Musical gems at lunchtime

I Tesori (Treasures) – The Queen’s Closet with Pepe Becker (soprano)

Sharon Lehany (hoboy) – Gordon Lehany (baroque trumpet, recorder) – Peter Maunder (sackbut, recorder) – Jane Young (baroque ‘cello) – Kristina Zuelicke (harpsichord)

Lunchtime concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Friday 7 August, 12:45pm

My horoscope for Friday 7th August predicted that I “may get tempted to steal a short vacation in the midst of work” and, as it turned out, this prediction was indeed fulfilled when I entered St. Paul’s Cathedral at 12:40pm to thank God it was (finally) Friday.

It was then and there that soprano Pepe Becker and the local early music group The Queen’s Closet presented a delightful selection of 18th century Italian arias, all for soprano voice, basso continuo, and obbligati wind instruments, and all about the varied allurements and ensnarements of love, attraction, and associated drastic emotional torments, mood and hormonal fluctuations (my horoscope also mentioned that “a golden opportunity is likely to present itself on the romantic front, so be prepared to seize it.” However, that chalice thankfully passed me by).

The settings by Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747) of amatory Italian verse were a real discovery for me at this concert. I for one had never encountered this music before. Afterwards, following my curiosity, I found out that Bononcini enjoyed considerable success in London during the 1720s and that his popularity rivalled that of Georg Friedrich Händel.  In the political life of the city at the time, the Whig party apparently favoured Händel, while the Tories favoured Bononcini, and their competition inspired the epigram by John Byrom that made the phrase “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” famous:

Some say, compar’d to Bononcini
That Mynheer Handel’s but a Ninny
Others aver, that he to Handel
Is scarcely fit to hold a Candle
Strange all this Difference should be
‘Twixt Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee

So was it Bononcini and Händel whom Alice met through the looking glass so many years later in 1871? And could Bononcini be of any help or interest to our centre-right politicians at the moment?

The concert opened with an aria by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) for soprano, baroque trumpet and basso continuo – Mio tesoro per te moro  (Darling I would die for you) – that unfolded as a lyrical dialogue between the voice and the trumpet, both reverberating to great effect in the large space of the cathedral. It was an achievement of the early music revival in the 1980s, and of Dame Emma Kirkby in particular, to popularise a vocal aesthetic centred around natural declamation, minimal and finely controlled vibrato, agile coloratura and sensitivity to the words of the song. Wellington’s Pepe Becker is a specialist in this beautiful style of singing and demonstrated throughout the concert how well it serves the interpretation of this wonderful Italian baroque music.

The second aria, Alme Ingrate (Ungrateful soul) was composed by Emperor Joseph I of Austria (1678-1711) who was Bononcini’s employer during Bononcini’s time in Vienna from 1696 to 1711.  Emperor Joseph must have learned a thing or two from his Italian court musician. The aria is a duet between soprano voice and obbligato sackbut (an early form of the trombone). Compositions featuring voice and obbligato sackbut or trombone had reached an artistic peak in the Hapsburg Empire and at the Imperial Viennese Court at the time. Pepe Becker with Peter Maunder on the sackbut demonstrated the attraction of this combination with the smooth velvety sound of the sackbut melting together with the crystalline timbre of Pepe Becker’s voice.

Two arias by Bononcini followed, the first featuring the voice accompanied by the baroque oboe and the recorder. The instrumental parts were played dexterously by Sharon Lehany on the baroque oboe and Peter Maunder (who had quickly exchanged his sackbut for a recorder). The oboe and recorder were nicely balanced, again showing the great advantage of performing this repertoire on original or replica instruments of the day: the sound of the recorder can otherwise have trouble being clearly heard over modern instruments. Period instruments are lighter and allow for greater transparency in drawing out the lines of the music without any one voice inadvertently predominating. The basso continuo, capably provided by Kristina Zuelicke on harpsichord and Jane Young on baroque ‘cello gave a clear and nuanced the impetus to the aria, allowing the singer also to savour some delicious chromatic moments in her line. Jane Young’s baroque ‘cello has a beautifully carved lion’s head scroll, prompting her to give the instrument a name: Walter. The next Bononcini aria was again for voice and baroque trumpet, played by Gordon Lehany. This aria depicted love as form of ardent yet feigned hostility, as if Mars and Venus did not want ever to admit that they actually like each other. There was a sense of heroism and defiance in this aria with fanfare patterns, exquisite ornamentation in the vocal part, and some nicely imitated bugle calls from voice, trumpet and their echoes from somewhere or everywhere within the cathedral’s cavernous space. The valveless baroque trumpet is a fractious beast, and sometimes it was evident that it is hard to tame.

A lively ciaconna aria by Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) followed that seemed so cheerful and joyful in character considering that the aria’s base text was about jealousy and betrayal. The two obbligati recorders did not seem to be accusing one another of anything but seemed to chirp, flit and scurry about nimbly together like two spirited fantails. The basso continuo group, with Walter leading the charge, held their ground excellently throughout the brisk repeated ostinato figure, Jane Young every now and again placing a subtle emphasis to keep everyone in time.

A further bracket of Bononcini arias closed the programme. The aria Nel mio seno va serpendo was, of all the presented arias, the only real sorrowful lament. In a minor key, the aria interwove the expressive lines of the voice and the baroque oboe, drawing in particular on the oboe’s plaintive qualities.  The concert concluded joyfully with all instrumentalists accompanying the singer with assured vibrancy in a bold and triumphant display of vocal virtuosity and instrumental skill, giving the audience a final flavour of Bononcini’s achievement as a composer and demonstrating how, back in the day, he really was considered Händel’s only serious rival. What further treasures lie here? I wonder.

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