AAM Live: In stil moderno

In stil moderno: Castello, Strozzi & Claudio Monteverdi
Academy of Ancient Music

Streamed from West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. 14 April 2021

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) : L’eraclito amoroso & Lagrime mie
Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643): Et e pur dunque vero & Si dolce e’l tormento
Dario Castello (c1602-1631) : Sonate concertante in stil moderno, Libro Secondo

The second in the three-concert series of AAM Live 2021 events was initially billed as a farewell to their outgoing Music Director, Richard Egarr, who is now replaced by Laurence Cummings who directed the first of their AAM Live 2021 concerts, reviewed here. Although Egarr may have been an inspiration behind this programme of music from 17th-century Venice, the concert listed two directors, the AAM’s principal violinist Bojan Čičić and keyboard player Steven Devine. They were joined by mezzo Helen Charlston.

The vocal pieces were enclosed within three pairs of Dario Castello’s Sonatas in the modern style for organ or clavicembalo and diverse instruments in 1,2,3 and 4 voices. Various combinations of two violins, viola, and violetta (Bojan Čičić & Persephone Gibbs, Jane Rogers, Joseph Crouch & Sarah McMahon respectively) weaved Castello’s seemingly anarchic melodic whims and fancies over an accompaniment of harpsichord and theorbo (Steven Devine, Eligio Luis Quinteiro). It is not known exactly what instrument the violetta was at the time of Castello, but it became a generic name for a wide variety of string instruments. On this occasion, Joseph Crouch played a small four-string, fretted cello-like instrument, while Sarah McMahon played a more traditional cello. 

The six Sonatas were played in an increasing order of instrumentation and complexity, but all reflected their nature as mini-operas, with a focus on contrasts of expression and mood. They were performed with a delightful delicacy of sound that belied their technicial complexity. Castello’s Sonatas are reknown for their elaborate cadenza-like endings, for example, the Sonata duodecima for two violins and violetta with its delightfully inventive coda, which started with a nicely placed sequence of echos. 

The four vocal pieces explored the Arcadian world of lost love with two pieces each by Barbara Strozzi and Monteverdi. Strozzi’s l’Eraclito Amoroso reflected the sadness of betrayal, expressed in Vaghezza ho sol di piangere with its lenghty melismas over a descending bass line. Helen Charlston caught the intense emotions and word-painting of the piece, particularly with her beautifully held long note on ogni cordoglio eternisi (‘every sorrow sustains itself’), and the concluding che m’uccida e sotterrimi (slays and buries me’). Lagrime mie is operatic in scope, with the male protagonist lamenting Lidia, imprisoned by her father after she “looked on me with a favorable glance”. There was a lovely chromatic slither on “torment and pain”, the overall mood of dispair aided by gentle trillo ornaments.

Monteverdi’s Si dolce e’l tormento is also built on a descending vocal line while his Et è pur dunque vero finds Lydia in trouble again, and the inevitably source of much lamenting – “I shall carve on marble in memory of my fidelity: Foolish is that heart that trusts in a beautiful woman.”

This impressive concert, as well as being a delight in itself, raised some issues as to the future of concert life post-Covid. Although most will look forward to the return of live concerts with a full audience, I am finding these filmed online performances increasingly compelling. A practical issue is that, without the cost of travelling or an expensive ticket (this filmed concert is available for just £12.50), you get more than an hour of wonderful music in the comfort of your own home. You can pause and restart when you want, and get repeated listening for a period of time. 

Filming brings concerts to a very much wider audience that the traditional concert. I can easily see the two running alongide each other in the future, although I am sure the finanical implications of promoting a filmed concert are complex and may well work against their continuation post-Covid.

There is a particularly hightened sense of intimacy that is often missing in a live concert, when the performers are some distance away, and may be partically blocked by the heards of people in front of you. In this concert, it was particularly noticeable that during Helen Charlston’s vocal contributions the camera was focussed on the sort of head and shoulders close up that would definitly break social distancing regulations (and probably also social etiquette) in real life. This really helped to draw the listener into the music. I liked the way that Helen sang as if to a (actually non-existent) audience, moving her eye around the empty auditorium.