Spitalfields Music: The English Concert

Spitalfields Music: The English Concert
Christ Church Spitalfields. 9 December 2015

Dandrieu: Trio Sonata Op 1/2; Charpentier: Magnificat H73; Charpentier: In nativitatem Domini nostri Jesu Christi canticum; Stradella: Cantata per il Santissimo Natale ‘Ah! Troppo è ver’.

Following their paired-down concert at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse a few days earlier (reviewed here), The English Concert transferred their magic to the magnificent East London church of Christ Church Spitalfields for one of the Spitalfields Winter Festival showpiece concerts. Contrasting the seasonal music of France and Italy, the music spanned the period from the mid-17th to the early 18th century.

The evening started with Jean-François Dandrieu, a composer well-known to organists for his lively Noël variations, but otherwise overlooked in favour of the likes of Rameau and Couperin. The delightful Trio Sonata in D from his 1706 Livres de Sonates en trio demonstrated Italian influence, not least in its use of counterpoint and the Corellian walking bass in the opening Largo, and its vivacious concluding Presto. A true trio, with Joseph Crouch’s cello (or, in this case, perhaps more correctly a ‘piccolo cello’ or a petite bass de viola) an equal partner to the two violins and aDandrieun independent continuo bass line, here played very effectively on theorbo and organ, rather than harpsichord. I particularly liked the way the sparse texture of the opening Largo (see score) was enhanced and elaborated by the two violinists, Nadja Zwiener and Tuomo Suni.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was also influenced by Italian music, as was evident in his Magnificat (H73) and In nativitatem Domini nostri Jesu Christi canticum. The former is an extraordinary piece, based throughout on a five-note ground bass, the first note being an upbeat to a descending tetrachord. This simplest of harmonic accompaniments is the foundation for a wonderfully evocative array of melodic invention, alternating three solo voices with tutti passages. Charpentier’s 1671 Christmas motet is based on the story of the angel’s appearance to the shepherds. The little central instrumental interlude seems to suggest that the shepherds skipped their way from their flocks to the baby’s crib. The work finishes with a ‘simple but heartfelt’ shepherds song – the delightfully lilting and melodiously pastoral sequence of verses Salve, puerile, O summa bonitas, and Virgo puerperal – beautifully sung by Rebecca Outram, Nicholas Mulroy and Cecilia Osmond, who had early sung the role of the Angel.

Alessandro Stradella appears to have been a bit of a lad, fleeing Rome and Venice after multiple affairs, trying to fleece the Church of its finances, surviving attempts on his life as a result of his affairs, the last attempt proving successful as, following yet another affair, he was eventually assassinated in Genoa. After an extensive three-movement Overture, and perhaps because of this interesting lifestyle, he opens his Cantata per il Santissimo Natale with Lucifer raging at the forthcoming birth, sending a bunch of Furies to search out and disrupt things. Giles Underwood, sporting a devilish red bow tie, struck a suitably foreboding pose, dramatically interrupting the ‘unexpected sound of ethereal chords’ of the Overture with his opening cry of Ah! Troppo è ver che sempre. The ‘ethereal chords’ could well have referred to the sensuous pastoralla played by Nadja Zwiener, with William Carter and Harry Bicket contributing melodically on theorbo and harpsichord.

The piece continues with the more traditional take on the Christmas story, with Cecilia Osmond seamlessly switching persona from one of the Furies to the Angel, her glitteringly clear and focussed tone being one of the many highlights of the evening. Nicholas Mulroy reprised his earlier role as a particularly fine-voiced shepherd, followed by an appearance from the Virgin Mary (Rebecca Outram) herself in the sweet Sovrano mio bene. Cecilia Osmond then came down to earth as another shepherd in the evocative Al riverito piede, accompanied by harpist Siobhán Armstrong (who managed to survive a particularly clumsy attempt at a page turn by her neighbour). Unusually for nativity stories, St Joseph gets a look in (seemingly unperturbed by his virgin wife giving birth to a son who would then claim his own ancestry) with the arioso Del nostra amato figlio, sung by countertenor Owen Willetts, whose earlier contributions had demonstrated a fascinating voice type, seemingly combining the distinctive French haute-contra (high tenor) with a particularly warm countertenor tone. The final chorus is a curious affair, split into several sections of quasi-fugal writing.

An outstanding concert, directed with admirable restraint by Harry Bicket, who also contributed sensitive continuo playing on organ and harpsichord. It was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and can be heard again via this link.

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