Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn, Sophie Bevan
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 March 2016
Handel: Concerto Grosso Op6/10, Silete Venti; Wassenaer: Concerto 5 from Concerti Armonici; Biber: Battalia a 10; Muffat: Concerto 5 from Armonico Tributo
The players of the Early Opera Company, directed by Christian Curnyn, stepped out of their more usual orchestra pit for an almost instrumental evening of music making at St John’s, Smith Square, with music generally representing the Concerto Grosso format.
Their final work was one of the first examples, albeit billed under the more innocent name of Sonata, with the fifth sonata from Georg Muffat’s Armonico Tributo. These pieces were rehearsed in Corelli’s house during Muffat’s trip to Rome, and were clearly influenced by Corelli’s music and the Italian style. Muffat later spent time with Lully in Paris, and developed a skill in writing music in the French style, before combining the two. But even before then, in this early Italian work, he concludes with a very French Passagaglia, with its distinctive repeated phrases and the use of the opening passage as a refrain, with its lovely little violin motif of rising triplets. In the opening Allemanda we hear a foretaste (or should I say, forehear) of a similar swirling violin motif. With frequent passages for a trio of two violins and cello, set against the full orchestra, this was a Concerto Grosso in all but name.
The evening opened with a properly named Concerto Grosso, Handel’s well-known D minor example, the tenth of his Opus 10 set. This is one of the works that Handel’s publisher, Walsh, published as an organ concerto as part of the little-known Second Set. Handel’s French influence is clear from the start, with its French Ouverture, the crisp articulation of the characteristic runs adding to an air of panache in the orchestral playing. This was beautifully contrasted by the expressive Air, and the following two bustling fugues.
The one departure from the instrumental theme came with one of Handel’s most operatic solo cantatas, the extraordinary Silete venti, with Sophie Bevan as the distinguished soprano soloist, a singer I have praised many times over the past 12 years or so. Her singing of Silete venti, showed her to be on spectacular form, with beautifully articulated runs, excellent use of ornaments and da capo elaborations, the ability to hold the distinctive baroque vocal feature of a long-held and gradually crescendoing note while slowly add a gentle vibrato, and the sheer virtuosity, particularly in the concluding Alleluia. It is a curious piece, seemingly composed in London but very much in his earlier Italian style of around 20 years earlier. The text is also curious, notably with the opening intervention of the singer to silence the orchestra while in full flow with the cry of Silete venti (“Be silent, you winds”). There follows what amount to a rather erotic love song to Jesus, including more than a hint of sadomasochism (“your strokes are sweet”) before the winds are called back again in a veritable whirlwind of instrumental and vocal fireworks.
The evening also included Wassenaer’s jolly not really outstanding attempt at a Concerto Grosso, his brief Concerto No5 from Concerti Armonici. Although his influences are fairly obvious, he manages speak with an independent voice. A moment of silliness came with Biber dramatic Battalia, given the full foot-tapping works by the players of the Early Opera Company. This includes a Charles Ives-like passage of cacophony where the strings each play different songs all at the same time, and passages played by striking the violin strings with the back of the violin bow (con legno), and a section where the violone plays with a sheet of paper threaded through the strings. All good fun.
The 16-strong orchestra (reduced for the Wassenaer and Biber) played with conviction and musical sensitivity. Key amongst the solo contributions was their leader, violinist Bojan Čičič, together with fellow violinist Tuomo Suni and cellist Andrew Skidmore. Christian Curnyn’s direction was commendably restrained and musical, as was his harpsichord continuo playing. He is one of a comparatively small number of continuo players who seek to support, rather than dominate the other instruments, and who know when not to play at all – and, in the case, to provide support by playing just single bass notes. An excellent evening of music making.