The week in classical: The Sixteen; La Serenissima review – autumnal balm

St James’s, Spanish Place; Wigmore Hall, London
Two ensembles showcasing Cornysh, Britten and Caldara mixed simple and sumptuous to magical effect

Britain’s music scene drew breath last week after months of Proms and country-house operas. Pomp, glitter and razzmatazz gave way to the intimate and the small scale; a gentle, autumnal turning down of the volume before the big orchestras and larger venues open their new seasons.

First with the healing balm were the Sixteen, bringing their continuing, wandering choral pilgrimage to the elegant confines of St James’s, Spanish Place, London. The church’s 19th-century gothic splendour beautifully matched the logical architecture of the programme, which showcased William Cornysh and Benjamin Britten, composers separated by four centuries but each uniquely English and each equally at home in both secular and liturgical music.

I say each, but the medieval Cornysh may well have been two people, possibly father and son. Manuscripts offer few clues as to who was who but it seems likely that the father wrote wonderfully muscular, elaborately melismatic Latin works, such as the Salve Regina and Ave Maria we heard sung with clarity and grace by this exceptional choir, while Cornysh Jr set more earthy English texts, often startling in their directness. Woefully array’d, for instance, has Christ addressing the crowd from the cross in poetry of disarming simplicity, powerfully expressed in a moving performance of great beauty.

Britten had a special affection for similar early English texts. His Sacred and Profane, which sets eight hugely varied medieval fragments, proved to be the last work he composed for professional singers. You would never guess that he was seriously ill when he wrote it, such is the vigour and complexity of the writing. It’s a huge challenge, but one met with serene accomplishment by Harry Christophers and his elite choristers. But the highlight of the evening was their reading of Britten’s setting of Auden’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia, subtly coloured and carefully measured in its dynamic range. The breakneck central verse “I cannot grow” – a danger zone for lesser choirs – was supremely deft and light as air.

The Sixteen’s pilgrimage now moves on through the Midlands and the north. Catch it if you can. You won’t be disappointed.

The Sixteen Choir perform at St James’ church, Marylebone, London. 11/9/18
Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

An altogether more obscure English composer sprang out of the shadows last week. Nicola Matteis the Younger was born in Restoration England to an Italian father and an English mother. He had a particular talent for dance music, and by 1714 he was in Vienna, writing the music for ballets that were interpolated into other composers’ operas, in a neat piece of labour-saving collaboration.

Vienna was the place to be for any ambitious musician at that time. It was home to the court of Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, a man with apparently limitless funds and an equally limitless passion for Italian opera. A capable musician himself, he showered money on Antonio Caldara who, like his colleague Francesco Conti, produced some 50 operas for the court, many of them enhanced by Matteis’s jaunty ballet scores.

Bringing this sophisticated world to life at the Wigmore Hall last week were La Serenissima, Adrian Chandler’s magical band of instrumentalists and singers, who for 25 years have steeped themselves in the music of 18th-century Venice, working from manuscript or contemporary sources in their quest for authentic interpretation.

Choral excerpts from Caldara’s Ormisda, re di Persia from 1721 were nicely done, but it was Matteis’s ballet music from the opera that really left an impression, with a delightfully tangy theorbo, recorder and bassoon trio preceding some delicious, swinging cross rhythms set over a simple ground bass. It’s not hard to imagine modern choreography working well with these neglected little wonders.

Bass Neal Davies and contralto Hilary Summers showed that Charles VI’s court was not above a bit of rollicking, lowlife fun as they bickered and flirted their way through a scene from Conti’s Il finto Policare from 1716, Chandler’s own free translations of the libretto adding to the laughs (“You’re a hunk...”, “You’re well fit...”).

Cellist Vladimir Waltham had to borrow a five-string Amati to be able to master the fiendish obbligato that Caldara wrote for himself in Scipione nelle Spagna. At its premiere in 1722, the composer performed it alongside the celebrated castrato Gaetano Orsini. Castrati being rather thin on the ground these days, Summers obliged with the necessary vocal range and dramatic colour to more than match Waltham’s virtuoso playing.

The sumptuous introduction to Caldara’s Caio Marzio Coriolano from 1717 illustrated just what lavish forces were available to court composers in Vienna. Blazing trumpets and thumping drums drove home the message that Charles VI didn’t care too much about the cost when celebrating the empress’s birthday, a largesse often repaid in the operas he commissioned by the addition of a licenza or paeon of toadying praise to the emperor. This was splendidly sung by Summers and the chorus, all directed from the violin by Chandler, who just happened to also play a Vivaldi concerto. Some people are just too talented.

La Serenissima.
La Serenissima. Photograph: HANDOUT


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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