November 3rd, 2010
NEW YORK -- Four centuries ago, a Mantuan courtier who was trying to get into a promising Monteverdi premiere wrote: "No doubt I shall be drawn to attend out of sheer curiosity, unless I am prevented from getting in by the lack of space." Judging from last Friday's cheers at Zankel Hall for the early music ensemble L'Arpeggiata, 17th-century Italian Baroque music is still a hot ticket. The festive three-encore concert ended with a solo bow (or two) for each of the nine members, to shouts and rhythmic applause from an audience on its feet.
Founded ten years ago by its Graz-born director, theorbo player Christina Pluhar, L'Arpeggiata seeks to revive lesser-known Baroque repertory. It was a lucky day when it connected with the sopranist countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, known for pure-toned singing with Les Arts Florissants and Europa Galante. Jaroussky himself leads the award-winning group Ensemble Artaserse, which like L'Arpeggiata, performs in Europe.
Any group whose recordings include an entire CD of music by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger must believe it's onto something it can put across. Most composers on Friday's program -- Maurizio Cazzati, Giovanni Felice Sances, Antonio Bertali, Andrea Falconiere, Santiago De Murcia and Domenico Maria Melli -- are unknown in the United States. It took ingenuity to fashion a whole concert of their works, cleverly dropping in the occasional piece by Monteverdi or Barbara Strozzi.
Robust improvisation, featuring frame drums struck smartly with sticks, served as a merry fanfare and postlude to the program, which consisted of secular and sacred texts. Theorbo, cornetto and guitar were augmented by frame drums, tambourines, sleigh bells and small hand drums played with fingers, palms, wrists, mallets and unusual-looking brushes. Percussionist David Mayoral neatly accentuated the shifting castanet rhythms in “Tarantella Napoletana” -- and then, as the music grew faster, strolled upstage to the violinist, Veronika Skluplik, where they finished in joyous unison.
The accompanied secular songs, from L'Arpeggiata's album "Teatro d'amore," basically depicted shepherds or gods burning with love, spurned by the beautiful beloved and wishing to die. Strozzi is an educated Venetian soprano as well as a composer, and her "L'Eraclito amoroso" ("Hercules in love") was particularly suited to Jaroussky's slender vibratoless high countertenor. The poem has seven verses in five sections, one a little passacaglia -- a popular form of the time -- and a finale of passionate drama with large vocal leaps.
Jaroussky's clarity of sound was the highlight of Sances's "Presso l'onde tránquille" ("At the tranquil waves"), a shepherd's lament that oscillated between major and minor modes, with continuo of harpsichord and two creatively handled theorbos. (Only later, in an encore, did Jaroussky briefly lapse into full male voice, comically clapping his hand over his mouth in mock guilt.)
Modal flexibility in a Monteverdi aria from "The Coronation of Poppea" also displayed what Jaroussky can do with ornaments and coloratura, as did Monteverdi's "Si dolce è ‘l tormento," a duo with a freely played cornetto echoing and weaving around the words: "It is right that in sorrow, repentant and pining, one day she sigh for me." (Cry me a river.)
Instrumental accents and syncopated rhythms in Melli's excited, fizzy "Dispiegate" ("Stretch") supported the verses' urgently suggestive first lines, respectively: "Stretch, beloved cheeks," "Ah, discover, ah games," "Ah, remove that netting," "Open oh lips of red ink," "Touch, touch, lovely mouth."
(With such attention to detail in this unusual repertory, it was a shame that changes in program order were not announced.)
There were three sacred pieces in Latin. In a profusely ornamented Stabat Mater by Sances -- melodic, to fit the narrative -- Mary's sighing soul was on a theorbo ground. (Fans of this fach could listen all night.) The often-set Psalm 150, praising God with various instruments, was a Monteverdi finale, proving that sparkling psaltery licks are more fun than sparking wine. Ignoring the word book in his hand, Jaroussky gestured animatedly, holding high notes and tossing off melismas.
The ensemble really cut loose in the encores. Monteverdi's "Ohimé ch'io cado" (roughly, "Oi, I'm falling") became transformed, evolving into a steady rock beat. Tones began to bend, rhythm became dotted, and suddenly we were in jazz land -- as a slyly insinuated phrase from Gershwin's "Summertime" confirmed.
Imagine Piazzolla arranged for early instruments, with added hi-jinks between Jaroussky and a cornetist wearing sunglasses (Doron Sherwin), who interrupted with a couple of lines, crooning into his instrument (which looked like an eel) as if it were a microphone. Jaroussky feigned disconcerted anger -- before whipping out his own sunglasses and entering the fray. The audience rose, shouted and clapped.