was little short of rapturous – I was sorry not to “go along” with the many heartfelt expressions of enjoyment breaking around and about me, but reflected that there was “something for everybody”” in the evening’s presentation. I liked the extremes of it all – mostly the almost cheek-by-jowl realisations of sequences from Purcell’s work, but also some of the more outlandish and abandoned flights of creative fancy from the various musicians – if I didn’t respond as wholeheartedly to the gentler, more middle-of-the-road adaptations, it’s because I often found myself wishing I was hearing Purcell ‘s own voice instead of what sometimes sounded to me like paler imitations. But of the musicians’ individual and collective skills there could be no doubt – and I joined in with the accolades on those counts unreservedly.

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